Arlo Guthrie on His Dad, Protesting, and “Alice’s Restaurant” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Arlo Guthrie on His Dad, Protesting, and “Alice’s Restaurant”

Taking the Stage

Sep 30, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Longtime folk singer-songwriter, Arlo Guthrie, who is the son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, recently released a new song, a cover of the American standard, “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The song is meant to express a sense of unity and a communal desire to get through tough times. As the world tries to work through the pains of a global health pandemic and centuries of social injustice, Guthrie decided to add his signature bit of assistance to the conversation. We caught up with the songwriter, who wrote the 1967 20-minute-long hit, “Alice’s Restaurant,” to ask him about the new recording, how he first fell in love with music, the first time he heard Bob Dylan’s song for his father and much more.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): I imagine you must have grown up surrounded by music. But when did it become something personally important to you as a young person?

Arlo Guthrie: When I was about 13 years old, I used to go to these clubs in Greenwich Village in New York to see my father’s friends who were playing there. One of whom was a guy named Cisco Houston, who was probably my dad’s best friend and one that put up with my dad better than anyone. [Laughs] But they had shipped out together in the Merchant Marines and all that kind of stuff during World War II. So, when my dad entered the hospital system in the ’50s, the only way of really finding out more about him was to go and talk to his friends that had traveled with him. And Cisco was one of those. I went to see him one night in February of 1961. I was 13 years old and he asked me to get up on stage and sing a few songs! I was shaken! I couldn’t breathe. My knees were knocking. I walked backstage after a few of those songs and I said to myself, “Arlo, you are never doing that again!” And I have been doing it ever since! So, so much for vows and so much for that. But it’s been a long time I’ve been doing this.

How did you progress and develop your writing, your voice?

In the early days, starting with that gig I did at a place called Gerde’s Folk City. It was a little bar-restaurant-folk club in the Village. And from that time, I would say for the next four or five years, I was finishing up grade school and I went to high school. In those days, if I was performing at all, it was doing a lot of my father’s songs because I was familiar with them and there were other people who had shown an interest in them. Not just the people I was playing with, you know, the other kids in the band. But there was an audience for that kind of music back in the early ’60s. So, I started doing that. But some time around 1964-65, I began writing my own songs and adding them to the shows I was doing until, of course, “Alice’s Restaurant” came along in 1966. From then on, I was expected to sing my own songs. I’ve always included my dad’s songs, even today, in the shows that we’re doing. But they weren’t the focus what I had learned to do.

Did you ever not want to play music? Did you ever have a rebellious side regarding playing music?

Not at all. I remember at some point when I was about 17- or 18-years-old, my mom took me aside one day and said, “Arlo, if you want to be a musician, that’s fine. But you ought to learn how to do something else because it’s good to have a backup plan—plan B. Because audiences could be fickle. They can like you one day and forget about you the next.” I’m sure if I had taken my mother’s advice, I’d have been doing something else by now. Because when times get tough, you do the next easiest thing, you know. And the next easiest thing for me would have been a bartender, or something. That’s what I knew. I didn’t pursue it, so I had no knowledge of it, except an interest. So, when times got tough, I had nothing to fall back on. I just kept playing music and it worked out good.

I was introduced to “Alice’s Restaurant” by my mother after I was arrested for littering stupidly as a young person. Looking back, what tickles you the most about that song or that it was a hit?

Well, I think it was a continuing set of absurd circumstances that I was amazed by. The first thing was, of course, that my friend, Alice Brock, who is still my friend to this day, had talked about maybe opening a restaurant. So, I sat around one night at the old church, where they were living, and started creating this little chorus. At that time, I decided I wasn’t going back to college. I’d only been there for one semester but in those days you were either going to school or you were going to Vietnam! I decided that it was worth getting—I didn’t want to be in school. It didn’t seem that that’s where anything was going on. I wanted to be in the midst of what was happening. So, I left school determined not to go back. I started getting involved with having to reconcile my life with the inevitability of being called to military service. And no one was more surprised than me when I was rejected for that service because of my littering arrest, helping out my old friend Alice. That was absurd to me! So, I added the story to the little chorus I had written and it just morphed into becoming a recording. And the recording became a film and the film turned me into a movie star! And I was still, like, 18 or 19 years old and I didn’t know where to go from there but I decided to just keep playing music and the kind of music that I loved—I wasn’t interested in pop music, I wasn’t interested in fame and fortune, so much. I just loved the old songs. I’ve been playing them ever since!

You’re known for your protest songs and social justice work. Is it ever hard for you to fight that good fight, to have it so often included in your art?

It’s always healthy when people suspect others in authority. To suspect authority is a healthy thing, especially in a democracy. It’s healthy anywhere, even in authoritarian systems—it’s even maybe more helpful there. So, most of my songs have always focused on a suspicion or a question of authority. I find that to be true no matter who’s in power. Doesn’t matter if it’s right wing, left wing, chicken wing, up, down, this or that. It’s always good to question people who have assumed the mantle of authority and, therefore, have power. Because I don’t think it’s a natural state. I think it screws people up and it doesn’t matter if you’re left or right. So, I am personally looking forward to questioning a new authority quite soon. But I will have the same attitude as I do now. I think it’s healthy, it’s always good. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends with ‘em. It just means that you have to look them in the eye and say, “What the hell is that!?” And ask them every once in a while, because I’ve been scrutinized by people on the left and the right and in the middle and that’s fine. I expect that as long as they understand that I’m going to do the same to me—to scrutinize them. To question them and ask about it and to inform myself and not get locked into any one particular ideology, I don’t think that’s very helpful.

