A New Conversation with Arlo Guthrie, Part Three

On “Alice’s Restaurant,” “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody’s Legacy, the “Folk Process” & more

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series.
See Part One here.
See Part Two Here.

“Sometimes these songs are done long before you think they are. You don’t want to keep working on it forever. You don’t want to refine it to the point where it loses all its punch, and energy, and honesty.”

“My peace, my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you
My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew…”

from “My Peace” by Woody & Arlo Guthrie

He started his career with a major statement. It was called “Alice’s Restaurant,” which he recorded in 1967 on his debut album. Here comes the son of Woody Guthrie. In case people were doubting if he might be an imitation-Woody, this song was a clear indication that he wasn’t. It shared Woody’s whimsy and delight in human folly, as well as his understanding of the madness of war in modern times.

But it also was a statement from a new generation, those of his age who were not battling Hitler in a World War as did their father’s generation, but being sent far away to Vietnam to fight in a war which didn’t make sense.

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So for him to create this epic song which used comedy to reveal the extreme madness at the core of things was perfect. His luminously laconic delivery, which grows extreme at certain dramatic moments, delivered a charming, dimensional character we loved then, and still do. That the song took up a whole side of an LP – his debut album – we understood that he was a guy on his own turf, happy to break the rules.

One of the reason this song resonates so vividly all these decades later, is that it’s the truth. Reflecting his father’s wisdom, Arlo knew nothing is as funny, sad, or powerful as real life.

“I wrote `Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ in 1965,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “after graduating earlier that year. It detailed my arrest for dumping garbage on the side of the road on Thanksgiving Day. The arrest wound up keeping me out of the Vietnam War. My album Alice’s Restaurant came out in 1967.”

It’s his singularly warm, resonant friendly voice that holds it all together, in one of the great masterpieces of American moment. Fusing the folk music that was in his DNA with the expansive rock & roll spirit of the 60s generation, it was a debut unlike any other.

He discussed the origins of that song and more, as well as that of the exquisite, elegiac love-letter he wrote about his home-state, “Massachusetts.”

He spoke of Woody’s expanding legacy – due in large part to his sister Nora’s brilliance at teaming up new songwriters with their father’s words – and suddenly music gave life to all these unsung lyrics, of which there are thousands.

“My Peace” is one that Arlo wrote to his father’s lyric, and with which he has closed his shows often. We speak of that song, as well as the “folk process” as Pete and Woody called it, of borrowing melodies.

Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins & Arlo Guthrie

AMERICAN SONGWRITER: You started your career with a big statement, “Alice’s Restaurant.” It’s an amazing song. 18 minutes long. When you wrote that, was there ever a sense like, “Boy, I’m going to have to cut most of this out?”? Or did you know it would be an epic?

ARLO GUTHRIE: Well, nobody writes an 18-minute monologue to get played on radio. That’s the first thing to understand. So it wasn’t for that crowd. It wasn’t meant to be popular. It was meant to work as a 20-minute piece in a nightclub somewhere, coffeehouse or something like that, where the audience is already there. They can’t get up and leave as easily as a person can turn off the radio. And still it is able to hold your attention because that’s what it was designed to do. But it wasn’t meant to be popular.

And I think all songwriters have some kind of conflict between being good and being popular. About being important and being famous.

A lot of times, people err on one side or the other, and they don’t always do it for their whole life. It could be a couple months of their life, when they thought, “Oh, man, this could really be popular.” Or, “Okay, this isn’t as important as it could be, but it will be more popular.”

And we have a whole industry created now, and it’s been in place for decades, of people who know how to create popular music. It’s not as important as it could be.

In the last, I would say, decade or so, there have been wonderful artists who have learned to make popular music important. And we don’t see that typically, culturally, from where I come from. That’s a whole different culture that’s doing that. That’s hip-hop. And that’s rap music. And it’s not the kind of music I would listen to. It’s not the kind of culture I come from or identify with. But that particular kind of music has found a way to be important, current, and popular at the same time. And that is a tribute to these guys who are creating it.

It’s probably the closest to the music we grew up with, with you and Pete, that they are talking about social injustice and issues that are going on culturally.

