American Songwriter- A New Conversation with Arlo Guthrie
BY PAUL ZOLLO
Part 1. Arlo & Pete Seeger
Arlo and Pete played their last show at Carnegie Hall. Pete was 94 and worried he wouldn’t remember all the words or sing well enough.
Arlo said, “Pete! Look at our audience—they can’t hear like they used to hear. It might not be a problem!”
Pete laughed and everything was okay.
“All songwriters are links in a chain,” said Pete of the historic and artistic connection between all songwriters. Pete connected us with Woody Guthrie and also his boy Arlo, and performed extensively with both. Arlo picked up Pete and Woody’s musical torch, and has kept it lit all these years.
This is our first part of an extensive interview with Arlo, conducted during this season of lockdown, 2020.
He was born into a family of history and moment. His mother Marjorie Mazia, the daughter of a Yiddish poet, was a dancer with the Martha Graham troupe. His father was Woody Guthrie. He grew up on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island with brother Joady and sister Nora.
Woody is now known to be one of the greatest songwriters America has known, writing beloved anthems of American splendor and inclusion, such as “This Land Is Your Land.” He was a pioneer, both poetic and pointed, inject reality in his songs but always with flair, such as “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “Deportees” that showed the dark side of the American dream.
Woody had Huntington’s Disease, which stole most of his last decade from him. He was confined to a hospital in New Jersey where young folksingers, like Bob Dylan, would come to meet their idol. The first song Dylan wrote himself and recorded was “Song for Woody.”
Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along
Seems sick and it’s hungry, it’s tired and it’s torn
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ and it’s hardly been born
Woody died in 1967, the same year Arlo’s career got going. It was sparked by one remarkable song, a folk/rock American epic which established forever the singular brilliance of this man. “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s an expansive, hilarious, infectious folk-rock masterpiece showing the madness and folly of our ongoing war in Vietnam. It was the new generation walking in Woody’s footsteps.
That song got him his record deal, and the album Alice’s Restaurant came out with that great title song taking up the entire first side of the LP.
But the second side was also exceptional, because it contained five more songs written by Arlo. And these are all essential Arlo songs, showing us for the first time a songwriter of great range. Many of his most beautifully melodic and poetic songs are on this album, including “Chilling of the Evening,” “Now and Then,” and “Highway In The Wind.”
He went on to write and record other classic songs, such as “Coming into Los Angeles” (a song Pete Seeger didn’t love, as Arlo explains) as well as the greatest song ever about the state where he still lives, “Massachusetts.” Simply getting that name into a song is impressive, but he wrote a stunningly beautiful song. It’s one of his greatest and most timeless melodies. In 1981, the song was officially adopted as the official folk song of Massachusetts.
Arlo also connected the generations and honored his dad’s legacy by his alliance with the great Pete Seeger. Pete was one of Woody’s best pals – a traveling buddy and bandmate of Woody’s. Pete also became one of the greatest Woody Guthrie scholars and champions – bringing his songs, spirit and story to the world in a major way.
Arlo and Pete teamed up for years to do a summer tour together, a joyous annual tradition they’d bring around America, connecting the generations in song. They also would do an annual Thanksgiving concert at Carnegie Hall. It was there they did Pete’s last concert – having to essentially trick Pete into participating, which Arlo discusses in the following.
In the same way that Pete was Woody’s champion, bringing his songs to the masses, and establishing him as a beloved American treasure, Arlo did the same thing for another great American songwriter: Steve Goodman. Arlo recorded his song “City of New Orleans,” and brought it to the world. It became a hit song, and changed Goodman’s life. Arlo discusses the song and the man who wrote it. And as much as he loved the song, he said, he loved Goodman even more.
Countless other artists recorded “City of New Orleans,” including John Denver, who seemed to be taking unwarranted partial writing credit for the song. Arlo shares the whole story, which took him some time to discover on his own.
These days Arlo still lives in Massachusetts, and spoke to us over Zoom one morning from his big kitchen. We’re bringing you that interview today in three sections. Each chapter is about Arlo, but they are divided into Arlo & Pete Seeger, Arlo & Woody, and Arlo & Steve Goodman.
Our first chapter of three is Arlo & Pete Seeger, and is where our discussion actually began. It was just beyond summer of 2020, a summer of much sorrow and lockdown, which launched us into a discussion of those golden summers of the past, when Pete & Arlo would come to town.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: Every summer that goes by – but especially this one – makes me miss seeing you and Pete together.
ARLO GUTHRIE: Oh, I know. We all do.
The funny thing was that during the last show we did together, that was just about three or four months before Pete passed away. He was 94 at the time and he called me before the gig. I had asked him if he wanted to do it.
He said, “Of course.” And because it’s a gig that we had essentially taken over from him, because for many years he didn’t really want to do it anymore. He didn’t feel able.
He said, “I only know a few songs now.” And I said, “That’s all right.”
He said, “Well, I can’t remember them.”
He didn’t remember that he knew them. And he didn’t know if, in a show, he’d be able to remember them.
So what I did was to rehearse all of his songs with my family. And we’d start playing it onstage, and he’d say, “Oh, yeah! I know that one!”
But he didn’t remember that he knew it until we got to it.
It was really terrific. We really wanted to do a tribute to Pete, but if you told him it was a tribute, he wouldn’t come. So we had to find a way of doing a night of Pete Seeger songs for that Carnegie Hall crowd that wouldn’t offend his sensibility. And I think we did it. It was great.
The last time I interviewed him was when when he was 91. He seemed to still be in good shape then, still carrying the banjo and 12-string on his back —
Well, it was funny, because to the world he was one thing. And to his family, to his wife and kids, and to those who knew him well, he was something else. His wife Toshi used to say, “Pete is good at saving the world, but he’s not so good about taking out the garbage.”
