Since he released his classic story song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” in 1967, Arlo Guthrie been considered by some to be a Thanksgiving mainstay on par with turkey and pumpkin pie.
That almost 20-mintue autobiographical tale—which set the hypocrisy-ridden realities of the draft against the backdrop of Thanksgiving 1965—has not only aged into one of the most enduring Vietnam-era protest songs anthems, but also blossomed a storied holiday tradition in its own right.
The son of Woody Guthrie of Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Greenblatt (and grandson of acclaimed Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt), the 72-year-old singer-guitarist grew up in the folk world and has stayed true to that storied tradition’s traveling minstrel approach throughout his 50-plus year career. (Arlo has described folk music as “the original social media.”) In addition to his own revered works, many of which—including “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”—were workshopped live, he’s helped keep his father’s work relevant, recently celebrating the elder Guthrie’s centennial with a retrospective tour focused on his extensive catalog.
For over five decades, Arlo has also nurtured a deep connection with one of his family’s closest friends, Pete Seeger. This past summer, he honored Seeger with a special concert in Albany, N.Y., just north of his longtime Hudson Valley home. And while the always wry Gutrhie quips, “I don’t remember what I did there, but, I just showed up to celebrate Pete’s contribution with others who were also inspired by him,” he has lovingly carried his mentor’s work into the modern Americana era.
For many years, Arlo and Seeger
marked Thanksgiving weekend with a special concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall,
a tradition that always felt well timed with “Alice’s Restaurant.” Seeger
passed away in 2014, but Guthrie has kept the tradition alive since then,
weaving in members of his family like his daughter Sarah Lee, son and bandmate
Abe and, last year, The Band associates The Weight Band.
This year, after a half century of annual gatherings, Arlo has decided to retire the Carnegie Hall series, in order to focus on touring more intimate markets, hosting events at the converted church where the actual “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” story took place and working on his “rock farm.”
“You just wait until spring and pick up more rocks,” he says with a laugh of the later project.
Shortly before his final Thanksgiving at Carnegie Hall, Arlo discussed his lifelong friendship with Seeger, his unconventional bar mitzvah and why he’ll finally be able to enjoy leftovers next November.
Pete Seeger was a huge part of your Carnegie Hall shows for many years. He was also very close with your father. What role did he play in your development as a young musician? Do you remember the first time you met?
I first met Pete and his wife, Toshi, when I was a little kid. We’d go up to their home in Beacon, NY just to visit. It wasn’t like I was personally visiting them, it was really my mom and us kids just going along. We were told to “go play outside,” while they had a chance to visit. As I grew up, I’d see Pete in the office of Harold Leventhal, who was my father’s manager. He was Pete’s manager as well, and he eventually became mine. So, I was familiar with Pete and had attended many of his shows. We found ourselves together at the many demonstrations and protests taking place during the late-1960s. Eventually, it bloomed into a collaboration that lasted over 40 years. I loved working with him—no set list, no preparation, no rehearsals. We’d just step out on stage and play it by ear.
We played together [at Carnegie Hall around Thanksgiving for years]. I did my first show at Carnegie Hall back in November of 1967, but it wasn’t tied to the holidays. It was a coincidence. In fact, until the early 1980s our shows at Carnegie Hall were scattered throughout the year. It started to be a tradition in the early 1980s when Pete and I returned year after year on the same days following the Thanksgiving holiday.
Pete never really became ill—he just
became quite old which made his public efforts more difficult. He called me in
his 80s suggesting that he’d be doing less and less big shows. He said, “Arlo,
I can’t sing like I used to sing. I can’t play like I used to play.” I said,
“Pete! Look at our audience—they can’t hear like they used to hear. It might
not be a problem.” He laughed and said, “Well, maybe you’re right.” And we
continued to perform together for many years.
year’s performance is being billed as “the last annual” Thanksgiving Carnegie
Hall show. What made you retire the series and is it something you plan to
revive for “bigger anniversaries” tied to the Alice’s Restaurant LP in the future?
