Headed to town Sunday for a show at Harris Theater in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Thanksgiving day events that laid the foundation for "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," I spoke with Arlo Guthrie about the price of nostalgia, sharing music with his family, fond memories of Chicago, activism in music and much more...
In his chronicling of the somewhat ridiculous Thanksgiving 1965 events that laid the foundation for one of his biggest hits, "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," Arlo Guthrie created a pop music anomaly the likes of which we'll probably never see again: a hit despite it's running time of nearly nineteen minutes.
In his inimitable way, one no doubt influenced by the folk tradition passed onto him by his famous father Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie struck a chord with Alice's Restaurant in 1967, his debut album, particularly in the relatable truth he spoke on the album's epic first track.
But the long track could be difficult to perform live. Arlo didn't attempt it at Woodstock, despite the fact that an Alice's Restaurant film was set for release only days later, and, eventually, as it became bogged down by nostalgia, he'd perform it only every ten years to commemorate it's continually unthinkable longevity upon each passing anniversary.
As the events that inspired the track turn fifty, Guthrie, 68, celebrates it, once again, for the first time in nearly ten years with a fiftieth anniversary tour that brings him to the Harris Theater Sunday night (a benefit for the Old Town School of Folk Music). I conversed with Arlo Guthrie via email about the enduring legacy of Alice's Restaurant as a Thanksgiving day staple, celebrating the musical legacy that was passed down to him by his father with his own kids on this tour, the idea of activism in music, his close connections to the city of Chicago over the course of the last fifty years and more. A lightly edited transcript of that email exchange follows below...
Q. I read an interview you gave to Rolling Stone last year where you said, "My father told me once when I was very young, 'Music will be your best friend. Learn to play the guitar. Music will be your best friend.'" On this current tour, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," your son is part of your band and your daughter is opening each show. What has it been like to celebrate the musical tradition that your father passed down to you each night on stage now with your own children?
Arlo Guthrie: My kids have all grown up, so now I don’t really relate to them as kids. They are really good at what they do and I love having them there because of that. Of course, there’s still some moments each day when I get to be a dad, and they get to be my kids.
We have toured a few times as a family and I loved those shows, especially because I get to see them and their kids understand a little more of what it is we do. My father dreamed that he could haul his family around and tour together - We’re living that dream.
Q. You've frequently described "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" as something along the lines of telling the story of "the little guy against a big world." With so much talk of an eroding middle class in America, does that concept of the fight of the little guy against a big world give the song new meaning in 2015 and help elevate this series of fiftieth anniversary performances beyond mere nostalgia?
AG: There’s always someone who knows more and someone else who knows less: Has more, has less, is bigger, and smaller, more able, less able - In other words each of us stands somewhere along the edge of this globe and no matter which way you turn there will always be as many ahead and as many behind. That’s the way it is, and [the way it's] supposed to be.
I’ve always tried to sing the kinds of songs, and tell the kinds of tales, that get everyone feeling better about the way things are, and how to make it better for everybody. It’s an inheritance I treasure.
Q. Obviously there's a bit of nostalgia that feeds into the audience desire to hear a song like "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" again and again, which I realize can be difficult for an artist looking to push forward to reconcile. Does playing it less - you only perform it live now every ten years - allow you to still have some fun with it when you perform it live?
AG: Absolutely. YES. I remember the day when I realized that I was no longer singing it for the first time to an audience. I thought to myself - "From now on, it’s nostalgia. Better make it good."
Q. You've really developed this fiftieth anniversary tour to embrace elements of the live performance that are more closely acquainted with rock and roll than they are with live folk music: the lights, the array of photos and other multimedia elements. What's it been like after all these years to suddenly shake up the live set like that by incorporating so much new technology?
AG: I’ve always thought of folk music as being the social media we’ve used for the last 30,000 years. What I don’t like is when you add all the glitz and sparkles to a piece of crap - a song not worth hearing, and dance not worth seeing. Stuff like that.
Too often these days, shows have a lot of new technology because that’s the only thing it’s got going for it. That said, I’m sure my stuff is not worth going to for everybody. But, for those who find it worthwhile in the first place, the new technology has hopefully not detracted from the experience.
On the other hand, every so often I’ll grab a guitar or two, hop a plane over the pond, and do a little tour of just a guy and a guitar in a place hardly anyone knows me. I do love that and it keeps it honest.