Yes. And it’s okay not to relate to it. I don’t have to be hanging out. I don’t have to be learning the lingo or doing any of the things that would identify me in that way. I can be a supporter of people who write that kind of stuff,

But you did both. Growing up a kid in the suburbs, “Alice’s Restaurant” was an education. And a really entertaining one.

Well, I think, for me, when I was 18, I was a part of the aspirations of that generation. We had had enough of craziness. And I would say that that craziness probably started when I was a little kid in the ’50s. And I remember the teacher in our second or third year classroom telling us, when we saw the mushroom cloud, “Be sure to get under the desk.”

And we had drills where we’d say, “Mushroom cloud,” or something like that, and we’d all run and hide under the desk. Well, when you’re six, seven years old, that’s fine. That’s what you do. But when you get to be about 13 or 14, and you figure out that that’s crazy. It’s crazy because it won’t save you. Hiding under the desk is not the best option. The best option is to stop it from happening in the first place. And then you have to identify with people for whom it already happened. Because it makes sense and gives you a broader perspective.

And that broader perspective is not just me. That whole generation of mine, everybody around my age, had to make that leap and say, “Okay. If this is crazy, what else are they telling us that’s crazy? What else are they saying? How are we being led to think?”

Yes. And you did that in a way which was very funny and entertaining.

Well, you can be serious and funny at the same time. Sometimes humor cuts through where a sober attitude may not, or a Puritan attitude just won’t cut it.

And this is where I had fun with Pete Seeger. He comes from Pilgrim stock. He comes from Puritan people. He would never curse, he would never drink, he would never smoke. He would never do anything that I consider to be normal. But that was him. We were able to play with each other because we both had the intention of making that friendship.

We both wanted that to work. And that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take people of goodwill on all sides of the cultural wars, all sides of the issues, all sides of the stuff, to want to play with each other, to feel good about ribbing each other, and telling little stories, and goofing off together.

Did “Alice’s Restaurant” take you a long time to write?

I wrote “Alice” as it happened. So, I began it with just the chorus, the only musical part of it.

And I remember sitting around in the old church that my friends Ray and Alice Brock had owned and lived in. And we were sitting around the table, the dining room table, and I made up that little tune. At least, I thought I made it up. Years later I found that I had heard it somewhere else, or whatever. But okay.

That was the fall of 1965. And I had just quit college, and I was going to college in Montana at the time. And I realized, soon as I got out of college, I was going to be eligible for the draft. They were going to send me to Vietnam.

And even the threat of going to Southeast Asia, even the threat of going to Vietnam, was not enough to keep me in college. And that’s saying something. But as I began to have to deal with it, and over about a year,  all of these things to happen. In the song it happens in 20 minutes. In real life, it took about a year for all that to take place.

One of your most beautiful songs, though rarely mentioned, is “Massachusetts.” Just using that name in a song well is rare, but you wrote the most beautiful song. Do you remember writing that one?

I wrote “Massachusetts” on the piano. And most of the time, I wrote most of my songs on guitar. But I was familiar with the piano. I had taken lessons when I was a little kid. I still have that piano. We just set it up again about two months ago. It’s the same one that I’ve had all my life.

I remember playing the chords and trying to create the verses and the chorus, and it probably didn’t take me very long. A few days before I had put it to bed as a piece.

And I had learned as a young writer that sometimes these songs are done long before you think they are. You don’t want to keep working on it forever. You don’t want to refine it to the point where it loses all its punch, and energy, and honesty.

And “Massachusetts” was one of those songs that we just put on a record. I had no intention of it going anywhere. I wanted to write a song about where I lived, about my home, and how pretty it was, and how nice it was. I’m still there. This is the same house that I was writing about 50 years ago.

It was made the state song of Massachusetts by a group of students over in the nearby town of Springfield, who were studying how to pass a bill. And they thought, “Instead of just studying about it, why don’t we get a bill passed?”

And they decided that the bill they would want to get passed was to make my song the State Folk Song. And so they went ahead and did it. They gathered enough support, and enough petitions to bring a stack of papers to the state house, put it on the desk, and say, “We want to do this.”

And everybody thought, “Well, okay. He’s not talking about drugs or rock and roll, so we can do this.”

