Publisher’s Corner: Celebrating the career of a folk icon

Photo courtesy of @arloguthrie

Arlo Guthrie is incredibly talented. I’ve known him for years and interviewed him countless times. As the son of Woody Guthrie, he is one of the few sons who may be better known than his famous father. Of course, when Woody was around, we didn’t have the media outlets that we have now. But Arlo is a beloved figure in this country and around the world. When you hear the name Arlo, you know exactly who is being talked about. It is not only his unique voice that makes him one of a kind, but his incredible wit.

Arlo is a very young 73. Now, however, he has suffered a few strokes and has been hard hit by the pandemic since his live performing has come to a screeching halt. So Arlo says he is retiring, but I bet we’ll be seeing him. He’s just too good to retire. After the death of his dad from Huntington’s Chorea, Arlo became one of the foremost folk singers in the world. Arlo says that he did not get tested. That takes guts.

From the very beginning, Pete Seeger recognized Arlo’s talent and as a duo, they took over the traditional Thanksgiving concert at Carnegie Hall that was once the domain of the legendary Weavers. Their albums were must-haves for all of us who worshipped folk singing when it was just that — folk singing.

Naturally, Arlo will always be known for his signature song, “Alice’s Restaurant.” I was standing outside of the Guthrie Church and to my delight, one tourist after another came to pay homage. I can’t think of another place in Great Barrington that has the fame of Alice’s Church which Arlo has always described as a “Bring your own God church.”

That Church has featured some of the very best singers and instrumentalist in the world. Obviously, they come because of Arlo. It sure isn’t the pay. It’s respect, that’s what it is. My favorite Tom Paxton song has a line about how he met his love and then chased her to Ireland. I love one line he has in the song about Arlo being on the stage in Ireland. Yep, there’s only one Arlo. The Church also does wonderful thing for the folks of the surrounding communities, including feeding and tutoring them.

“Alice’s Restaurant” became an anti-war anthem. Arlo’s description of his time at the draft board was classic. Remember? He had thrown garbage into the Stockbridge dump and ended up being disqualified to serve and being put onto the “Group W” bench with other heinous felons. We all love the story about how he was invited to the White House when Jimmy Carter was President and found that Nixon had left his “Alice’s Restaurant” album on the shelf. That song was exactly eighteen minutes long, the same eighteen minutes that has been erased from the Nixon tapes.

If one got lucky over the past number of years, you got an elongated version of “Alice’s Restaurant” that took up a half a concert. I don’t know how he felt about doing it again and again, but I never heard anyone complain. In fact, if you were lucky enough to hear him sing it, you felt like you had been given a very precious gift.

He has performed all over the world. One of my favorite stories is when he and Pete were singing in a massive concert where the people listening spoke a foreign language and they ran out of folk songs so Arlo started to sing the Elvis tune, “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Arlo says that he thought Pete wouldn’t like that but the whole audience began to sing that song. Arlo looked over at Pete and it turns out he was singing it, too. That’s what you have to love about Arlo. He really makes you feel good.