I saw a quote from you that I appreciated where you talked about authorities needing to embrace the “evolving nature of what it means to be an American.” Can you talk about that idea?

Well, I think, you know, we’re in one of those times when the culture is evolving. A lot of people focus on who’s the President and what he’s doing and what he’s saying. But I think that misses the point. The culture is changing. And it is changing, I think, in an evolutionary way. It evolves. More people want to participate. More people want a sense of justice. More people want a sense of accomplishment. More people want to have a world going forward that is healthier for their kids and their grandkids and their great grandkids. To do that, people occupy places where they think that those phrases will catch on. And that’s fine, to take advantage of the change in culture. But I think it is always smart or wise to keep your eye on the changes in culture because that is—and take into consideration that there are other people doing that, too, and they will inevitably use that for their own advantage. When that happens, we have to corral ‘em and take them very seriously but keep our eye on ‘em and if we don’t like what they’re saying or doing or something like that, we speak out about it. And if enough people do that, we’ll remain healthy. But I think that this change is an inevitable evolutionary change. In other words, we’re moving into a new world! It’s not going to be the same 20 years from now. It’s not going to be the same 50 or 100 years from now. The only real question is: how many people have to die before we get there? We’ve already lost close to 200,000 people because of this pandemic. That’s just in this country. It has devastated the entire world. I want to see a global response and I have not seen one yet. That takes leadership and I have not seen that yet. It takes commitment and I have not seen that yet. So, I don’t know how many people have to go through the times we’re going through—people out of work, there are people looking for work, there are people who can’t find it. They’re cutting off the government help that we need right now and I think that’s crazy. So, I don’t know that the next guys will be any better, by the way. But I think you got to give ‘em a shot.

Do you remember how old you were the first time you heard the Bob Dylan song for you father, “Song to Woody”?

Oh, sure. I heard it when it first came out, of course. I was a lot closer to Bob in those days because he was in my sphere, my world, moving in and out, spending time with my father and coming to our house. So, I saw him more often than I have, you know, recently. But I was very familiar with it and I thought it was beautiful.

Your son is also a musician. He’s carrying on the Guthrie name and songwriter lineage. I’m sure you’ve thought about that and had conversations with him. But what comes to mind when you think about the family lineage carrying on with your son?

My father and mother had a dream that one day when their kids were old enough, we would tour the country together and sing the kind of songs that we knew gave people hope and encouragement about being themselves. He never had a chance to live that dream. But I did. So, when I was old enough and when my kids were old enough, I started taking him with me and putting them on the stage and showing them how to play different instruments and teaching them about harmony and how to participate and, you know, things like that. So, they grew up in that world and they passed it on to their kids. I mean, I’ve got seven grandkids and all of them play music—not necessarily professionally. But a couple of them do. My grandson, Abe’s son, a guy name Krishna, is up in Vermont and playing almost every night and writing his own songs and hanging in there. And I think that’s great. Music can be your best friend, even if you don’t become a professional, even if you don’t play in front of other people. If you just sit in your living room, or anywhere, with the guitar or an instrument of some kind, you’re not as lonely as you thought you were. It’s a language that is worth knowing, whether you’re a professional or not.

That’s cool. You were put on stage by a family friend and now you’re putting others on stage. That must feel good, the circle of life?

You know, I didn’t think of it that way but it’s absolutely true. I think, you know, it’s one of the skill sets that you get before you know that it is a skill set. It’s like learning languages that your parents speak that you don’t realize that you’re learning. You just take it for granted. So, like that, I think music is a language that can stick to families and be passed down through generations.

Why did you decide to record and release the song, “Hard Times Come Again No More?”

Well, I just wanted to express my own sense of sympathy and camaraderie with a lot of people who are just having a difficult time right now. I know how it is for me. I’ve been sitting at home—the last gig we did was early March. It’s not that we don’t want to work, it’s just that the venues are all shut down! So there’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to play. Luckily, for me, I’ve got a nice place. I’m out in the country and I can walk around and it’s not so bad to be isolated here. But I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be more normal, live in a city and not be able to work, not be able to go out, not be able to hang out, not be able to goof off and enjoy yourself. I mean, these are tough times. And I thought that song speaks to that. It does not take sides, it does not cast aspersions. It just says, “Suffering is something we hope we all get through.” There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Among the other things I could be saying, and I have from time to time, obviously, it’s the sharing of that sympathy. It is saying, “Look, I’m with you, buddy.” My circumstance might be different than a lot of other people but I’m in it! We’re all in the same boat. I wanted to share that in song as well as in my heart. The best way to do that was to work with other people. Everyone I worked with on that song and that production are people that I’ve never met—still to this day. I have not met them in person. So, that’s the kind of times we’re in. But I thought we did something magic.

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Martin Katz
September 30th 2020

Hearing your version of Hard Times Come Again No More inspired me to learn it. So far I’ve been entertaining my dust bunnies, but one day the folk circles and open mics will once again be available. Thank you!

Inspecteur En Batiment Rive Sud
October 4th 2020

Arlo Guthrie is such a wonderful artist! He has always ever so greatly sung great songs of protest against social injustice.  May he stay blessed!

Inspecteur en batiment rive sud
December 1st 2020

Arlo Guthrie is definitely amazing! His music has changed so many for the best!