The son of iconic folk musician Woody Guthrie, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie enjoyed his own long and storied music career, which launched in earnest in 1967 with the release of his sprawling comic number "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" (also known as "Alice's Restaurant"), which endeared him to generations of music listeners. The song landed on the pop music charts a second time in 1969 following the release of Arthur Penn's film "Alice's Restaurant" (1969), which also starred Guthrie in a feature-length version of his misadventures with the Massachusetts police over illegal trash dumping. Guthrie scored a few additional minor hits in the early 1970s, including "The City of New Orleans" (1972) before abandoning chart hits for steady work as a popular live performer. If his subsequent work never matched the initial success of "Alice" or the sainted status of his father's songs, Guthrie could still claim a five-decade career in the service of American folk music and socio-political justice, an accolade enjoyed by only the top echelon of the genre's performers, of which he was clearly a member.
Born Arlo Davy Guthrie on July 10, 1947 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, NY, he was Woody Guthrie's fifth child and the second of four with wife Marjorie Maiza Guthrie, a former dancer with the Martha Graham Company. Guthrie's parents separated when he was four years old and later divorced, though Marjorie Guthrie would remain by her husband's side during his long decline from Huntington's disease, which would claim his life in 1967. Guthrie received his first guitar from his father at the age of six, shortly before his hospitalization, and would spend his formative years in the company of his father's compatriots, including such legendary figures in the postwar folk music scene as Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, the Weavers and Leadbelly. He would later admit that he was largely unaware of his father's impact upon American music until he attended the progressive Stockbridge School in Massachusetts. There, he discovered that students were singing his father's song "This Land is Your Land" as part of their curriculum, which spurred him to delve into his father's body of song.
After graduating from Stockbridge, Guthrie enrolled at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, with the intention of becoming a forest ranger. He left after only six weeks to return to Massachusetts, where he stayed at the home of Alice and Ray Brock, former faculty members at the Stockbridge School who had opened a restaurant called the Back Room. Following a Thanksgiving meal, Guthrie and friend Rick Robbins took the post-dinner refuse to the local dump; upon finding it closed, they tossed it down a hillside, which resulted in their arrest and a fine for littering. The incident proved to be not only Guthrie's saving grace, as the charge rendered him unfit for military service during the height of the Vietnam War, but also the subject of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," a lengthy talking-blues-cum-comic monologue about the incident which became his first hit song, following the launch of his professional music career in 1966. A live recording of the song from a Carnegie Hall folk festival began airing on New York's WBAI radio in 1967, which led to a closing night performance at the Newport Folk Festival and a recording contract with Warner Bros. In subsequent years, the song would become an annual Thanksgiving Day tradition on numerous FM radio stations.
Guthrie's debut LP, Alice's Restaurant, entered the albums chart in late 1967 and remained there for the next 65 weeks, eventually peaking at No. 29 and minting the singer as a humorous and gifted figure on the burgeoning folk-rock scene. Guthrie would later link his own career to his father through tribute concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, where he performed a version of "This Land is Your Land" which also saw placement on the charts. His second album, Arlo, which was recorded at the Bitter End nightclub in Greenwich Village, NY fared less successfully, but its relative failure was soon overshadowed by Arthur Penn's "Alice's Restaurant" (1969), a feature-length comedy-drama starring and co-written by Guthrie. The film, which concerned both Guthrie's upbringing and the events in the song, was a hit among moviegoers and earned Penn an Oscar nomination for best director. It also sent the Alice's Restaurant album back up the charts, where it surpassed its previous chart placement by reached No. 17. At the height of this widespread attention, Guthrie also found time to perform at the Woodstock festival, where he premiered an original song "Coming into Los Angeles," a ruefully amusing song about marijuana smuggling. The song would later turn up on his third solo album, Running Down the Road (1969). Produced by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks and featuring an all-star lineup of guest players including Ry Cooder and Clarence White of the Byrds, the record was a decidedly less light-hearted effort than his previous recordings, with no comic monologues. It performed decidedly better than its predecessor, reaching No. 54 on the Billboard chart, but nowhere near the numbers enjoyed by Alice's Restaurant.
After settling down on a 250-acre farm in Stockbridge, Guthrie married Alice "Jackie" Guthrie," with whom he would have four children, including future musicians Abe and Sarah Lee Guthrie. He would enjoy a slew of respectable hit records throughout the early 1970s, including Hobo's Lullaby (1972), his fifth album, which featured the Top 20 single "The City of New Orleans." But by the middle of the decade, changing musical tastes largely relegated his efforts to the bottom of the Billboard 200, though he continued to draw positive reviews for his work. Guthrie wisely fell back upon his enduring popularity as a live performer, often with Pete Seeger and occasionally backed by a Massachusetts-area rock band called Shenandoah. He also toured with Bob Dylan's sprawling Rolling Thunder Revue, but by the dawn of the 1980s, he had been dropped from the Warner Bros roster along with such fellow established artists as Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt. Again, touring provided him with financial stability, again as both a solo act and in a semi-super group of folk artists called HARP with Seeger, Holly Near and former Weaver Ronnie Gilbert. Guthrie soon launched his own record label, Rising Son, which released his 1986 album Someday, as well as titles from his Warner Bros. back catalog.
In 1992, Guthrie purchased the Great Barrington, MA church that had housed Alice and Ray Brock prior to the events depicted in "Alice's Restaurant." The building was subsequently converted into the Guthrie Center, a non-denominational, interfaith meeting place and folk music venue. A variety of music projects, including a collection of his father's songs for children, Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs (1992) and a Grammy-nominated recording of classic Woody Guthrie material by his siblings and children, dominated his music output. He also briefly returned to acting, most notably in the cult feature "Roadside Prophets" (1992) and as a series regular on the short-lived family drama "The Byrds of Paradise" (ABC, 1993-94). In 1995, he co-write his first children's book, Mooses Come Walking, with his wife. The following year, he released Mystic Journey, his first solo album since 1986, and the first to be produced by his son, Abe. Guthrie soon followed this with Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited (1997), which commemorated the 30th anniversary of his classic LP with a new recording, though his inability to buy back the original from Warner Bros. may have also prompted the project's release. The new millennium saw Guthrie active as ever, touring with Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Eric Anderson and performing with various symphony orchestras, most notably the famed Boston Pops. In 2008, he recorded 32 Cents/Postage Due, another tribute album to his father, this time with the bluegrass act the Dillards. On Oct. 14, 2012, Guthrie's wife Jackie passed away after a lengthy battle with liver cancer.
By Paul Gaita