Arlo Guthrie, Finding Perspective 50 Years After 'Alice's Restaurant'

Oct 6, 2017

Folk singer Arlo Guthrie doesn't mind if "Alice's Restaurant" is still the first thing that pops to mind when you hear his name.  Guthrie doesn't play it at every show - in fact, he's not planning to play it in Milwaukee Friday night.  But he understands that his fans' love for a fifty-year-old song is as much about themselves as it is about the songwriter.

"When a song or a person becomes popular," he says, "what happens is that people relate to it - it becomes part of the soundtrack to their life.  And so for the audience, a song reminds them of when they first fell in love or when their dog died, and so they want to relive that by hearing it.

"For the entertainer, who has to perform it every night, it's not the same."  Guthrie concedes he might have lost fans for his reluctance to play the 18-minute long "Alice's Restaurant" at every show, but says a musical career "is a tightrope walk, that some people do better than others."

Arlo Guthrie's current tour includes two of his children - Abe and Sara Lee Guthrie.
Credit courtesy Arlo Guthrie

On his current tour, Guthrie collaborates musically with some of the people who have known him best over the years - his children.  His son, Abe, and daughter Sara Lee Guthrie, are among the third generation of accomplished musicians, following Arlo and his father, the iconic folk musician Woody Guthrie.

In fact, Arlo believes music is what has always made his relationship with his children strong.  "One of the things you get to do as a musician is you get to listen to other people," Guthrie says.  "And when you actually listen, you learn something about 'em.

"It's not a discipline you would learn in normal life.  Normal family life - your parents say something, your kids say something, it goes in one ear and out the other ear.  But you can't do that on stage.  When you're on a stage in front of people, you actually have to listen to [musicians] who are playing around you - otherwise, it just sucks."

While the canon of American folk music is filled with political songs, Guthrie says after decades of working - and singing - for social change, he's also learned to find time during his year to tune out the noise.  During the three or four months he's not on the road, Guthrie divides his time between Florida and Massachusetts.

"Generally, what I do," he says, "is grab a few cameras and take pictures.  There's a natural beauty to this world that gets missed sometimes if you're just paying attention to the news," he contends.  "And I like focusing on that."

"You know, the sun comes up every morning and goes down every night. It doesn't matter who the President is, doesn't matter what's going on in the world - it just happens.  And there's a beauty to it... it's so easy to get lost in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute stuff that you begin to not see it any more.  But when you do, it puts things in perspective."

But Guthrie says that doesn't mean he's taking a pass on staying active in what's happening in the world. "It doesn't mean you ignore what's going on, it means you take it into a bigger picture.  And that what lets me focus on the things that are important - to stand up when it's time to stand up, and sit down when it's time to sit down."

Arlo Guthrie performs Friday night at the Pabst Theater.