Your annual Carnegie Hall shows have become a Thanksgiving tradition in themselves. What was the origin of your Carnegie Hall shows?
I first played Carnegie Hall in 1967 as a solo concert [around the release of the Alice’s Restaurant album.] And soon after that, I began doing shows with Pete Seeger every year, usually two days in a row. Our last Pete & Arlo show was in November 2012 at Carnegie. I don’t know how many decades we did that, but it was a lot. So it became a tradition that every Saturday after Thanksgiving I take over Carnegie Hall. This year will be very special because of the “Alice” Tour, but I’ll keep doing those shows for as long as I can.
As you mentioned, for many years Pete Seeger co-hosted these Carnegie Hall shows with you. You’ve said that you inherited him from your father, and you cast him as himself in the Alice’s film. What is a lesson that he taught you later in his life that continues to influence your performances?
There was no one like Pete. He really was a master at getting people to loosen up and sing along. It’s a very powerful experience. I try my best to continue that spirit, although I’m no Pete Seeger. Still, I think we carry on with the spirit that Pete and those before him taught us to believe in: The power of song is stronger that most people imagine.
A few years ago, you celebrated your father’s centennial with a family reunion-style tour that drew in several generations of family members. How has that immersive experience in your family’s heritage changed your own musical process?
I’ve spent decades being Woody Guthrie’s kid, and I’ve never had a problem with being just that. But the other day, as I was walking along a street, I heard some people talking and as I went by someone said “Do you know who that is?” And as I walked away I heard “That’s Sarah Lee Guthrie’s father!” I looked up and smiled at my dad. I’m finally not just his kid anymore.
Both your son and daughter have been on the road with you this year, and your son has toured with you for years. How have their rolls changed with your live show as they have aged into accomplished musicians themselves?
We just like playing music. And when we can do it together it’s even better. The family shows we’ve done are hard to put together with almost 16 of us—it’s a logistical nightmare. But they are my favorite kind of shows.
Years ago, you recorded a cover of Phish’s “Bouncing Around the Room” for the tribute album Sharin’ in the Groove. How did that cover come to be, and did the band ever give you any feedback on the song?
That was fun. We did a really wild mix on that you’ll hear if you have a listen with headphones, and I thought it was pretty good. I don’t remember any comments about it, because it was too long ago, but the idea for that cover came from my son Abe, who turned me on to them. [Arlo recorded the song with his son Abe’s band, Xavier.]
It has been a few years since you released a studio project. Do you have plans to go into the studio anytime soon and, if so, what type of project do you hope to record?
We’ll see what happens. Lately, it’s been easier to just record the live shows. But, yeah I would love to do another album in a studio sometime. There’s nothing in the works though.
Your father was Christian and your mother was Jewish, you have studied with Franciscan monks, Buddhists and Hindus and you have said, “I have three or four major traditions that I am carrying around inside me.” On your website you also echo the Hindu belief by saying, “I love the holiday season. I celebrate everything because I am everything. Now I can share that celebration with each and everyone. I like that and it likes me. Even the coming year is something to look forward to. This past year was pretty good considering.” Can you describe your balance between these faiths?
I firmly believe that different religious traditions can reside in one person, or one nation or even one world. I believe [The Guthrie Center’s job] is to link all these diverse communities. Everyone is different and has their own take from all to none, and everything in between. I was raised that way myself. If we weren’t different, we wouldn’t have horse races. I respect everyone who thinks for themselves and finds a way through this world, especially those who are respectful and interested in what everyone else believes. Whatever you believe, I can tell you this: I believe in love.
Your maternal grandmother was Aliza Greenblatt, who was a well-known Yiddish poet who lived across the street from you and inspired your father to write a set of Klezmer songs that blended the struggles of the Jewish people with his interest in social activism. [Arlo’s sister Nora later gave these songs to the Klezmer group The Klezmatics to set to new music.] And your Bar-Mitzvah was a legendary hootenanny jam session. What was that coming of age event like, and who were some of the players that were involved in that event?
They were all there—all this [musical friends. I don’t remember anything but thinking, “Thank God my father is here” because everyone forgot about me and went to talk to him, [which is great because I didn’t like the attention at that time.] It couldn’t have been better.
Do you plan to retire “Alice’s” again after this celebration until the 60th anniversary?
Folksinging is a ‘die with your boots on’ profession. There’s no retirement. [I’ve never been] afraid of dying so much—I didn’t want to die, but it scared me more that I would get out of this life without living up to my parents’ expectations, that I would leave this world a little better than I came.