It was evident from the moment Arlo Guthrie walked onto the stage of the Carolina Theatre that he is a beloved and familiar figure for the generation represented in the audience, largely his contemporaries (Guthrie was born in 1947). He is in the midst of a year-long tour honoring the centennial of his father’s birth – the folksinger Woody Guthrie, born July 14, 1912, in Okemah, Oklahoma, and most famous for his song “This Land is Your Land,” and his guitar inscribed “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Arlo himself has been nationally famous since his very first LP, released in 1967, featuring the story of his run-in with the draft board and his being preserved from service in Vietnam due to an arrest for littering on Thanksgiving Day, 1965. The song “Alice’s Restaurant” was so popular that it was made into a evocative film by the same name, with Arlo playing himself and an actor playing Woody, who had died in 1967.
Arlo’s show featured Woody’s songs, though not exclusively, and each song was introduced at some length by Arlo’s friendly and amusing anecdotes. If you have known his music since the sixties (as most in the audience, including myself, certainly have), it was striking to hear, although to the eye his hair is all white, how little has changed, vocally and musically, and how similar his sound is to the recordings from almost fifty years ago. He opened the show with the Woody Guthrie song, “Oklahoma Hills” that led off his third LP, Running Down the Road, from 1969, and moved on to Woody’s “Pretty Boy Floyd,” teaching that “you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home,” a lesson as relevant today in the Great Recession as it was in Oklahoma in 1939.
Arlo’s guitar playing was meticulous and beautifully in tune, heard to good advantage on the famous “St. James Infirmary” as well as an instrumental of his own composition in Hawaiian style. Woody’s and Arlo’s social commitment was heard in the tale of a union-busting tragedy, leading to the death of seventy-three children, "1913 Massacre," and in "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," the story of nameless deportees dying in a plane crash on their way back to Mexico. The first half closed with “I Hear You Sing Again,” for which the music did not survive, so the lyrics were set again by Janis Ian, resulting in a beautiful depiction of Woody’s memories of his own mother’s music-making.
Arlo took an intermission (certainly welcome, since the show lasted until well after ten), and the second half was even more relaxed and conversational than the first, beginning with a long story about how his late wife happened to be arrested at the Hartford airport (the arresting officers were all fans of his), leading into his anthem to weed, “Coming into Los Angeles.” Arlo’s twelve-string rang both here and in the blues by Leadbelly that followed, “Alabama Bound,” evoking the southward train rocking on the tracks. Arlo moved to piano for a fine rendition of “St. Louis Tickle,” a rag, and “City of New Orleans,” a tribute to the only city in the US that “treasures its decadence,” in Arlo’s words.
He reached back to his debut album for “Highway in the Wind,” explaining how he came to write it the morning after seeing the woman who would be his wife for the very first time (they celebrated their 43rd anniversary last year, before her death). And as it had to, the show closed with “This Land is Your Land.” Arlo sprinted off, and returned in 5 seconds, announcing, “Ok, the show’s over.” and offered a final Woody Guthrie song, “My Peace,” encouraging the audience to sing along. If you weren’t there, you missed a gem, but happily, it looks like Arlo Guthrie will be concertizing for a long while yet. Be sure to be there next time.