American Folklore: A Q&A With Arlo Guthrie

Written by Morgan Pehme on . Posted in Features, Interviews, Latest.

Arlo Guthrie has spent six decades writing and performing songs that combine social commentary, humor and storytelling. The son of one of America’s most influential musicians, Woody Guthrie, the Brooklyn-born folk great played at Woodstock, testified at the Chicago Seven trial, appeared in a film directed by Bob Dylan, and recorded such beloved hits as “City of New Orleans” and the 18-minute-long epic “Alice’s Restaurant.”

On the eve of Guthrie’s free concert this evening at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, City & State Editor Morgan Pehme spoke with him about his late father, Ron Paul, heathcare and why he decided to become a Republican.

The following is an edited transcript.

City & State: You’re most associated with Massachusetts, but you were born in Brooklyn. Do you feel a strong kinship with New York?

Arlo Guthrie (Rising Son Records)

Arlo Guthrie (Rising Son Records)

Arlo Guthrie: Sure! There’s things here that keep bringing us back. This is home. I’ve lived on a little hill up in the middle of nowhere for the last 40 years, but you never forget where you came from, and it’s still in you. And so it’s really fun for me to bring the kids just to show them, “This is real pizza. The crap you’re eating up there, that’s not.” Some little things like that. It’s important that the kids and all the grandkids understand some of the things that are still there that make you you, and so this city has done that. I grew up in Brooklyn and parts of Queens at different times, and in the early ’60s this is where I started playing. I did my first show when I was 13 years old down on 3rd Street, so there’s a lot of me that’s still here.

C&S: Where was that gig?

AG: It was a place called Gerdes Folk City. It’s no longer there, but I played there for a long time. That’s where I first heard Judy Collins, and some other people who are still around. And then I migrated farther into the Village—this was right on the outskirts—and I sort of grew up in that MacDougal [Street] and Bleecker [Street area]. I had an apartment on 8th Street for years, so it wasn’t just growing up here. I spent some of my adult life here as well, and I’ve always loved it.

C&S: You’ve been engaged in politics over the years, but it seems like you have had an evolution in your thinking. Is that accurate?

AG: No. I’m basically the same I always was. I’ve changed parties from time to time to try to have some influence one way or another, although that never worked out. In real life I’m very independent. I like different parts of different things, but there hasn’t been anybody who has put together all of those parts yet for me as a candidate. … I’m waiting for somebody who thinks just like me, but that hasn’t happened—and it’s probably, at this point, unlikely.

C&S: What is the model of the person who would think just like you?

AG: I generally am not a corporatist. I like the strength of individuals. I’m also a very local-oriented person. … I like smaller, local, independent stores, agriculture, education, all of that kind of stuff, so I’m a proponent of that.

C&S: So the same man who supported George McGovern for president in 1984 is consistent with the man who supported Ron Paul in 2008?

AG: Yeah. There were things about both of them that I really liked. One of them that was exactly the same about both of them was they wanted to bring the troops home. … Both George McGovern and almost everyone else who I have ever supported has been somebody who doesn’t want to see us overseas unless it’s an absolute necessity, and none of the latest engagements, I’d say, since the late ’60s have been that necessary, as far as I’m concerned. Now, that doesn’t mean I support everything that Ron Paul stood for or that George McGovern stood for. It means in that particular case they agreed with me.

C&S: You said that you became a Republican because “We had enough good Democrats. We needed a few more good Republicans.” Did you join the GOP to try to move the party in the direction you believe it needs to go? 

AG: It was kind of funny. I’ve been living in Massachusetts for years, but I moved my legitimate address to Florida some years ago. And when I get down there they ask me, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” and I started thinking, Well, this is a whole state of Republicans down here, so I might as well try to do something with ’em. [Laughs] And of course I wasn’t [able to]. People get locked into these categories as if they actually mean something, and I don’t think it does. I’m a union guy. I grew up that way. That’s where I would like to see Republicans go. … When you’ve alienated most of the country, which is what my buddy Republicans seem to have done, you run the risk of creating a one-party system, and that, to me, gets real dangerous. So it’s fun on the one hand, but it’s serious on the other, and I think there needs to be some serious opposition, some serious inquiry, some serious questions that are able to be asked by reasonable people, because I don’t think that [a] one-party [system] … is good for the country. I don’t think it’s good for anybody.

