by Ann M. Colford
On Thanksgiving Day in 1965, the oldest son of America's favorite folk troubadour took out the garbage for his friend Alice and walked right into the musical spotlight. Arlo Guthrie's little ditty about Alice and the restaurant and the garbage, recorded originally in 1967, caught on with FM stations across the country, and his career was born. The simple melody and the rambling style of the narrative were reminiscent of Woody's talking blues from 20 years before, but the story of resisting authority and avoiding the draft was right in tune with the times.
Using music and humor to make a serious point has been Guthrie's gift ever since the days of Alice, and he'll be sharing that gift at the Met on Wednesday night. He may not have had a Top 40 hit since "City of New Orleans" in 1972, but Guthrie's shows are always timely and timeless -- and highly entertaining. He has a loyal cadre of fans, and now Guthrie sees signs of yet another folk music revival on the horizon.
"You can't find a decent banjo on eBay anymore," he says with his trademark laugh. "There's a huge interest now in folk music, with things like the Oh, Brother soundtrack. People are playing their own music, and I love that."
Despite the lack of available banjos, folk music still lies far from the mainstream of the music industry, and that's just the way Guthrie likes it. "Oh, it's totally under the radar of the industry, which is great," he says. "If they could find a way to make money at it they would, but they haven't figured it out yet."
Guthrie has no love for the music industry, after being summarily dropped from Warner Brothers in 1982. He began his own record company, Rising Son, in 1983 and since has reacquired nearly all of his old catalog from Warner, except for the original "Alice's Restaurant."
After 40 years of performing, Guthrie is still out on the road about 10 months a year, singing and playing to support the causes and issues that are important to him. Two of his grown children -- Abe and Sarah Lee -- carry on the family musical tradition while his two other daughters help out on the business side. Abe will perform with his father here in Spokane, along with family friend Gordon Titcomb; Sarah Lee and her husband, Johnny Irion, are touring concurrently, but they'll have to miss the Spokane show due to a scheduling conflict. With four decades of music in his catalog, Guthrie has plenty of songs to choose from for this tour.
"All of our shows differ from night to night, but mainly it's a combination of traditional songs we've recorded over the years," he says. "And we try to do some of the newer stuff, too."
Even though Guthrie seldom performs "Alice's Restaurant" these days, the song's underlying sentiments remain relevant for him and for his audience. His work continues to honor the contributions and traditions of average working people and to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and their own communities. Ten years ago, he bought the old Trinity Church in Housatonic, Massachusetts -- former home of Ray and Alice Brock, and the site of the infamous Thanksgiving Dinner of 1965 -- and turned it into the non-profit Guthrie Center, a place of educational, cultural and spiritual exchange.
"We don't have an agenda there to save the world," he says. "We just try to respond to local needs in the community. After 9/11, we had a lot of interfaith meetings, and we had some of our Muslim friends come in and talk about Islam. We try to have a place where people can come together and talk about what's happening in the world. You don't have any credibility until you take responsibility for local issues."
In recent years, Arlo's dad Woody Guthrie has received praises and honors nearly to the point of canonization, including immortality on a commemorative postage stamp. How does the son think the father would react to his new-found respectability?
"I think he'd be hanging out with Pete [Seeger], chopping wood and avoiding the spotlight," he laughs. "It's embarrassing for these guys to be talked about as if they've risen above the cream. I mean, their whole message was how important it was for each person to take themselves seriously and to see the value in their work and their own traditions -- who they are. All the attention being directed on them individually is the antithesis of what they believed in."
The younger -- and now senior -- Guthrie sees the need to continue promoting Woody and Pete's message with folk music. "All of the problems we're having in the world now come about because people see their own traditions and way of life being threatened," he says. "But the value you bring to the global table is the traditions you grew up with. We need to salvage the uniqueness and variety that still exists. That's going to be the work of the next 100 years. There's never been a more important time to get their message out."