Interview with Arlo Guthrie
Byron Bluesfest | 8–22 April 2019 | bluesfest.com.au
Last week our premier music event Bluesfest took out the Best Cultural Arts or Music Event in the Australian Event Awards and was welcomed into the NSW Tourism Hall of Fame. The festival that began 30 years ago as a grassroots music, arts, and cultural festival has evolved into an event recognised nationally and internationally as one of the best. Next year’s event is fast approaching, bringing the music of artists like folk protest ballad writer and son of the legendary Woody Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie, to the stage. Arlo chatted with The Echo about his very extraordinary career.
Your bio reads like a creation story of American folk rock. What have been some of the highlights of your incredible career. Was Woodstock a standout for you?
The first time events are memorable, but they were so long ago that I can’t actually remember them. I only know they were memorable. Like the first time I played Carnegie Hall in New York, or the first Newport Folk Festival, or Woodstock – I remember they were significant.
What were some of the other highlights for you during your early days?
I loved the years I spent working with my local band, Shenandoah. The vocal arrangements we created were musically stunning, and we had such a great time on the road. I also loved the short-lived TV show I was in, Byrds of Paradise (for ABC American TV). The Tønder Festival in Denmark and The Philly Folk Festival outside of Philadelphia were always a real joy because I got to hang out with fellow entertainers. There’re too many to name.
As you’ve matured, how has your appreciation for things evolved?
I don’t think people use the words Arlo Guthrie and maturity in the same sentence very often. I’ve always felt like a kid. My performances have evolved for sure, and earlier in life my musicianship was a neverending expansion of abilities and taste. It just goes to prove that if you do anything long enough, you can’t help but get better at it, even if you don’t intend to. Now I’m on the other side of the mountain, going downhill. I can’t play or sing as well as I did. My old friend Pete Seeger called me in his 80s one day. We’d been working together for four decades or more, and he said, ‘Arlo, I can’t do those big shows with you any more. I can’t sing like I used to sing, and I can’t play like I used to play.’ I said, ‘Pete! Look at our audience!’ After a dramatic pause I continued… ‘They can’t hear like they used to hear. It may not be a problem.’ Pete said, ‘Well, maybe you’re right’. So we continued playing together until just three months before he died at age 94.
Your mother was the founder of the Committee to combat Huntington’s Disease. What prompted her to take on such a significant community project?
My mom was one of the most organised people I’d ever known. When she found out that my father was ill with Huntington’s Disease, she realised that most doctors and researchers had never heard of it. So, naturally, she created a worldwide organisation that brought families, doctors, researchers, and political big shots together, so that she could try to help those suffering from the same thing my dad had inherited from his mother.
What’s on the horizon for Arlo Guthrie? Any future news you’d like to tell your fans down here in Australia?
I figure I’ve had a pretty amazing life what with the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been. Not everybody gets to spend their life travelling around, for whatever reason. So I consider it a blessing and I cherish the thought that I’ll be doing it for a while longer. But nothing lasts forever, and we’re winding down the number of shows we do, and the number of places I go. I’ve made a lot of friends in Australia, as I’ve been able to get there more than a few times over the decades. I remember one time decades ago I stopped off at my neighbour’s farm and told her I was on my way to Washington, DC, and was there anything she wanted me to tell Congress. She said tell them, ‘Less taxes and more beer for farmers’. That could have been said in Australia much the same as it was back home. And although I won’t be addressing any government institutions down there, the sentiment would still be the same. We share a common sense of humour – which is probably why I’ve been asked to return one last time.
Arlo Guthrie plays Byron Bluesfest 18–22 April next year. For tickets and program information go to www.bluesfest.com.au.