And I think it was an insight into the dilemma that we all have, that as a professional you have one face to the world, but as a private person, you have another one. And they’re not always the same. It’s the same personality, but it operates in different ways.
And Pete was one of those guys who was really good about saving the world. I mean, he showed up at almost every event that had any importance. And sometimes those events were iffy, to say it the best. But he showed up anyway. He wasn’t afraid to show up and then have it seen as a waste of time later. He always decided to show up anyway.
And as a result of that, he made an impact on people whose instinct was to be there. Right or wrong, left or right, up and down, rich or poor, he was there. And it wasn’t always a hundred percent right, you might say, but he showed up more than people who actually think about these things.
And for that reason, I loved the man dearly.
He seemed about the most authentic guy there was. Is that accurate? Was he the same guy in real life?
Oh, yeah. I think he saw himself in different ways, like we all do. But the performer part of him, the face to the world, was genuinely him. It wasn’t some kind of phony show that he was doing. And he tried to maintain that image, or sense of self, throughout his day-to-day life, and in some ways was more successful than others. He would always respond when people wrote him.
I thought that was interesting. And my mother did that, too. Everybody who wrote in or had an inquiry about anything, whether it was how to name their cat or how to save the world in some way, they responded. And they responded continuously, even if it was just one line.
It was always him with that signature and a little banjo.
During your shows together, you would switch off songs, and when you played, he’d sit on the floor of the stage, facing you, and calmly watch your songs. That seemed so sweet and great.
Well, we both agreed that that was the way to do the shows. We didn’t have openers and closers. We weren’t swapping one song for another. We both sort of agreed that it took at least three or four songs for a person to have the time to make a point, whether it’s an emotional point, or a political point, or a musical point. You can’t do it if you just swap in one song for the next. And you can’t do it together if one person’s opening the show and another person’s closing it.
So we decided early on that we were going to go out together, without any rehearsal, without any discussion, and just play the show together.
And we sort of developed over time this routine that we would have of our songs challenging the next one. In other words, “I’m doing these songs. Now, what do you have to say about that?” And I always found his responses to my three songs interesting. I think he found my responses to his songs equally interesting.
And so we had this mutual challenge and admiration at the same time that was both engaging the audience, because it allowed them to participate in this little game we were playing. And it was always fun.
His wife Toshi used to say, “Pete is good at saving the world, but he’s not so good about taking out the garbage.”
I mean, I would do “Coming Into Los Angeles.” He hated that song. And he always would follow it with a song called “Garbage.” To make a point.
And it was fine that he did that, because I looked forward to it because I knew that there were some in the audience that related to my material and some that related to his. And there were generational and cultural differences that we played with, and had fun with. Unlike today, where if people have generational or cultural differences, they all get pissed off at each other. But we enjoyed it.
I never knew Pete didn’t like any of your songs. “Coming Into Los Angeles” is a classic. Why didn’t he like it? Cause it was about weed?
Yeah. Right. Probably. It didn’t have enough social significance for him. But he also recognized that he was doing songs that likewise had no social significance. It was just a question of his preference.
He ended up doing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” songs like that that he thought were just beautiful songs. They didn’t talk about protests or anything. They weren’t angry at the government, or up with the union, or something like that. He was able to motivate himself through songs that he thought had significance because of the innate nature of the songs themselves, not because of what they had to say.
That didn’t mean that he stayed with that. It meant that he could utilize that as part of his performance. They were times to just sit back and smile together.
And what I loved about working with him was that there were people in the audience that would come that wouldn’t be seen talking to each other on the street, but who were singing together at the venue. He could do that, and we sorely need that.
He was the best at that, getting people to sing together.
It’s almost magical. And somebody who knows a little bit about magic, because I’ve done it for so long If you’re in the audience, the song goes by in three minutes or four minutes, and you hear it in that time frame.
But for somebody like me, I’ve sung that song so often that the space between each note is really big to me, and I can play with the nuances of it in ways that I can experiment. So if I did it one way, I can gauge the reaction. If I did it another way, I could gauge that reaction. And given the chance of doing that one song thousands and thousands of times, I could make it so that that three minutes to you worked all the way through.
And so that’s what magic really is. It’s becoming familiar with a piece so well that it expands, and you can see into it, and work with it, and play with it in ways that somebody who’s just written it, or just hearing it, can’t do.
But even though I have I some understanding of what that magic is, I never was able to create the kind of magic, with people singing, that Pete was able to do. And he was only able to do it because of the thousands and thousands of times of the experiences he had singing for little groups, big groups, this group, that group, worldwide. He knew how to finesse these songs and to create the magic that allowed or invited people to sing. And that alone created its own magic.
He was a great songwriter, but also a real champion for other songwriters. Certainly for your father. We wouldn’t know about Woody in the same way if not for Pete, don’t you think?
Pete was maybe the main person behind this Woody Guthrie awareness. Pete was his friend and his traveling buddy.
But there were a lot of other people around the world who contributed to it. And I would say Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was preeminent in doing that from the very get-go. My father’s influence began with guys like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who not only traveled with my father, but who was able to bring those songs to life in a way that my father couldn’t do because he was physically unable to do it.
So, at that time, in the ’50s, a lot of people were playing his songs with that authenticity, and bring it to other people around the world. And not only Pete Seeger, but guys like Lonnie Donegan in Great Britain, and others.
All of these people whose names may not be familiar to young people these days, or anybody these days, but they were familiar to me because I was the kid who had to put on these records for my dad. When we would bring him home from the hospital, he’d spend a few hours at the house, getting something to eat, hanging out.
He’d ask, “Has anybody recorded my songs this week?” And, yeah, he would want to know, and he would get a kick out of hearing all of these other people do it.