Here comes the kid: Arlo remembers Woody
By Charlie Mcbride
THIS YEAR marks the centenary of the birth of the great Woody Guthrie, one of the true giants of American music. To mark the occasion, Woody’s son Arlo, a gifted singer/songwriter in his own right, is embarking on a celebratory new tour which comes to the Town Hall on Sunday, September 2. Entitled Here Comes The Kid, the tour salutes Woody Guthrie’s immeasurable contributions to the landscape of American folk music.
Arlo Guthrie was born in 1947, one of the four children of Woody and his second wife Marjorie Mazia, a dancer and instructor at the prestigious Martha Graham Dance School. The family lived in New York’s Coney Island and these were productive years artistically for Woody. However, the late 1940s also saw the first onset of Huntington’s disease, the cruel hereditary ailment which afflicted both his mind and body and would ultimately kill him. The impact of the disease created strains on Woody and Marjorie’s marriage and led to their separating.
“My folks were going through a rough period during the early ‘50s, mostly because neither of them knew Woody was ill and had inherited Huntington's disease from his mother. No one knew much about it,” Arlo Guthrie recalls, as he describes his early memories of his father. “At times he'd get a little nuts and my mom didn't know if he was actually nuts or what. They were divorced in about 1952. In about a year or so after that (and a brief marriage) my dad entered the hospital system and my mom became his primary care-taker from then on out. Most of my memories come from the years that followed although I have a few from very early: Like the time we were at the beach in Coney Island and my dad found a fishhook in the sand. He threw it farther up the beach and I tried to catch it. It caught me instead, going right through the palm of my hand and coming out the other side. I remember the medic at the life guard station cutting it off and pulling it through. Other than the exciting memories there are lots of regular days I recall, walking to the hot dog stand - Nathan's - and eating hot dogs. We lived in a crowded poor neighborhood where everyone seemed to know my father. He'd chat and wave to everyone as we walked around, taking time to catch up on everyone’s news, telling a few jokes, or sharing talk about the weather. It was lovely.”
While the effects of Huntington’s disease were severe in themselves, what was even more difficult to cope with for the Guthrie family was the profound ignorance which then existed about the condition; Woody’s illness was diagnosed, at various points, as alcoholism and schizophrenia before it was finally correctly recognized. “It took about a year to discover what was wrong with him,” Arlo tells me. “After a while my mother realized she had acquired more information about Huntington's disease than the doctors who were trying to care for him. She founded an international organisation that began organising families around the world dealing with the issues confronting those affected. She spent the rest of her life dedicated to helping where she could.”
After his divorce from Marjorie, Woody moved to California where he remarried but this union also sundered due to the strains created by his illness. He returned to New York and, following his latest divorce, Marjorie again took on the responsibility of being his chief carer. She arranged for him to be hospitalised and the family regularly visited him.
“For the first few years of his being in the hospital, we'd go every week and bring him to a friend’s house where he could just relax, chat, meet people (that's where Bob Dylan met my dad), and hang out,” Arlo explains. “After a few years as the disease progressed it became more and more difficult for him to be around other people who were demanding his attention. Eventually we moved him to a hospital closer to our home, so that he could come home, eat something, listen to records, or try to play music without anyone around except family.”
I ask when Arlo first became aware of his father’s stature as a songwriter. “I walked into my sixth grade class one day and everyone began the day singing ‘This Land is Your Land’,” he replies. “I suddenly realised that I didn't know the words as well as my classmates. I remedied that the very same day by asking my father to teach it to me. We sat on the grass in our back yard and after I'd learned the chords on the guitar, I learned the lyrics. Once I could remember the words he taught me some verses that weren't in the school book version. I've sung them ever since.”
In the 1960s Arlo himself started making his name as a recording artist, most notably with the song and album Alice’s Restaurant which was released in 1967, the same year that Woody died. “I began writing songs in grade school, just for fun,” he reveals. “Of course as I got older the songs were about what I experienced. I don't remember playing any of my songs for my father. However, my father's manager was a guy named Harold Leventhal and I inherited Harold as a manager. My first record, Alice's Restaurant, was recorded in the fall of 1967. Harold brought the test pressings to the hospital and played them for my dad. I've passed the story on to my kids and grandkids like this: ‘Woody heard Alice's Restaurant and died shortly thereafter.’ - Family humour!”
As Arlo was making his own way in the music business did he ever find it burdensome being known as the son of Woody Guthrie? “It's always a little annoying when someone is looking at you but sees someone else,” he answers. “That said, I've never had a problem being my father’s son. I'm so very proud of what he did with the life he had. He stood up for the right stuff. He was fearless. And he knew how to laugh at himself and others. I've been on both sides at this point. Nowadays if I'm not Woody's kid, I'm Sarah Lee's dad, or Krishna's grandfather. A certain amount of humility can be practiced, but more likely it's deserved.”
In his songs and writings Woody Guthrie always spoke out for justice and in defence of the downtrodden, and as Arlo concludes his interview he stresses that these are causes to which he also remains strongly committed; “There was an article that just came out in The New York Times that said I had distanced myself from my father’s legacy because I was a registered Republican. And while it's true I am registered as such (mostly for the humour of it), I am more closely aligned with my father than at any time I can remember. It seems to me that the struggle we have around the world now, is not between right and left as much as between those with too much and those with too little. There are people in this world who actually believe that government works best when it serves those with the most. I'm not one of 'em. I believe government ought to serve everyone about the same even if it's lousy government. That is what my dad says over and over in mostly every song he wrote. That's what me and my kids and their kids are singing about. I've just spent a few months on tour with my entire family and these thoughts were at the heart of every gig we did. I'm coming to Ireland to continue that tour on my own and to celebrate my dad's centennial birthday where these ideas are still treasured.”
Join Arlo Guthrie in honoring the enduring commitment of Woody Guthrie with an unforgettable night of music and stories confirming that the folk tradition of Woody is alive and well. He plays the Town Hall on Sunday, September 2, at 8pm and tickets are €25.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie