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Monday, December 08, 2014

In the Family

From the Vault Dept.: I should have posted this around Thanksgiving, but, as with all great artists, Arlo is timeless. Here’s my account of his family’s 2009 Albany performance.


ON THANKSGIVING WEEKEND IN 1965, Arlo Guthrie was convicted of creating a public nuisance. You probably know the story. It involved litter. The same weekend, Arlo could have watched the King Family on television and seen a horrific vision of white-bread musical hell. If he did, it may have planted a seed. But even if he didn’t, he has redefined the notion of what a musical family is all about. It’s highly doubtful, for example, that the King Family would celebrate an amorous mismatch with a song titled “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow.”

Arlo Guthrie | Photo by Brian Blauser
But this, the fourth number in a satisfyingly long and refreshing program, came to us from the pen of Arlo’s ukulele-wielding daughter Cathy, who performed it with siblings Abe (keyboards), Annie (autoharp) and Sarah Lee (guitar), along with Abe’s son Krishna on guitar and drummer Terry Hall.

The program started with the duo of Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, guitar wizard Johnny Irion, with their evocative “When the Lilacs Are in Bloom.” And then more of the family was added with each song, until Arlo emerged to sing his father’s “Gypsy Davy.”

“Woody liked to steal songs,” Arlo explained, underscoring the complex heritage of the number, “but we found out we didn’t have to call it ‘stealing’ when Pete Seeger came along and called it the ‘folk tradition.’”

At this remove, Woody Guthrie can be seen as a crossroad in that tradition. He was this country’s best-known gatherer and rewriter with a huge amount of original material on offer as well. And his legacy has grown to inspire singers and songwriters from many musical disciplines.

To have his descendants here to further his legacy is icing on the cake. Arlo established himself early on as an original voice in music, but didn’t seem the type to settle into a performing patriarchy. Last week’s concert at The Egg proves there’s none better.

Arlo sang a couple of Woody’s outlaw songs, including the timeless “Pretty Boy Floyd,” which is more about the banking industry (“As through this world I've wandered/I've seen lots of funny men;/Some will rob you with a six-gun,/And some with a fountain pen.”)

Then he brought out still more of the family, including some cute and eager grandchildren who took their places on stage with an effective mix of professionalism and kidlike spontaneity.

Noting that Woody left many lyrics unset and unpublished, Arlo led the group in one of his father’s many kids’ songs, this one set by Hans-Eckardt Wenzel and titled “Every Hundred Years” – referring to a preferred frequency of face-washing.

“Take Me to Show-and-Tell” was another original by Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, the latter nothing that they wanted to write a children’s song “that wouldn’t make you want to fling yourself out of the minivan,” and it had the right balance of fun and irony to offer some grownup appeal.

Arlo’s been working the kid-lit vein as well, and recited his poem “Mooses Come Walking,” written, he noted, to scare the children into bed. (It’s featured in his book of the same title.)

The first half ended with classic Arlo – “Coming into Los Angeles,” complete with shaggy-dog intro – and classic Woody, a rousing version of another timeless classic, “Deportee,” with searing guitar work by Irion.

Janis Ian’s setting of Woody’s lyric “I Hear You Sing Again” was a highlight of the second half, along with two settings by Billy Bragg and Wilco, featured on their two “Mermaid Avenue” recordings: “Birds and Ships,” beautifully sung by Sarah Lee, and “Airline to Heaven.”

Woody’s mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, collaborated with him on some lyrics that were posthumously discovered by Arlo’s sister, Nora. When she showed them to the Klezmatics, they were excited enough to devote a pair of CDs to Woody’s work, and “Gonna Get Through This World” showed a unique blend of cultures every bit as affecting as the blues that followed (“Cornbread, Peas and Black Molasses”), from Woody’s occasional performing partners Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

More talent continues to bubble forth. Krishna not only is a burn-ass guitarist, but also showed an original songwriting voice in “Sleep,” a love ballad.

It wouldn’t be an Arlo concert without “City of New Orleans,” which glowed nicely in the folk-country context the Guthries set so well, and the roots of that context came through in “Keep on the Sunny Side,” a tribute to the Carter Family. But the extended “This Land Is Your Land” that officially finished the show was as effective an evocation of the spirit of Woody Guthrie as could possibly be imagined, with four generations of the family thus represented and an enthusiastic audience-turned-family joining in.

The Guthrie Family Rides Again, The Egg, Nov. 13

Metroland Magazine, 19 November 2009

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