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Arlo Guthrie's Family Affair


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Arlo Guthrie's Family Affair

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Arlo Guthrie's Family Affair

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

Some musicians travel with a big entourage, but it's hard to top Arlo Guthrie's posse.

The son of folk icon Woody Guthrie heads into Mount Pleasant's Soaring Eagle Casino on Friday with three generations of Guthries for "The Guthrie Family Rides Again." Among the tribe: Arlo's son Abe, daughters Sarah Lee, Annie and Cathy, and Sarah Lee's husband Johnny Irion, with whom she performs.

"We have guitars, autoharps, mandolins, ukeleles, my four kids," Guthrie, 62, says, calling from home in Massachusetts. Counting the grandkids, there might be four generations of Guthries onstage if a tape of Woody Guthrie's voice is played onstage, something they often do.

"Yes, and even the youngest of them will make a brief appearance," Guthrie says. "Marjorie, my daughter Cathy's daughter is 2, and Sophie, Sarah Lee's daughter is also 2. So we have a couple of 2-year-olds we'll drag out to sing on one or two songs then they can go backstage to play. No one is expected to be professional so much as join in."

That philosophy comes directly from Woody Guthrie, the Dust Bowl troubadour who sang countless folk and blues songs, and wrote such classics as "This Land is Your Land." The elder Guthrie felt that music was for everybody, not just people you pay to go hear in a concert hall.

Before radio and television, that's what families did, Arlo agrees. "But then people started buying into prepackaged music," Guthrie says. "Then there was this big folk revival in the '50s. There's still all these people playing nowadays, but they do it with other kids in the neighborhood."

Guthrie has high hopes for the younger generation.

"When I was a kid, we had 40 years of recorded music to listen to. Before that, there's no recorded music, you don't hear the songs the pharaohs were singing. Today, young people have twice as much stuff to listen to. The result is their musicianship is twice as good as mine was. That 13-year-old kid can play circles around me!"

The Guthrie family has several generations of songs to choose from. In addition to the classics, they'll play some of the unfinished Woody Guthrie songs that were completed by such artists as Billy Bragg, Wilco, Janis Ian and the Klezmatics several years ago.

Arlo Guthrie also has his own cache of classics, including "The City of New Orleans," "Coming into Los Angeles" and "The Motorcycle Song." One he won't be performing is 1967's "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." It takes so long to sing, he only does it during special anniversary tours.

Guthrie likens it to the kind of big concert the Carter Family used to do (later, the Cash-Carter clan).

"We really look up to the Carter Family, the first family of American folk music," Guthrie says. "I met them years ago, after A.P. Carter passed away, I got to meet Mother Maybelle and the family when I did the Johnny Cash TV show in Nashville in the '60s."

It's said the melody of "This Land Is Your Land" is based upon an old Carter Family song, which in turn probably originated in the hills of Scotland.

"The Carter Family were really heroes to my father. They were willing to sing these old songs and not be part of the music industry. They sang the tough sad songs of the lives they'd lived. That was the way people knew what was going on, long before TV and electricity, it was through the songs and ballads that you would remember the history of what happened."

swhitall@detnews.com (313) 222-2156

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