Arlo Guthrie is a talker. Anyone who’s seen him in performance knows that. On the phone from New Mexico a few weeks ago, he talked (and talked and talked) about the life and work of his late father, Woody Guthrie. Arlo is currently on his “Here Comes the Kid” tour, a solo acoustic celebration of Woody’s 100th birthday. He’ll perform this Saturday evening at the Napa Valley Opera House.
On the roots of his father’s legendary status, Arlo distinguished Woody from other musical icons. “He never had, in life, the popularity of other artists who have that same kind of stature today,” he said. “If you’re talking about Elvis or Bob Dylan or the Beatles or Louis Armstrong or Frank Sinatra, these are artists who had far more success and who justified the title ‘legend.’ My dad has that stature without having had the commercial success, and so I’ve come to believe that it’s certainly not accounted for by his musical ability.
“It’s not simply the songs he wrote or the ones that he recorded,” Arlo added. “It’s not simply as an entertainer or a musician. What he did have was a very powerful philosophy, a love for the country, a love for the people that he was writing and singing about, a love for the expression of the average guy. There’s something in the man’s spirit that is ringing true to young artists today. And that’s missing in some of the other artists who have that stature.”
Woody Guthrie is best known for his songs about the Dust Bowl and the struggles of the working man, but the scope of his work far exceeds the public’s general perception.
“When I was a little kid,” Arlo said, “I had access to what we now call ‘the archives.’ These were books, notebooks, sketch pads, all of the stuff which was simply in our basement. What amazed me was the breadth and width of the work. It wasn’t any one particular kind of thing he was interested in. There were political cartoons, there were love songs, children’s songs, there were ballads from ancient history.
“He was an incredibly well-read man, and he read books on every subject. I met an old gal who was the librarian at the library in Pampa, Texas, where my dad had spent much of his youth. She told me he was the only person who had ever gone into the library and read every book. He didn’t pick out a subject or a shelf. He read every book in the library. Not only that, he would write in the margins, underline and put exclamation marks and comments, so that the books could not be returned in the way that he had taken them out.
“I have a lot of those books,” he said. “They are a treasure to read, because he argues with them, he congratulates them, he comments on them. There was nothing that he wouldn’t devour. There was nothing he wouldn’t comment on. That’s an interesting insight about somebody who has been sort of pigeonholed as the Dust Bowl balladeer, or somebody who was simply writing about one time, one struggle, one difficult period. He was much more than that.”
He said his father’s fierce independence and panorama of real-life experience accounted for the scope and compassion of his creative work. “He had this unrelenting feeling that he had to be free,” Arlo said. “He had to be free of the politics, free of the ideology, free of the philosophy, free to discover for himself what was real, what was fake, what was true, what was false, what was good or bad or in between. He was somebody who was unwilling to conform for the sake of anybody, for the sake of family, for the sake of friends, for the sake of normal civil behavior. He wouldn’t do it.”
“He was willing to pursue it (his real-life experience) to a degree that none of his peers were able to do,” he added, “and frankly, none of his kids were able to do, and none of his devotees or disciples or the people that say they learned from him. I remember seeing so many people come to the house who were dressed like him, walked like him, talked like him, played like him, but they didn’t have that inner conviction that he had. Without it, all the rest seemed absurd.”
At the Opera House Saturday night, expect the music of both Guthries, and no doubt plenty of talking — Arlo’s one-of-a-kind storytelling.