Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Goodnight, Little Arlo, Goodnight
I discovered Woody Guthrie in 1967 from a two inch column in my hometown newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, announcing his death in a Brooklyn hospital. "Folk Singer Dies' was the headline, and I barely knew what a folk singer was, although I was already on the way to becoming one. I found a copy of his autobiography, Bound For Glory, and in that one book learned more about my home state and about the world in general than I had learned in all the books I had read or classes I had taken in my short fifteen years. A couple of years later I went to my first folk concert, a Woody Guthrie birthday celebration in Oklahoma City featuring Jimmie Driftwood, and a host of others that I can't recall. It was attended by Marjorie, Arlo and Nora Guthrie, and I remember the pride on their faces as each performer gave tribute to their husband and father. It was forty years later, as I was researching the history of the Walnut Valley Festival, that I discovered that the concert I had seen had been originally planned for Okemah, Woody's hometown, but the city of Okemah, still immersed in Woody's reputation as a radical and a communist, would not grant them a permit for the show. I couldn't help but think about that show tonight, as I watched "Little Arlo" on the stage of the Orpheum Theater, and how strange it must have been to have a father that was revered by much of the known world but roundly despised by the folks in his hometown, and I realized how that pride I saw on the Guthrie family faces had been tempered by forces that I was many years away from understanding.
Of course, Okemah now hosts a festival every year on Woody's birthday, a decidedly communistic affair with no admission and where all the performers play for free. Maybe they're just trying to make up for past wrongs. I'm sure I'll attend that festival someday, but having Arlo right here in town is certainly the next best thing. For all the "Woody" imitators out there, Arlo was certainly never one of them. His songs have always been carefree and easy, songs about riding motorcycles, passenger trains and "big airliners", his humor a more subtle but still substantial take on his dad's biting social criticisms. Still, he helped keep Woody's songs alive, recording songs like The 1913 Massacre and The Ludlow Massacre when no one else would. He was right on target tonight with "Pretty Boy Floyd" - what could be more timely than the lines "as through this life you travel/you'll meet some funny men/some'll rob you with a six gun/ and some with a fountain pen"? Also, "This Land Is Your Land" is not a song that normally brings tears to my eyes, but in Arlo's hands, on that stage in my chosen hometown, flooded by the memories of so long ago and of singing that song so many times and in so many places across this land, a good cry in the dark seemed most appropriate.
With his son, Abe, on keyboards, a very tight rhythm section, and the Burns Sisters on back-up vocals, Arlo Guthrie kept the Orpheum stage hoppin'- at least between stories. Backing up a natural-born storyteller must be challenging for a musician, but they all showed well-honed patience. My personal favorite was the story describing unwritten songs as fish swimming by, and instead of grabbing a line and a pole, you just grab a pencil and a piece of paper and see if you can catch one. I missed the actual punch line but it had something to do with staying downstream of Dylan, because he might throw some smaller ones back. I also loved his story about his very first memory when he was two years old, of simply standing next to Huddie Ledbetter, and how, almost sixty years later, his band took a day off searching for Leadbelly's grave in Louisiana. We heard how he made Steve Goodman buy him beers before he would listen to his songs, and we heard a retelling of a biblical story that turned out to just be a praise for the common man. The master definitely still has the touch.
Arlo closed his show with one of his dad's poems that he had put to music, a task still ahead for over three thousand songs. It was a song about peace, not the big peace that you see in the posters and slogans, but the small peace that lives inside one person, a peace that becomes the one true gift that one person can give to another. Arlo, you gave Wichita a great gift tonight. Thanks. And goodnight.