When you said the melody to “Alice’s Restaurant” was maybe not original, it brought back something you said onstage with Pete, many years ago about melody borrowing. You said, “Pete calls this the folk process. Others sometimes call that plagiarism.”  

Right. Well, I grew up in a family of people who borrowed melodies for one thing or another. My father was famous or infamous for taking the melody of one thing, and writing words to it, and then expanding on it, and maybe creating a choral part where there was none before in the melody.

He did that multiple times, and he would make a note on his lyric sheet, or in his notebooks, ”These are the lyrics, and they go with this tune.” He didn’t have to write the music. He didn’t know how to write music. And so he would reference the lyrics to a tune that everybody already knew. And generally these were old tunes, old melodies, that people were familiar with. And that was one way to get the songs out there so that people could sing them pretty quick, without having to learn a new trick.

Well, even a song like “This Land Is Your Land.” There have been comments that he borrowed the tune from one of the Carter Family’s songs. And he loved the Carter Family. And they probably borrowed it from somebody else. I mean, these melodies, and these rhythms, and these structures of these songs are handed down from generation to generation. They go far back in time. And it was one of Pete’s great assets that Pete had a knowledge of where these songs came from. His father, Charles Seeger, was a musicologist, who had actually invented a machine back in the ’30s and ’40s, that could identify where pieces of the melody originated.

The Guthries in Coney Island: Arlo, Woody, Joady & Nora, 1951.

You could play it to him, into his machine. This was long before computers then. And it would identify, “Oh, yes, this melody comes from Western Africa. And this melody, right next to it, comes from Portugal.” And he could tell you where they came from. So Pete had this innate knowledge that he grew up with, and understanding that a melody and a song are component parts of the history of people, and where they’ve been, and what they’ve picked up, and what became like food to us, a flavor, or a taste, or an herb, or a spice that we use to cook with.

It wasn’t here. We brought it, and somebody else brought it from somewhere else. Somebody else brought it to that guy and then started planting things. And we end up with what we end up with by way of thousands of people who we’ll never identify.

Your first album came out the year your dad died, 1967. I know he was sick for a long time. Were you ever able to talk about songwriting with him?

I don’t think we ever had a conversation about songwriting. I think there were songs of his that he wanted me to learn. And that was mostly because I was totally ignorant of what they were.

So I came back from school one day, where everybody was singing “This Land Is Your Land.”  I had never heard it. I didn’t know it. I was embarrassed. I was the only kid there that didn’t know it. And I was the son of the guy that wrote it.

So I went home, and I told my dad what had happened, and he brought me out in the back yard, put a little guitar in my hand, and showed me how to play it, and showed me how the chords went, and showed me how the melody went. And then he taught me the verses that they were all singing in the school. And when I had that much done, he sang me some verses that nobody had heard yet that he had also written.

And I made that part of my repertoire as I went forward. And these days I don’t sing the whole song because way too many verses to hold anybody’s attention. But they’re there, and if somebody wants to go look for them, you can find them now.

So I  contributed to my dad and his body of work only by virtue of the fact that I was there, and I was able to make part of my work at least available so that people know it’s there. People can go look it up if they want. But you don’t have to sit through a concert of all that stuff if you don’t want to.

We loved when you and Pete did the verses they didn’t teach in school. “Saw a sign there, and on one side it said no tresspassing, but on the other side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.”

When you get to know people pretty well, you can tell their influence on an original. And my father wrote his songs, but he was also in the company of guys like Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays, and others in the loose-knit group that they had called the Almanac Singers. So I can see the contributions that other people made in those lyrics.

In the verse that you’re referencing, about the sign that said no trespassing because of private property, that’s Pete Seeger. That’s Pete’s philosophy, that’s Pete injecting his words into that song. And that’s fine because my father totally accepted it, but he also wrote alternate verses to Pete’s, that weren’t quite as cutting, or maybe they were in his own way, but cutting a different way.

Cutting verses out of the song – was that your dad’s idea?

Yeah. That was my father’s choice. My dad wrote at least six verses. And knowing him, that was probably a distillation of 12. And of those six, he picked three that he thought would be better culturally. They were better in not muddying up the water of his philosophy. And so he distilled that song to three verses, which he oversaw the publishing of.

