Songwriter Arlo Guthrie says music has the power to help people endure hard times

[23 February 2009]

By Sam McDonald

Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) (MCT)

Arlo Guthrie makes music with personality and purpose.

He continues a family tradition passed on to him by his father, Woody Guthrie, one of America’s most beloved songsters.

But Arlo has always been his own man. The hippie-friendly humor showcased in his classic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is as much a part of his style as the socially conscious tunes he learned from his father.

Guthrie recently answered questions about his music and the modern world.

Question: Tell me about your newest album, “Thirty-Two Cents.”

Answer: Last year we released a record of my dad’s stuff, that I recorded in a studio with the band The Dillards. We actually made it 10 years ago and just released it last year. ... It was intended to coincide with my dad’s being on a postage stamp. They did a series of stamps, ones with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry was on one, and Woody Guthrie. We called it “Thirty-Two Cents” because that’s what the stamps were worth. We had technical problems we couldn’t solve until the digital age really got under way. We finally released it in 2008. In the process, we let go a lot of the studio mentality ... so it’s really a live recording. It was not originally meant to be that way ... My kids said, “You know, Pop, this stuff is great just like it is. Don’t worry about it. Put it out just like it is.” It’s been doing really well. My kids were right. Unpolished, unrehearsed, not over-organized sound is more popular now than when I was a kid growing up. It’s just more real, that’s all.

Q: You and The Dillards would seem to be a natural team. You both have a sense of humor.

A: They were way ahead of their time. ... Some 25 or 30 years ago, they were doing music that inspired The Byrds and some others long before it was popular. Bluegrass has certainly become a distinct voice recently, but these guys did original material in ways that were not strictly traditional. It’s common now. It was not then.

Q: These are tough economic times. Your father, Woody Guthrie, sang songs that spoke to people who were suffering. Do you try to do the same thing?

A: That is the one silver lining in these kind of clouds: That you realize how powerful songs can be. They have the power to make life a little more bearable, to help you laugh at something that’s not very funny. For that reason, just coincidentally, we’re doing a family tour that will feature a lot more of dad’s stuff, with just the family, no other musicians, just my kids, grandkids. We’re looking forward to that tour. It will be starting in June and we’re calling it the “Family Reunion Tour.” We’ll be back in Hampton for that show.

Q: What made your dad’s Dust Bowl ballads so memorable?

A: The one thing he did that never goes out of style is that, in his songs and in his books and in his life, he really tried to give people the feeling of the value they have as an individual, and not to lose sight of that in tough times. Everybody counts. When you feel like you count, you’re able to get through more than if you feel like you don’t.

Q: What did you think of the “Mermaid Avenue” albums, which took Woody Guthrie lyrics and set them to new music?

A: I loved the first of the series. There were two that came out. I thought the first one was by far the better one ... Wilco and Billy Bragg, what they did was they created some Woody Guthrie standards, and that’s an amazing feat, I think. Almost everyone who touched the material has done something similar - Eliza Gilkyson, Janis Ian, Jonatha Brooke ... One of the things that I’m itching to do is to do a tour with a lot of those songs ... So what we’re putting together is “The Family Reunion” tour that starts in June ... There will be a lot of those Woody Guthrie songs that have been arranged or covered by all those other folks. I don’t think anyone’s put together the wealth of stuff for one show. I think it could be amazing.

Q: Last fall, you did a show with Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall. How did that turn out?

A: It was just wonderful. We used to do these every year. It was an annual event ... We started doing those around 1969. Somewhere around 1998, he decided he didn’t want to do that. He said “Arlo, my voice isn’t what it used to be.” I said, “Pete, the hearing of the people coming to the gig ain’t what it used to be! It shouldn’t be a problem.” He was not persuaded. Then, I had heard that he had been out doing a number of shows, so I finally called him and said “Pete, you’re playing anyway. Why don’t we do a gig at Carnegie Hall?” He said, “I’ll be there.”

We put it together and it was a great night. He walked on the stage, and the place just stood up and cheered and didn’t stop for the longest time. It was a tribute to him without being announced that way.

Q: You’ve rubbed elbows with many great American musicians. What’s different about Pete Seeger?

A: The big difference between Pete and a lot of other people is that he really believes that when people are singing together, it changes things. He’s convinced me that he’s absolutely right. So he’s not out there necessarily to do a performance, he’s out there to engage on a different level. It’s not entertainment, it’s more like church.

Q: Do you see Internet innovations like Facebook and Twitter as positive developments for musicians?

A: I’d say the biggest improvement for everyday musicians was the invention of iTunes - not so much the social communication stuff. The ability to market music through a world-wide network has made all the difference ... You don’t have to sell your soul to a record company to get your recordings out there. The thing that might prompt some interest is the MySpace and Facebook, stuff like that. But the way you actually buy the stuff, I think, has been revolutionary. Interesting that a computer company should develop the best anti-piracy device and not a record company. The thing that I love about the iTunes store is that the icon of my records label is no smaller than the icons of the biggest record companies in the world, pushing the biggest artists in the world. It’s a level playing field. I don’t know how long that will last, I can’t believe that someone won’t find a way to screw it up ... But for now it’s just wonderful - that it works on the merit of the music and not the hype. The simple word of mouth. There’s a lot of power in that right now.

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