Folk singer Arlo Guthrie keeping family flame aliveAugust 30, 2012 - 7:00am
Arlo Guthrie’s concert at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on Sunday next, September 2 is a show that will appeal to fans of classic folk music.
Arlo is steeped in the American roots tradition – he is the oldest son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967. From an early age, Arlo seemed destined to take up the family trade.
“My father gave me my first guitar when I was five years old,” he says. “I've been playing ever since, but it wasn't until I was 12 when I began to play with my friends in school. The interest in folk music had been kindled by groups like the Kingston Trio and was raging during the late 50s and early 60s. I discovered that playing a guitar had benefits quite aside from being a musician. It was a 'chick magnet' and a friend maker. I learned everything I could listen to records or going to see my dad's friends when they were in New York (where I grew up).”
At the tender age of 13, Arlo made his debut in Greenwich Village, the hub of New York’s thriving folk scene while attending a concert by the seminal singer, Cisco Huston.
“He was ill and dying from cancer,” says Arlo. “During his gig he asked me if I would sing a few songs. I grabbed my guitar and walked toward the small stage. At first I lost the feeling in my legs. Then as I approached the microphone I couldn't breathe.
“I was terrified and shaking so badly I thought I was going to pass out. But, somehow I got through a few songs. I got off the stage and went into the dressing room vowing that I would never do that again – ever. And naturally, I've been doing just that ever since!”
Arlo has over 50 years of singing behind him. He draws from his own back catalogue, as well as singing Woody Guthrie classics like This Land Is Your Land.
“I generally work the gigs out so I know what I'm doing for any given tour, but it's flexible,” Arlo says. “I like being able to relate to whatever is going on at the gig. I just ended a two-month tour with all my kids and grandkids. With 16 people on stage you'd better have a plan or it can turn to chaos pretty quickly! So, I'm really looking forward to this solo tour of Ireland where I can do whatever I remember I know.”
This year marks what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday and the two-month family tour was a celebration of his centenary year, part of a project called Woody 100. Much of Woody 100 has been driven by Pete Seeger, the 93-year-old folk singer who played This Land Is Your Land at Barack Obama’s inauguration concert.
“Every night we perform together as a family is about the most fun anyone could have and still be legal,” Arlo says. “We're all going our separate ways for a little while, but then in November we will get everyone back together for a few gigs, ending at Carnegie Hall with my old friend Pete. If it wasn't for Pete, we would not be celebrating my dad's 100th with so much interest from the public. He is the one who really carried that torch for decades.”
Arlo’s life as troubadour has taken him all over the world. What is it about the folk tradition that has such an international appeal?
“Everybody has a musical tradition of some kind that they are born with,” Arlo says. “For some it remains a vital part of their lives. The 'folk tradition' is just words trying to describe what your musical legacy is and how you learn to carry it on in your own way. It's as true in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as it is anywhere else. The music might sound different, but the feelings are the same.”
For more, read this week's Connacht Tribune.