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Vignettes from a Guthrie Family Concert

The other day, I went with some friends to see what they had said was an Arlo Guthrie concert, but which turned out to be more of a Guthrie Family Concert, with his daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie taking lead vocals on about half the songs and with his son Abe on keyboards. I’m still processing the concert, so I thought I’d share a few vignettes.

I found the mix of music interesting, with air quotes and everything. There were the expected Arlo Guthrie classics [1]. There were some of Sarah Lee’s songs, including what seemed to be new ones. And then there were the other songs.

I think they did five Woody Guthrie songs. Let’s see … Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), This Land is Your Land, Go Wagaloo, I’ve Got to Know [2], and My Peace [3]. Hmmm … was there another? I can’t recall one. Another favorite part was when Arlo was talking about how Woody wrote songs. I won’t get the quote exactly right, but it’s something like the following.

My father couldn’t write out music. So most of the manuscripts have the lyrics and then a note as to what classic song he stole the tune from. You can’t do that any more.

I particularly appreciate that comment since one of my planned musings is on one of the Woody Guthrie songs whose tune comes from elsewhere. Maybe I should move that one up in the stack [4].

I was surprised by how many mid-60’s folk songs they ended up playing. Phil Ochs’ When I’m Gone [5], Donovan’s Catch the Wind, Pete Seeger’s Sailing Down My Golden River [7]. But now that I Google the songs, I see that all of them are part of their normal repertoire. Like most of the old folks in the audience, I appreciate hearing songs I know.

But I also appreciated hearing some new songs. And I appreciated hearing the stories that Arlo sometimes told about the songs [8]. One was interesting. He said that after Lady Gaga played This Land Is Your Land at the Super Bowl, many people claimed it was a subversive act. In tracking down a video, I found some old news coverage. And that coverage suggested that (a) most initial responses took the playing of This Land Is Your Land as a positive statement about America, particularly since it came immediately after she sang God Bless America and that (b) if you know anything about the history of the song or about Lady Gaga, it’s pretty obvious that it was intended as a subversive act, since the song speaks to the rights of normal people vs. corporations. After the concert, I mentioned the lawsuit to have This Land Is Your Land declared part of the public domain. I wonder where that lawsuit stands.

Did I mention that Arlo played Alice’s Restaurant? I think so. I can’t believe that he’s playing that song (and telling the story) more than fifty years later. If I were in his shoes, I would have gotten sick of telling it forty-five years ago. There was probably a time in my life I could have recited most of the story [9]. I haven’t listened to it in more than a decade. But it’s still incredibly familiar. Would I have preferred more time on new things, or at least less recognizable songs? Perhaps? But most of the audience clearly loved it.

All in all, it was a nice evening. I think mom would have liked it too. I don’t know that she would have cared about Alice’s Restaurant and she wouldn’t have known the Donovan song, but she’d have liked the Woody Guthrie songs, even the new ones.

[1] Alice’s Restaurant and City of New Orleans were the most notable, but they also played Leadbelly’s Midnight Special, which is what he regularly used to open Pete Seeger concerts. But he didn’t play The Motorcycle Song.

[2] No instruments on this one, just Sarah Lee’s voice. It was perhaps my favorite part of the show. You can watch a video of a similar performance from Folk Alley Sessions

[3] I think that one is Woody’s words and Arlo’s tune.

[4] Done. If I manage to avoid pushing too many more things on the stack, you’ll see a musing about a Woody Guthrie son in the next week or two.

[5] For strange things, Phil Ochs was related to my maternal grandmother’s second husband. I still have his copies of some Phil Ochs albums somewhere in our basement [6].

[6] Michelle was surprised when I taught her about the Phil Ochs’ presence on Harry Chapin’s The Parade’s Still Passing By.

[7] Okay, that may be a later Pete Seeger song.

[8] I see from YouTube that many of them are also part of the standard repertoire.

[9] Sarah Lee left the stage during the song. She probably feels the same way.

Version 1.0 of 2018-03-09.