There are a lot of reasons to exit the annual shows. The audience I inherited from Pete, as well as my own, is getting older—many have already left. And while most people of my generation would at least be familiar with my name, most people under 50 have no idea who I am. I was never a Top-40 artist, although we’ve broken into it accidentally a couple of times, so there isn’t the excitement surrounding my concerts that there would have been decades ago. The size and prestige of the venue isn’t warranted nowadays. There’s plenty of venues around the country and the world that are more suitable, and I’ll be coming to those places as usual.
[Next year], we’ll probably do what we always do with the notable exception of not having to go to New York City after Thanksgiving. For the first time in over 50 years we’ll get to munch on leftovers.
Donald Trump’s father, Fred, was your father’s landlord for a time and he even wrote the very first well known anti-Trump song, “I Ain’t Got No Home – The Ballad of Old Man Trump.” Do you have any vivid memories of your families interaction with the Trump family at that time?
Fred Trump was indeed our landlord. My dad didn’t like the idea of terrestrial lords in general, especially landlords. More importantly, he didn’t like the idea of forced segregation by landlords. I have no memory however of those years as I was about 4 or 5 years old.
You have famously only performed your signature song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” on special occasions, but it seems you have pulled it out more in recent years. Do you feel the song has taken on new importance in our current political climate?
I’ve put it on the setlist for the occasional 10-year anniversaries. Beginning in 2015, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the actual events that were the basis for the album, which came out in 1967. The movie came out in November of 1969. So, it’s been on the setlist for a few years now. That’ll conclude next year, in May of 2020.
This year marks the anniversary of the Alice’s Restaurant film, which was a precursor to the era of music videos. Do you have any funny memories of trying to “play yourself” in front of the camera?
Generally, it was an awful experience, because the song was based on real events, and took 20 minutes to tell. Being a full-length feature film they had to add 70 minutes of fiction to meet the running standards of the times. So I was less than a third real, and more than two thirds fiction in the movie. The same was true for everyone whose real names were used in the film.
music has long been associated with Thanksgiving and the holiday season in
general. Your family is also a blend of religions. Are there certain elements
of the traditional wintertime holidays your family has embraced—from caroling
to lighting the menorah—over the years?
Our family loves getting together for the holidays. We celebrate in our own ways, but generally have a private Thanksgiving dinner at the house the day before the actual holiday. Then, we’ll go over to the church [The Guthrie Center] and help out with our annual free Thanksgiving dinner. [Guthrie also performed a special show at the church on Nov. 23.]
Your bar mitzvah has been historically described as a hootenanny that blended tradition and modern music in a way that feels inline with your career. What is your most vivid memory from that early milestone?
The only thing I remember is the wonderful feeling I had when my father arrived. All the attention in the room left me and focused on him. I was relieved because the pressure was finally off.
You recently performed at the site of the original Woodstock on the anniversary of the festival and covered Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” Can you talk about that song choice and the anniversary celebration?
The owners of Bethel Woods promised to build me a stage for a free concert on the original site. They did not follow through and there was nothing at the original site—no sound system or other promised infrastructure. It was quite disappointing. I took a guitar and stood where the stage had been built 50 years earlier, and sang Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” as it was something I could sing with an acoustic guitar and no microphone. Later, we did a show [held on the anniversary of the original Woodstock festival and timed with a screening of the classic Woodstock film].
recently expanded your backing band, including members of your old friends
Shenandoah. What brought them back into the fold?
We’re doing the last show of the tour with that band tonight [Nov. 22, 2019]. Beginning in February 2020 we’ll have a new tour, completely different in some ways, with some songs carrying through from the Alice’s Restaurant tour, “Alice” for one. The band will be smaller with just my son Abe Guthrie [keyboards and vocals], Terry A La Berry [drums and vocals] and me. We’ll be joined by my daughter, Cathy Guthrie and her singing partner, Amy Nelson, Willie’s daughter. Together, they are known as Folk Uke. That tour will run until May 2020.
have spent the past few years actively paying tribute to your father’s music.
He had so many songs that touched on so many different sonic styles. Are there
certain songs or periods of his songbook that you hoped to bring to life at
this point in time?
I’ve actually spent my life furthering my fathers philosophies through his songs and stories. He was an incredibly motivated writer on almost every subject one can imagine. So when it seems appropriate I’ve included his work in my shows.