C&S: When you sit down to write a song that is political in nature, do you start with what you want to say, or does the message come out of the music? 

AG: I’m not really a political writer. I never thought of myself as a political activist. I thought of myself as a farmer. You’re sitting there and you’re growing stuff, and one day a couple of blacks suits show up and tell you, “You can’t grow that anymore. It’s against the law.” And so you start protesting, and you start going to the meetings in the town, and you make a nuisance of yourself, and they call you an agitator, and they call you a political activist, and you’re really just a farmer who wants to get back to farming. So, unlike a lot of professional protestors who I know—I mean, there are people who are looking for things that are wrong, or things to bitch about or gripe about, whatever—I am not that. I am somebody that just wants to get back to living, and I don’t want the government or other people listening to my phone calls, or looking in my email or checking what I’m growing in the field, stuff like that.

C&S: But certainly with your father being such a great advocate against injustice, it must have been part of your whole upbringing to use your music to push for social change, or to right wrongs. 

AG: I think one of the best ways to do that is with a sense of humor. You can do a lot more with a sense of humor than just to get them to laugh. You can get them to think, too. … I want to drink raw milk that comes from a cow. Shouldn’t be a big deal. This is America! People [have] been doing that the last 30,000 years. Now you can’t do that. I want to know who’s responsible. I want to know why this is. And then there are people telling me, “You can get sick, and you can’t do this and you can’t do that.” These are my choices that I want to make, so I tend to vote for people who have a libertarian streak in that regard, who don’t want to overregulate everything. I tend to like people who will at least look into it, and not be lobbied by some industry that has something to lose if you can go out and buy milk from a cow. This is funny to me, that you live in America and we’re always talking about freedom and liberty and justice, but that stuff seems to be slipping away, unless we speak up. Now, the other thing I should tell you is I don’t think I’m right all the time. [Laughs] I could be wrong about something. I could be wrong about a lot of things, so I’m not worried about that. I want to be free to change my mind. That’s part of being an American too.

C&S: Do you get frustrated that the problems you see as fundamental are not part of the political dialogue? Republicans and Democrats spar on a host of issues nationally, but we really never hear either party speaking out against a corporation like Monsanto. 

AG: That’s what I was alluding to when I said nobody’s taking up the things that interest me. We’ve been hearing a lot about who has access to healthcare. That’s the whole big discussion. Nobody’s talking about what the healthcare is that they have access to. Nobody’s telling me—which is what I found out—that all of the insurance that I buy, whether through the government plan or through the old private things, none of them covered the kind of medical stuff that I wanted to do. None of them! So I’m not just interested in who has access to it, I’m interested in what it is! I want to make my personal choices. In Massachusetts we had to buy insurance—that was part of the deal—and so we all had it. I go to the doctor and say, “Does the insurance cover this?” “No.” So none of the insurance that I had to buy was covering what I wanted to do, so what I had to do was pay for the insurance by law that didn’t do me anything and then go pay the doctors out of my pocket, so I had to pay twice. Those kinds of things piss me off! And I can’t be the only one! So I don’t mind the theory behind it. I don’t mind everybody kicking in to have some kind of plan where everybody’s covered. I’m not philosophically against the plan. What I’m pissed off about is that it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t cover what I need.

C&S: Do you think that musicians and artists these days have stopped trying to use their standing with the public to bring about political change? Do you think the media hasn’t given their efforts adequate coverage? Or have artists decided that aim is no longer important?