And later in life, like I said, he taught me the rest. And Pete knew the rest, although maybe Pete had never sung it. But Pete was there when my father had written them, so he was aware of them, with some slight editing.

And so I would sing it my way, and Pete would sing it his way, and we just let that slide. That was part of the pleasure of playing with somebody like that. Whoever’s turn it was to perform got to do it their way.

And so, when I got together with Pete, we started doing some of these songs. We had to sort of settle on a song that might have been written 30 or 40 years before we sang it. But he had contributed to it, and he had also changed it as the years go by. The lyrics changed, the melody changes a little bit, the chords changed. People become a little more fluent in the ability.

A song like “Do Re Mi,” my father probably played with three chords. Well, there’s five in the modern version. Where’d the other ones grow? They came from the cultural sensibility of people being able to play these songs, saying, “Oh, that note would sound better if it was backed up by this chord.”

Those things change.

Woody’s legacy has expanded so much in recent decades. Are you surprised by the extent of it?

Well, it’s really my sister Nora, who over the past 20 years has not only archived all of this material- assembled it, gathered it from all these disparate sources and put it together, and then gone through it, all these little scraps of paper, all these loose-leaf notebooks, all of those…

Remember those composition notebooks that we used to have? And my father wrote on everything. He wrote in everything. He wrote on both sides of every page. And most of the time he would write two or three things on top of each . He’d type the lyrics, and then he’d write some notes, and then he’d paint a picture over the whole thing.

Why do you think he did that?

He was just consumed with creativity that way. And it was my sister who was able to go through all of that material and say, “Okay. Well, of the thousands of songs he wrote, maybe these few hundred have been published, or sung, or recorded.”

But that left another 800, another thousand, another two thousand songs that were just lyrics or, like I said, lyrics with a notation of what the tune was. Or lyrics without such a notation. Poems that had no melody.

And over the past 20 years, my sister has gotten these lyrics, these scraps, to other people, who she thought would be able to create the kind of music and to record the kind of songs that would be of interest to all these different kinds of musicians, all of these different… culturally different. Bluegrass. Blues. Jazz. I mean, there’s all kind of traditions out there, musically, now. Used to be all one thing.

Your daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie does a great rendition of “Folk Song.”

Yes. Well, a lot of people have been able to find something they can personally relate to in the lyrics.

And so my sister has had people come in and look at all this stuff. And she would say, “You pick a dozen of them. Take them home. Play with them. See what you come up with. If you don’t come up with anything, great. If you come up with something, fabulous. If you come up with something for all twelve, let’s make a record together.”

And so she facilitated that, and she’s still doing it.

She sent me some lyrics just two weeks ago, saying, “Brother, would you consider maybe making a record of our dad’s stuff? Because a lot of other people have done it, but you’ve never done it. You’ve done it with individual songs, but not a whole record.”

And I tried to say, “Well, I don’t know if anybody makes records anymore. I don’t know if anybody buys records anymore.” Because you buy and sell one song at a time, it seems to me, although maybe there are people who are making the kind of records that can make you a living by putting them on the market, but not in my world.

Can you mention any of the titles to lyrics she sent?

There was one that I loved that was called “If Only I Could Learn to Keep My Mouth Shut.” What a great concept. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking, “Well, what kind of melody goes with that?” How do you put that into a meter that fits into the form of a song? I mean, those are the kind of things that are fun to play with.

I think my best effort, so far, has been a song called “My Peace,” which I have closed all the shows with I’ve done in the last ten years. And it’s my father’s lyrics to a melody that, again, I thought I created, but Fred Hellerman told me no, he had created the melody for a song that he had found the lyrics to. And Fred was one of The Weavers, so it was somebody I had to listen to.

But when I listened back, I said, “No, it’s close, Fred, but it’s not a steal.”

And he let it go. And I thought, like you said, that’s the folk process. That’s what we do.

My Peace”
By Woody Guthrie & Arlo Guthrie

My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you
My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew
I give my peace to green and black and red and white and blue
My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you

My peace, my peace is all I’ve got and all I’ve ever known
My peace is worth a thousand times more than anything I own
I pass my peace around and about ‘cross hands of every hue;
I guess my peace is justa ‘bout all I’ve got to give to you

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series.
See Part One here.
See Part Two Here.

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