Interview with Arlo Guthrie by Peter Stone Brown, Summer of 1976, at the Temple Music Festival, Ambler, PA.
Sometime during 1976 a friend got me involved with a local radio station that at the time featured what was referred to at the time as folk on a daily basis. I quickly learned that musicians were much more inclined to agree to be interviewed for a radio station than they were for an alternative newspaper. This was one of my first interviews.
I first heard Arlo Guthrie about ten years before on a late night radio show on WBAI in New York City called Radio Unnameable, hosted by a remarkable person named Bob Fass. One night Arlo came up with a guitar player named Jeff Outlaw and performed “Alice’s Restaurant.” This was long before he would become the hero of the Newport Folk Festival and be written up in the New York Times. That song became a staple not only of Radio Unnameable but of WBAI and I have yet to hear a better version of that song. Bob Fass also had another version of “Alice’s Restaurant” with Arlo playing piano called “The Rainbow Roach Massacree,” that in its own way was just as funny if not funnier.
This interview was done in a room backstage at the Temple Music Festival, in the suburbs of Philadelphia in Ambler, Pennsylvania, sometime during the summer of 1976. Arlo came in from his bus, an old Greyhound called the Blunder bus with his dog. At first he wasn’t being exactly cooperative, replying with brief, sometimes one-word answers – not what you want for a radio show, and from a guy known for shows where he might talk as much as he sings. Luckily I was able to turn it around, and the way I did it helped out in later interviews.
PSB: Last time I saw you, you weren’t doing too many monologues, but tonight you were back into it again.
Arlo Guthrie: Well, we keep changing things every now and then. Hey, you got a match?
What was it like when you played with The Buckaroos?
It was very nice. They were good.
Would you mind telling me what you think of Jimmy Carter?
Overall, I just got a pretty sort of bland, uh, you know. I think his position on nuclear power could be to Carter what Vietnam was to Johnson. Aside from that, I think he’s at least a little fresh air.
The Rolling Thunder Revue came near your house and I know you did one show with them. By any chance did you and Elliott and Dylan happen to do anything together? I thought that might be an interesting combination.
You gotta wait for the movie.
Would you care to talk about you feelings on the movie Bound For Glory?
Did you think it was good?
I thought it was nice.
I felt that they kind of portrayed Woody as a kind of wandering around spaced-out character whereas I felt from the book that he was very intense.
Right. The conclusion you would draw is that it’s not as good as the book, which is what I feel. But what movie is?
Last Picture Show.
I haven’t read the book.
The movie’s better.
I noticed that you put a lot of the political songs in the second half of the concert. I felt it was very effective. It hit me. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
What do you want to know?
I want to know if you were trying to make a statement, by putting a strong statement at that point in the show, as opposed to spreading it out more.
I think I’m probably a folksinger. And I think folksongs are about lots of different things. Some folksongs are about your dog. Some of ’em about your wife. Some of ’em are about the state of the world. Some of ’em are spiritual. I think that I try to represent all of those things in relation to me.
I can understand a lot of that. I grew up in a left-wing family, listening to Weavers’ records and I could feel a lot of your material. Like, “Meeting At The Building,” I have an old ten-inch Leadbelly record.
So, not too many people any more, like maybe you and Ry Cooder are the only people around who are performing today who try to put folk music, and just a semblance of all music including rock and roll together.
That’s not right because everybody that’s playing music is playing folk music. If folks like… what’s that guy’s name?
Right. See, if people like Peter Frampton and goes around whistlin’ Peter Frampton tunes, then Peter Frampton’s doin’ folk music. If people go around whistling (whistles Beethoven’s 5th), they’re whistling folk music. If that’s what moves them. If that’s what does it to ’em, that’s folk music. There’s no such thing as a guy standin’ up there with an old acoustic guitar and makin’ a statement that that must be folk music. Whereas if you see a orchestra playin’ something that everybody loves sayin’ that’s not folk music. Anybody who starts making judgments like that is being very timely perhaps, but, in the long run, people don’t forget what they’re thinkin’ about.
That’s what I wanted you to say (laughs).
People for the last 20 years have figured, if a guy’s up there, he plays acoustic guitar, he’s got a harmonica strapped to his teeth, that’s definitely folk music. It could be the worst damn song in the world. It could be so terrible that everybody walks out. But they think that’s folk music. See, there ain’t no such thing as folk music. There’s good music and there’s bad music. And the good music elevates one’s soul. And bad music don’t do shit.
I mean, we all know that the best music in the world is not always popular. And some of the worst music in the world is popular. That’s not to say that my music is the best, or that somebody who’s on top of the charts is the worst, but that’s usually the case. I think good music must offend some people. If I thought I wasn’t offending enough people every day, I’d wonder what I was doing wrong.
My job is to go in there and record the damn thing and put it on the vinyl and I give it to them. And after that it’s up to them because I don’t wanna be a businessman. If I was gonna be a businessman, what would I be doin’ travelin’ around doin’ what I’m doin’? So it’s either one and I’ve decided to be the fool that I am and I enjoy it. It’s no strain on me to be me.
And is that why you sing, to elevate the soul?
No, I just don’t know what else to do.
You have seemed to manage to keep your career in perspective and not let things get too out of control, like the fame after Alice’s Restaurant, and you seem to handle to crowds pretty well, like calls for “Alice’s Restaurant” which you get after all these years, and as far as I know you probably haven’t done the song in a long time. Is there any secret to your managing to do that? And also, I wanna know how you feel about the audience when you do a song like “1913 Massacre” and you have people going “1913!”?
Well I didn’t do it because the guy asked for it. We would have done it anyway ’cause it just happened to be part of the program that we were gonna do tonight. But I think songs like that are important. And I think it’s important to relate them to other material that we did in the same segment.
What was it like when you were on tour with Pete Seeger? They had a TV show on that down here last week.
Well, I haven’t seen the show, so I don’t know whether I like it or not. Every summer, Pete and I get together and do a sort of mini-tour. We go around to different parts of the country and do our shows together. And I think it’s wonderful that we get an audience who can perceive depth from what’s going on stage. The songs I’m singin’, they’re not new, a lot of these things have been goin’ on for years. These radical ideas or these new ideas or these conservative ideas have been thought by people before me. And I think it’s nice for people to understand that where they’re comin’ from, this is a history of… this is a history of good guys at work. And so what that should do is give you a little more patience, give you a little more understandin’. The burden of the world isn’t restin’ on any one particular shoulder. So people shouldn’t be so anxious. They should just take it easy. Do what you can. Have fun doin’ it. Love your kids and your old lady. And I think that if you see Pete and me and if you see Pete and Sonny and Brownie, or you see people that are out for awhile that have been doing songs, all kinds of songs, you maybe get that out of it. It’s nice to have the depth. If people just come to hear me like tonight, a lot of people thinkin’, “Oh, Jesus, we’ve got to get this done, or that done or we gotta stop nuclear power right away or it’s gonna or we gotta get the farmworkers doin’ this or that,” these things have been goin’ on for quite some time. And it’s like the old story my old man used to tell about the two rabbits, you see. The mama rabbit and the papa rabbit who was walkin’ around one day. And the hounds start comin’ after ’em. And they were runnin’ through the bush and finally the rabbits end up in this big hollow log and they can’t get out ’cause there’s dogs at either end and the mama rabbit looks at the papa one, says, “Pop, this looks like it.” But he had a smile on his face and says, “Let’s just sit here ’til we outnumber ’em.”
And I like that story. And that’s what we’re doin’.