Q. What would you have said if someone told you in 1965 that you'd be singing a song about the events of that Thanksgiving fifty years later?
AG: I’d have said “Buy me a drink."
Q. I know that the song isn't a part of your own personal, Thanksgiving tradition but it obviously is to many, many people. What does the Thanksgiving holiday mean to you?
AG: Thanksgiving is family time for us. I stay home, the kids invade the kitchen, and we enjoy the memories sitting around the fireplace. Very old school.
We usually do that the day before the holiday, so that on the actual holiday we can be free to go down to the church (yeah, that church) and lend a hand for our annual Thanksgiving dinner there.
Q. When asked by PBS about Lead Belly, you said, of what was then beginning to become the music industry, "With the advent of radio and recording, music became an industry rather than just a tradition..." Fast forward to 2015 and artists are now decrying the fall of that industry as the internet continues to become not just the primary conduit of music to fans but the primary means of affordably creating and recording music for musicians. One can say a lot about the internet pro and con but it has certainly prioritized ease of access to any and all music across the expanse of its recorded history. Do you think that's helping people to discover and embrace music tradition again?
AG: For most of the gazillion musicians, bands and groups, becoming a big success is a failed dream in progress. Maybe one out a million will achieve some commercial success. Of those that become a household name, most will be broke soon enough. It comes and goes very quickly.
Most musicians I know personally just love playing - They’d be willing to pay to be able to play. That doesn’t mean some huge mega-corporation should screw them out of what is rightfully their's. The best thing that’s happened is the ability to create recordings yourself. At least you can get that far without being screwed.
There’s different kinds of entertainers also. Some use what they’ve learned to become famous. Others are happy enough just sitting around anonymously with friends swapping songs. And there’s everything in between. I was one of the latter ones, happy just playing with friends - Then I became "somebody" by accident.
I never fit in well with the industrial part of music. So, in [the] early 1980’s, I left the corporate entertainment industry and started my own own record company - so I could make the kinds of records I liked. It’s been great since then.
Q. You testified in the "Chicago Seven" trial (even though you weren't present for the events that precipitated it). One of your biggest hits was a cover of "City of New Orleans" by Steve Goodman, a Chicagoan, which you discovered upon meeting him at the Quiet Knight. You, as well as your father, both recorded interviews with Studs Terkel. You've been on festival bills with Chicago artists like Wilco, who put some of your father's lyrics to music on the Mermaid Avenue albums. Suffice it to say, your history in and connections to the city of Chicago would seem to run pretty deep. What does the city of Chicago mean to you after all these years and is there a particularly fond moment that sticks out for you in your experiences here?
AG: One of my very first gigs was at Richard Harding's place on Sedgwick, Poor Richard's. I was about eighteen years old and began a long association with him and the friends I met through him.
Studs Terkel was a friend of my father's, and he asked me to come talk with him on his radio show. All I remember was that Studs kept wanting to talk about my dad. Out of respect for him, I did. But, being “Woody’s boy” wore thin after a while.
But I loved that man dearly and, after a few years of coming back to town, I began to feel like myself when talking with him. I never had a problem being Woody’s boy anyway. If anything, I loved my dad's thoughts, what he sang about and worked for. I carry that as best as I am able even to this day.
Q. The idea of activism in song is certainly one that denotes much of your father's work. As is the idea of truth - one which, on the surface, lyrically, is quite possibly the most easily apparent element of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." In the sixties, those ideas of truth and activism in song drove music to define the popular culture of the time. That's no longer the case and the idea of speaking out politically in song can carry with it severe career repercussions. Does music still have the power to change the world in 2015?
AG: Speaking the truth and being truthful are two different things.
For me, I keep it simple. Without love, truth is empty. Without compassion, truth is self-centered.
A sense of humor, an open heart, and an eager smile are enough for me - Even if it doesn’t change the world, it will change you. And that changes your world.
- Jim Ryan (@RadioJimRyan)
(Details on Sunday's Arlo Guthrie concert below)
Never miss a story or interview! Simply enter your email address and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.
Arlo Guthrie - Alice's Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour (A Benefit Concert for The Old Town School of Folk Music)
Sunday, November 8, 2015
Also performing: Sarah Lee Guthrie
Click HERE to purchase tickets