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Arlo Guthrie - "Wash their dishes, clean their house"

Arlo Guthrie, son of the legendary worker-singer Woody Guthrie, has been "on the road" by now for over 40 years. Like for his father before him the political song became his second nature: folk with socio-political characteristics. Recently Arlo Guthrie toured Germany together with Hans-Eckardt Wenzel, the bard of the former GDR. This contact had been established through Arlo Guthrie's sister Nora—at the time Wenzel planned to release an album with germanized Woody Guthrie songs.

Arlo Guthrie

When Arlo Guthrie became famous at the end of the sixties with the song "Alice's Restaurant" and the album of the same name, this song stood likewise for the political outcry of a dedicated generation of young people. Folk was a means of political expression, it had power, it was a counter-culture.

The relative importance of folk music in contemporary America and the folk song in contemporary Germany is a recurring question which cannot be clearly answered. Arlo Guthrie, however, has not yet tired of fighting for a better world—on a large as well as a small scale: He is committed to help the victims of the floodings in New Orleans, but also bought the very church which was featured in the film "Alice's Restaurant" in order to turn it into an international meeting point...

This interview with Arlo Guthrie was done per e-mail.

Carina: Your father Woody Guthrie was a folk-singer, your mother Marjorie Mazia Guthrie worked as a professional dancer. From a young age on you started playing the guitar and singing, destined for becoming a folk-singer whereas your younger sister Nora likewise started a career as a dancer. Would you say it is the normal way, sons being under the influence and imitating their father, while daughters tend into the direction of their mother? Is your son on the way to walk in your footsteps?

Arlo: I don't know. I just always liked playing music, and so did my son and my daughters.

Carina: At the time when you started as a folk-singer, would you say the folk-community was totally male-dominated? And what image of women did these folk-people have?

Arlo: There were always great women singers although there were fewer of them. That has changed and now it seems more equal. In the last 40 years we've seen women become great players as well as singers. I think more women have discovered what musicians have always known—sex, drugs and music—: it goes together.

And you know the old saying? What is a folksinger without a girlfriend? "Homeless." It's as true now as it must have been 100 years ago. Not that much changes.

Arlo Guthrie

Carina: The song "Alice's Restaurant" made you famous—it was basically a song against the Vietnam War. Was that just a happy moment in time when things like that seemed to work?

Arlo: I don't know but I'm generally a happy person. A good song brings people together. When I wrote "Alice's Restaurant" there were people coming to the shows and singing together who would not be seen on the streets talking to each other. This is the power of songs.

Carina: How similar are the situations "Vietnam" and "Iraque" in the public view of the Americans? Did George Bush put his country in a similar predicament? Is there an unequivocal position of the folk-scene towards it?

Arlo: I am as nervous being around the folk scene as I am being around politicians. I have no idea what anyone else is thinking. I'm not so good at group thought.

Carina: As you are on tour almost 10 months of the year... how much time is left for the Guthrie Center & Foundation and for your family life?

Arlo: Two months (with a smile).

Carina: ... does that mean having too little time to write new songs? Or do you write them on tour?

Arlo: I'd like more time off the road to just be a vegetable. Maybe I'd write more songs, but I wouldn't stop touring just to write more songs.

Arlo Guthrie - "Alice's Restaurant" (1967)

Carina: You played concerts to support the hurricane victims of Louisiana. The "Guthrie Center & Foundation" supports poor or sick people. Would you call yourself an activist, who tries to change society as far as possible?

Arlo: I don't trust professional activists. I am not looking for things to complain about. I try to stay as inactive as possible. But, in these days it's difficult.

Carina: Traveling around the world, playing concerts—is it possible to change people's minds with music? To deliver a message to people who don't already share your opinion anyway, does that mean having to go to places where you may not be well-received, too? Or do people turn up to your concerts who can be converted?

Arlo: Like my father, I would like to be remembered as the man who told you what you already knew. That seems to work everywhere.

Carina: Does music really have a healing force?

Arlo: Yes.

Carina: On the website of your record company, we can read that you "learned something from the earlier generation of ballad singers, […] the blues-men and […] from the new era of singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan [...] and developed your own style, becoming a distinctive, expressive voice in a crowded community of singer-songwriters and political activists." At that time, was it in a way 'hip' to be in the folk-community, to be against the government and a political activist?

Arlo: Yes.

Carina: Was there a paradigm shift with singers and songwriters since then? If so, how would you describe it?

Arlo: It became profitable to be a songwriter and a singer. That changed everything.

Arlo Guthrie - "Alice's Restaurant - The Massacree"

Carina: The political singer-songwriters nowadays, are they a dying-out species? How many are left compared to the early years?

Arlo: We seem to be like micro-organisims—like germs. Just when you think you've killed them all, they develop a mutant strain. I am feeling at times like a super germ especially when I see all my children and grand-children playing music. I am a very proud germ.

Carina: You are a multi-instrumentalist and a "natural-born storyteller" and you sing many of the songs of your father Woody. Compared to his song-material, how important for you are your own songs, how much do you define yourself through your own music?

Arlo: He wrote more songs than anyone I know, including myself. I knew I could never write so many, so I made my songs longer.

Carina: Do you feel you have to transport the heritage of your father into the present and future?

Arlo: No, I don't feel compelled. I enjoy doing that.

Carina: Is it possible to always distinguish between "the legend" Woody Guthrie and the real person?

Arlo: It's more difficult to distinguish legend from reality when the real person is a legend.

Arlo Guthrie

Carina: You founded "Rising Son Records" in 1983. At that time it was not so 'normal' to have an own record company. Why did you found RSR, what are the advantages and disadvantages of an own record company?

Arlo: If you are your own boss, there's no one telling you what to do, and no one to stop you from making mistakes. But, I'd rather make my own mistakes than to have others make them for me. So, I started my own company to make records my own way.

Carina: You are the author of the children's book "Mooses Come Walking". What's special about this book and how important are books in general for bringing up children and turning them into responsible human beings?

Arlo: According to Pete Seeger, songs and stories for children are usually propaganda for getting them to go to sleep. I've been on both sides of this fence. For bringing up children, it's better to be a good parent with a bad book, than a bad parent with a good book.

Carina: You created a program of symphonic arrangements of your own songs and other American classics. When and why did you have this idea and what fascinates you about symphonic music?

Arlo: My mother was a modern dancer with the Martha Graham Company. We grew up listening to classical music and well as folk music. I thought it would be interesting to use the other half of my life. There is a recording coming out in about a month of a live concert with me and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. It's called "In Times Like These".

Carina: You once said in an interview with Gt. Barrington for newberkshire.com: "I think that we have an obligation to try and retainthe best part of who we are for future generations." That leads to my last question: Do you have a sort of philosophy for life?

Arlo: Yes. My philosophy is simple. If you want to know something that someone else seems to know, wash their dishes and clean their house. Or do whatever they want or need. You will get more that way than taking a course and getting a degree. Feed your teachers and you will not be hungry.

Carina Prange

CD: Arlo Guthrie - "Alice's Restaurant - The Massacree"
(Rising Son RSR-0010)

Arlo Guthrie im Internet: www.arlo.net

Rising Son Records im Internet: www.risingsonrecords.com

Fotos: John Hancock

© jazzdimensions 2006
erschienen: 31.10.2006
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