AG: I don’t really know the answer to that. I’m not in it enough to know. I can’t tell because I’ve pretty much left the entertainment industry as an industry. I started my own company, so I could do things my own way with my own kids and with my family, and it’s served us pretty well. I can tell you that making CDs is not profitable. You can’t make a living making records anymore, unless you are one of a very small group of people, and the music that they are making tends to get dumbed down so it can reach a larger audience. In the old days, before there were recordings of any kind, you could have one guy in the town making fun of the guys in the next town and writing a sassy song about it, and everybody sang it and that was kind of fun. But when you are selling music to both of those towns, that’s not the song you’re going to put in your catalogue. … And so what’s happened as the media grew and the entertainment company became bigger and bigger, it made itself dumber and dumber so that it could appeal to the widest range of audience and not be offensive to anyone. Well, there’s a place for offensive music, and it has found its way through the Internet. And those are the kind of things that kids share with each other, but they’re not the kind of things you’re going to hear on the radio. So it exists, but it doesn’t exist in the form that we’re talking about. It doesn’t exist in the legitimate business model form. I’m happy that it’s there. I like people to write funny songs. I like to lighten up about all that kind of stuff, even if they’re making fun of you, and let that be. That kind of creativity is what gives you the training to have a voice [so] that when something really big happens, you have some experience to address it. You have the talent and the words and the street cred to go out and say something. There has to be a place to start. There has to be a place to learn stuff. Nobody’s born with the ability to walk out on a stage and entertain tens of thousands of people in a stadium. All of this stuff is learned, but you have to have a place to learn it, and one of the great places is in writing for your friends, people who are like you, who you’re making fun of, whatever it is, and eventually you outgrow it and you write more important stuff. I think what we’ve killed is the local flavor to the songs and to the creative process itself, but it’s making its way back. There’s some kid out there, I can tell you right now, who’s putting that all together, who’s going to be writing some songs that really hit home to a really wide audience, and when that happens things will change, and the music will become important again.

C&S: Fifty-three years after your first gig, what keeps you passionate about being a musician and performing?

AG: For me, it’s really important now to create moments for people that are important to them. After [my] Carnegie Hall [show] the other night somebody wrote in on one of my Facebook things: “Where would you see Republicans, Democrats, Communists and Socialists all singing together?” Who woulda thunk? And it’s not just that. It’s the old, and it’s the very young, and everybody in between. Those moments that we used to have in this country went away with target marketing. When you’re 13 these days you have your own TV shows, you’ve got your own radio shows, you’ve got your own stores that you shop at. You live in your own bubble, and you don’t really learn from other people, or anything. And so you have stupid stuff that happens, because you don’t learn things. I like the moments when you have people who wouldn’t be seen talking together singing together. It can happen. It does happen, and it happens at the shows that I do, and that’s one of the things that makes me love what I do. You see people put aside the petty stuff, get the spirit going, get the feelings back. I don’t want to use words like empowered, but that’s what it feels like. It feels like, “Yeah! I remember this. This is when we did something!” That feeling is really pretty good.

C&S: What is next for you careerwise? 

AG: I’m finishing up a tour that runs into next May, which was a two-year tour celebrating my dad’s centennial birthday in July of 2012. After that I’m doing a few months of solo stuff, and then in January 2015 I’m starting a big “Alice’s Restaurant” 50th anniversary tour, ’cause I haven’t done it on the road for almost a decade. So I’m going to have to relearn that whole freakin’ thing and take them out on the road, and I’m looking forward to that.

C&S: It must be hard to remember all those words.

AG: It is for me!

C&S: The respect for your father and his renown continues to grow. What is it about him you were seeking to honor in doing this tour celebrating his 100th birthday?

AG: What I think that’s interesting is the view that many people have of him has begun to change as time has gone on. When he started out he was known as the Dust Bowl Balladeer.” Nobody knows what a dust bowl is these days, let alone a balladeer. We don’t use those terms. We’ve outgrown them. And they thought of him as a political singer and a songwriter, but he also wrote love songs, and he wrote songs about outer space, and he wrote songs about movie stars and he wrote songs for little kids. He wrote all kinds of stuff! And the politics was only part of it. It was important, but it was only one part of it. He was incredibly well-read, and he wrote about everything, and the more that time goes by, the more we see a bigger picture of who he was. And so I love doing the tour, because it presents a little bit of that.

Arlo Guthrie is performing at the Fourteenth Annual Winter’s Eve, sponsored by the Lincoln Center Business Improvement District and Time Warner. Winter’s Eve runs tonight, December 2, at Lincoln Center from 5:30 p.m.–9:00 p.m. Admission is free, though event attendees are encouraged to bring and donate gently used or new coats of all sizes to Dante Park at 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan as part of the 25th Annual New York Cares Coat Drive.

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