Enjoying three generations of Guthrie

  • Folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie performs at the Blue Mountains Music Festival in 2013. Between tours, the Guthrie family lives in Washington, Mass., located between Becket and Pittsfield, and has a winter home in Sebastian on Florida’s east coast. Courtesy photo/Creative Commons

  • Folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie recently performed at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, Fla. The 92-year-old theater seats 500 and is nestled between boutiques, restaurants and candy stores in the town’s pricey historic district. For the Recorder/Chip Ainsworth


For the Recorder
Published: 2/8/2019 3:58:06 PM

Editor’s Note: This winter, Greenfield Recorder sports columnist Chip Ainsworth has been traveling the southern part of the United States. This is the second in a series of Saturday columns about his travel experiences.

It’s always been a mystery to me how Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” became a Thanksgiving favorite. Maybe it was the era — Vietnam, Woodstock, Kent State — that took the sting out of the lyrics.

Released in 1967, the 18-minute ballad is about Guthrie’s arrest for dumping trash over an embankment in Stockbridge on Thanksgiving Day. The case — like the garbage — was tossed from court.

Guthrie used the incident to avoid being drafted, or so the song goes. Asked if he’d rehabilitated himself, he tells an army sergeant, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”

It’s an oddly cheerful song considering the topic, and I listened to it every morning my junior year in high school. Somehow, it put me in the mood for another day of geometry class and junior varsity reserve baseball at Deerfield Academy.

Today, the same demographic that Guthrie raged against a half-century ago — over 60, upper middle class and white — fills venues from Vermont to Fort Lauderdale to remember the bygone days of flower power and free love.

A few months ago in Florida, my friend Jayne Johnson asked me to accompany her to an Arlo Guthrie concert at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart. The day of the show she had the flu, so Val Mattladge took her seat in Row JJ, midway up and stage left.

The 92-year-old theater seats 500 and is nestled between boutiques, restaurants and candy stores in the town’s pricey historic district.

“You’re really putting me on the spot here,” Tom Wiegerlink said when I asked him which performers draw the biggest crowds. “Tony Orlando’s already sold out.”

The 6-foot, 3-inch, 250-pound Wiegerlink looks to be in his late 50s and sports an earring on his shaved head. He smiled when I suggested that being the security boss at the Lyric isn’t as challenging as being a bouncer at a biker bar.

“Not at all,” he said, “and I’ve done both.”

Early arrivals sipped wine and perused Arlo posters, T-shirts and CDs. The concession manager said she traveled with the musicians, lighting technicians and sound engineers.

“There’s two buses,” she said. “Arlo has his own bus.”

Between tours, the Guthrie family lives in Washington, Mass., located between Becket and Pittsfield, and has a winter home in Sebastian on Florida’s east coast.

Guthrie’s mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, was a professional dancer, and his father, Woody Guthrie, was an Oklahoman whose protest songs railed against capitalism, oppression and McCarthyism — notably the Communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Peter Rothberg of The Nation wrote that Woody Guthrie kept four words scribbled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”

His music wasn’t warm and fuzzy, but audiences appreciated the boldness and sincerity of “Bound for Glory,” “Hard Travelin’” and “Union Maid.”

In 1967, Woody Guthrie died of Huntington’s disease at the age of 55. Arlo Guthrie had a 50-50 chance of inheriting the incurable neurological condition. He was never tested, but age has been its own gauge.

And so, Arlo Guthrie continues to entertain into his 70s. The curtain opened at 7 p.m. to a cartoon (OK, a claymation) that showed a smiling green pickle riding a motorcycle. It was accompanied by Guthrie’s whimsical “Motorcycle Song” (“I don’t want a pickle, just want to ride on my motorsickle”).

Guthrie looked vibrant dressed in a black shirt, black vest and blue jeans. He wore eyeglasses, had a moustache and had long, curly silver hair parted down the middle.

He introduced his longtime bandmates, including his son, Abe, on keyboard.

“When Abe was 3, he traded his Big Wheel for a keyboard and that’s when we knew he’d be a musician,” Guthrie said.

The opening selections included a Bob Dylan song and a Hawaiian composition that he performed with a ukulele.

He then yielded the stage to his charismatic daughter, Sarah Lee, who strode on with a guitar and a smile. Her black outfit matched her curly long hair, and her first song was dedicated to her mother, who died of cancer in 2012.

The 39-year-old Sarah Lee Guthrie spoke of her fascination with numbers and played a children’s song called “Ha Ha Go Waggie Waggie.”

Val Mattladge wanted to leave at intermission, and while we were crossing the street I said, “We’re going to miss the best part of the show you know.”

“I don’t care,” she replied.

After she got out of the car, I drove back to the theater.

“You’re kind of late you know,” said the usher.

The show had resumed and psychedelic images were bouncing off the back of the stage like an overheated lava lamp. Abe Guthrie was on his toes and Arlo Guthrie was rattling the crowd’s old bones with his 1969 hit about marijuana smuggling. “Coming into Los Angeles, bringing in a couple of keys. Don’t touch my bags if you please, mister customs man.”

The crowd swayed and cheered, and afterward, Guthrie opined, “Those were the good old days.”

Asked once what ticked him off, Guthrie answered, “Lousy coffee,” and he gave a similarly peremptory response when somebody in the crowd yelled “Hey Arlo, you come from good stock!”

“Don’t confuse me,” he retorted.

There was a time, Guthrie added, when the good old days meant doing “three gigs a night.”

“In Chicago, I’m packing to get out of there and this guy comes up and wants me to listen to his song,” he recalled. “I said, ‘OK. You buy me a beer and I’ll listen.’”

Guthrie propped the guitar on his knee, put the pick to the strings and looked at the audience. “This is his song.”

Music rolled off the stage like a railroad engine at full steam. “Riding on the City of New Orleans, Illinois Central Monday morning rail, 15 cars and 15 restless riders, I’ll be gone 500 miles before the day is done. ... Good morning America, how are you?”

Steve Goodman was a Chicago Cubs fan who’d recently been diagnosed with leukemia, but his song “City of New Orleans” would be covered by famed musicians like Willie Nelson, Bonnie Rait and Judy Collins before he died at age 36.

The second set was indeed the best part of the show. Guthrie sang with the ease, composure and confidence garnered from family pedigree and years of experience.

He closed with his father’s song that NPR says has been sung by everyone from “Bruce Springsteen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.” It’s an ode to what Woody Guthrie saw by foot, road and rail during his travels across America.

“This land is your land and this land is my land, from California to the New York island, from the Redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.”

The audience sang along and clapped, and Sarah Lee Guthrie flashed her exuberant smile and banged on the tambourine. It was vintage Guthrie spanning three generations of iconic American folk music.

Chip Ainsworth is a freelance writer whose Keeping Score column is a regular feature on the Greenfield Recorder’s Saturday sports page.


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