To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events that led up to the legendary song, Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo Guthrie visited the Tobin Center on Feb. 26 to share songs and stories.
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” resonated with American youth when the song appeared in 1967 and gained a larger following in 1969 with the release of the film. More than an invitation to sing along, this tune urged listeners to question the validity of war and to raise their consciousness.
More recent songs, such as “When A Soldier Makes It Home,” continue to urge introspection to the causes and casualties of war. Such is the persona of this American treasure.
Arlo spoke how Steve Goodman gave him a song about a train called “The City Of New Orleans” to pitch to Johnny Cash (who, coincidentally, was born this day, Feb 26, in 1932). But J.R. was fearful he would become known only as a train song man if he did too many railroad tunes. “That was lucky for me,” Arlo said. The song remains one of his biggest hits.
Arlo’s dad, Woody Guthrie, wrote thousands of song lyrics. “But he didn’t write down the music for many of them,” Arlo said. “My friend Janis Ian composed music for a tune my father wrote about my grandmother.”
He spoke of the monumental task facing his sister Nora who oversees the Woody Guthrie Foundation in New York. She has continued curating her father’s work and often finds musicians willing to take on the task of composing tunes for Woody’s written lyrics.
“I Hear You Sing Again” is a song Woody wrote that recalls the legacy of Arlo’s grandmother when their family lived up the road in Bell County, Texas.
Arlo offered an anecdote of his mother’s visit to China and related what she told him:
“They brought out these school kids and they started singing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ and Mom said ‘STOP! Stop the song! My husband wrote that song!’ She must have drove them nuts! She was driving me nuts about it! It was weeks after she had got back she hadn’t slowed down about it one little bit! And I just looked at her and I said, ‘You know, mom…California…..to the New York Island. What are they singing it for over there anyhow?’ She just looked with one of those Mom kind of looks. She said, ‘Oh Arlo…’ She walked away. I was left standing there feeling like my usual self. I knew she was right, but I just didn’t know why. After a while though, it come to me. Just because it said ‘California to the New York Island,’ didn’t mean it had to go the short way! Then the whole world could be singing that song! Except America!”
The Tobin had a Kumbaya moment as Arlo led the audience in a version of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Arlo learned his trade from some of the best musicians in the country; Rambling Jack Elliot, Cisco Houston, Sonny Terry, and many others. Arlo performed an old Lead Belly song called “Pigmeat,” picking the 12 strings of his guitar as the legendary blues musician used to do.
And following in his father’s footsteps of writing songs for his children, Arlo sang a song he composed for his son Abe when he was little. Though “Me and My Goose” is intensely macabre, the inner children in the audience found it immensely funny.
The death of his wife in 2012 was mentioned and memories were recalled. Arlo performed the beautiful tribute from his first album, “Highway in the Wind,” with images of Jackie Guthrie flashing on the big screen.
“Chilling Of The Evening,” “Darkest Hour,” “Ocean Crossing,” and “Last Train” were other songs in the evening’s repertoire. Arlo deftly handled a bevy of guitars as well as carrying tunes on organ and harmonica as he sang.
For his encore, Arlo offered an inheritance from his father which he shares with the world. “My Peace” is an anthem from one generation to the next. May the value of its message never diminish.
*Featured/top image: Arlo spoke of several experiences he remembered from his daze at Woodstock when he played “Coming into Los Angeles” at the Tobin. Photo by Don Mathis.