Yesterday afternoon I had gone out with my wife to take her to a doctor's appointment, when we got home she checked our phone messages. She turned to me and said: " Go check your email it sounds like you've got an interview with Arlo Guthrie tomorrow morning"
There have been certain songwriters and singers who have been supplying me with a window on the world for as long as I can remember. They've told stories and jokes, sung songs, and helped bring some things into perspective; make what seems truly overwhelming almost manageable.
Well today I got to talk to one of the people who have been talking to me for more than thirty years. It was nominally supposed to be about the 40th anniversary of the song "Alice's Restaurant", but when I was preparing for the interview I had thought how often do you get to talk to a person who had sung about and lived through as much as he has?
As I'm about as subtle as a brick wall, I think he might have been a little taken aback at the suddenness of the conversation shift, but he was too nice to say anything about it. His answers to my stumbling questions about the mood of the world were thoughtful and as perceptive as any historians, for of course that's what he is.
Folk singers are our cultural historians. The songs they sing are the stories of our society at a certain point in time. You may not agree with the opinion that some of the songs express, but that doesn't stop them from being an accurate reflection of what was happening at the time.
I thought I was going to be nervous about this, but when the phone rang at 9:30 on Wednesday April 5th the familiar cheery voice at the other end of line put me right at my ease. After a few comments about the weather, I asked him if he minded if we began with a few questions about "Alice's Restaurant" and he said, " I'm yours for twenty minutes ask what you want"
"I'm a little confused about something ("There's nothing wrong with that" Arlo interjects laughing and I agree saying I enjoy it immensely) what exactly is this tour (The "Alice's Restaurant" Tour) the fortieth anniversary of?
It's the fortieth anniversary of writing the song. I started writing the song at the time of the incident in 1965- and finished writing it in 1966. We started this tour in June of 2005 and will finish it in 2006, so that's how it works out. (Laughs) Sorry about that, now you're not confused any more
Oh that's okay there's lots of stuff that confuses me….Do you remember why you wrote it Alice?
Nope, I can't really remember any specific reason as to why. We would turn everything into songs in those days. I remember we must have just come back from Officer Obie, and were sitting around, just discussing the events of the day, and started to sing about it.
Then part two, the part about the draft must have been written at a separate time.
I was out at college in Billings in 1965, and came home for Thanksgiving, and we were visiting our friends, and I decided not to go back to college. Well in those days that lost me my deferment for the draft. It took them a few months to catch up to me, so it wasn't until 66 that I had to go … It was actually they who made the connection between the two, bringing up the criminal record when I was up there… so after that it was just a natural connection to make and add it in to the song
When did it hit you that you might be stuck singing it for the rest of your life?
It was pretty soon after the song came out on record that I knew people were going to want to be hearing it all the time. When I first started performing, I've been performing since I was 13 you know, I was performing my dad's songs, and stuff like that from that era. So when I first started playing (Alice) people would say why's he talking why isn't he singing? Then after Alice became popular and all these people would show up wondering why I was singing and not talking…You're just not going to be able to please all the people…
People would get angry that I wasn't going to play it, and I'd say well go and get your money back…we'll play it on an anniversary tour. I don't mind playing " City of New Orleans" or " Coming into Los Angeles" because they're only a few minutes long, and that leaves room in the set for other music, but …
Me: Alice is twenty minutes long…
Arlo: Right and that eats up lots of time. I'm really glad that I don't have a lot of hits, Willie Nelson, a friend of mine, has to do a medley of some 18 songs right off the top of his show so that he can get on with the stuff that he's doing now…
Most of the time there's songs playing in the background on the radio and we don't really pay too much attention to them, but if it's like a day when you've fallen in love, and the song becomes part of your personal soundtrack than your going to pay attention to it. That's why I'm glad they're albums, cause you can't expect someone to play the same songs in concert all the time… I'll play it every ten years now for the anniversary tour, but that's it
So no waiting for the eightieth anniversary?
No every ten years is okay(laughs)
On the Live In Sydney disc, you dusted off another old song "Coming into Los Angeles" But you used the intro to talk about the current situation in America regarding the Patriot Act, and other increased security measures throughout your country. Having lived through one involvement, Viet Nam, before, how would you compare the feelings and mood of your country between those times and the events surrounding the War on Terror and Iraq etc?
There's a lot of questions in that…there are a lot of things that are familiar to people who lived through Viet Nam, and what happened then and things today. In those days, from the president on down the line, the authorities were looking for leaders. The thing was there weren't really leaders for the kids out on the street. It was more a natural groundswell against what was happening. Anybody who was claiming leadership was mainly being opportunistic, and looking to take advantage of the situation for their own gain.
That's the same sort of situation right now, we're looking to get rid of leaders like bin Laden and saying that will stop the unrest, but it won't. What's happening is a groundswell reaction based on the conditions these people are living in. Folk like bin Laden are just opportunists claiming leadership. Getting rid of them won’t stop what's happening. The conditions won't have changed that caused the groundswell in the first place.
Your Dad's song "Deportees" has always struck a chord for me, we were one of those families that never had grapes in the winter, my mom was very much into the boycotts, never shopping at the grocery stores that didn't tell you where the produce was grown. From an outside observer's point of view, it looks like things are actually getting worse, for people coming up from Mexico.
We live in an increasingly sophisticated world that makes it difficult to make simple comments on stuff. There are too many people on both sides of the border who are taking advantage of circumstances and the situation.
Kinky Freedman ran for governor of Texas and he had what I thought was a great solution to the problem. Get five generals and give them each a million dollars in a bank account. Than divide the border up into five equal parts and make each general responsible for that part. For each illegal that crosses the border in their area they would have $10,000 taken out of their bank account.
Me: Make them personally responsible for the problem?
Arlo: Yeah, the other thing is this not just an American problem. There are people all over the world who are willing to exploit others. You can't just point the finger at America. You've got people willing to exploit their fellow countrymen for cheap labour, sell them into slavery…I read about a container on a ship full of Chinese people dead off the coast of Britain I think it was…
Me: Yeah that's happened off the cost of Newfoundland as well…
Arlo: Greed and globalization aren't just America's fault. You get people talking about being worried about their art, and dances…their culture being wiped out or taken over, and yet these same people are taking advantage of their people to use them as cheap labour.
Me: You wouldn't have companies moving their plants unless somebody was prepared to exploit the workers where they were going to move the plant too.
Arlo: It's like a groundswell of greed going on right now. You know we've proven we can do the opposite too, in times of disaster, like the Tsunami and hurricanes and floods, and we need to try and maintain that. It's got to come up naturally though. A groundswell doesn't happen quickly and you hope that the people living through these times learn from them and don't let them happen again. We need to have a groundswell to help, not to exploit.
Building walls isn't going to work in the long run. Some people are happy with the wall in Israel, but somebody will get a weapon someday and knock it over or something. Walls aren't the answer between countries though.
Me: Don't you ever want to, or wish that you could point them in the right direction?
Arlo: For those of us in the sixties we had a couple of people who we're examples we could look too, like Martin Luther King Jr. As an alternative to what was around us. People in the Middle East don't have anyone like that right now who they can emulate along those lines. It's like they've never heard of him or (me: Gandhi) yeah or Gandhi.
You bought Alice's Church a while back and have made it a focal point for activities, what are some of the programs that are being run out of there.
There are a lot of crazy people in the world, and we spend billions of dollars a week, or whatever the figure is, on places where they can hang out, like battlefields and the like. And that's okay I guess for them, but what about the rest of the people, the regular people who just want to have a place where they can go.
That's what Alice's church is all about, a place where regular people can hang out. Have some food, a drink, whatever. It's one small building where people can just be, and maybe even one small step in the groundswell process.
That was it, all the time we had. In fact he went over with me, I got an extra eight minutes, which meant he wasn't going to get a break between his ten o clock interview and me. As soon as I got off the phone I set to work on transcribing the interview and what I quickly noticed happening was how flat it was sounding on page. It's the same words as what had been spoken with only a little editing, but it's missing Arlo's distinctive voice.
When I read over what's on these pages I can hear him in my head, because I was the one talking to him on the phone. I only hope I was able to capture some of the feeling and care that came through in his voice.
Folk music and folk musicians are our oral historians. They keep a record of the times they live through via their songs and stories. Arlo Guthrie has been telling us the stories of our times for forty plus years. Spending twenty plus minutes with him the other day gave me a little more insight into what it takes to be that type of person.
If nothing else, I hope that anyone reading this has the same experience.
(Originally published in April 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.