If only for authoring Massachusetts’ eponymous state song, Arlo Guthrie will always be a favorite son of New England. “Massachusetts” is songwriting perfection, with its depictions of the Bay State’s beauty offered in a complex tone of wistful yearning—of it being home, of it being the place life keeps dragging you away from. For anyone from New England whose journey has settled them elsewhere but whose heart remains, “Massachusetts” rings the bell of love and longing with a peal that penetrates the soul like no other folk ballad. It is from the 1976 Arlo Guthrie album, Amigo, which earned Rolling Stone Magazine’s much-coveted and rarely offered five-star review. Amigo is a masterwork of writing, singing and playing. Ry Cooder’s inimitable sonic signature resonates throughout.
Arlo Guthrie’s association with New England began with his admission to the Stockbridge School, a private boarding school in the Berkshire Mountains area of Massachusetts. He successfully graduated from Stockbridge, but what would truly distinguish his time there was a bit of shenanigans that took place in the fall of 1965, when because of a Thanksgiving Day dump closure, he and some friends disposed of what he described as “a half-ton of garbage” on some local private property. His arrest would prove the story fodder for the 18-year-old Guthrie’s breakthrough song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” which right up to the present remains an 18-minute necessity for many radio stations and households on Thanksgiving Day. It is ironic that an artist associated with peace and environmental movements would launch his career with a mild environmental atrocity.
On the strength of “Alice’s Restaurant” garnering local airplay, Guthrie landed his first record deal with Warner Brothers, which in turn led to successful tours across Europe and the United States. He was a standout at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967 and developed a loyal fan base from there that reached a commercial peak in 1972 with his smash hit, “City of New Orleans.” His rich, warm vocal timbre and his masterful fingerstyle guitar playing on that song hearkened an spirit of American discovery was perfect for those words and that melody. It reached an audience of millions and still tells the American traveler’s story as well as any song in the entire canon of American folk music.
It turns out there’s a pretty good reason for that. Arlo Guthrie is Woody Guthrie’s son, author of what many believe should be our national anthem, “This Land is Your Land.” He is the fifth of his eight children and the oldest surviving member of the family. His two older sisters died of Huntington’s disease, the ailment that also killed Woody in 1967 when Arlo was 20 years old. Fairly described as the father of the American protest song, Woody was the earliest chronicler of the hobo’s journey, the life of hopping freights, bumming smokes and sharing bottles of booze in paper bags with fellow followers of the open road. Arlo Guthrie has always walked solidly in the legacy of his father as a tireless advocate of the common man, manifesting his protest tradition as a vigorous spokesperson against the Vietnam War, vociferous detractor of Nixon and staunch opponent of nuclear power.
He is such a fine singer, songwriter, storyteller and troubadour persona that it is easy to forget what a fantastic guitar player he is. He is a superb fingerstyle guitarist and flat-picker, and has a wide fluency in alternate tunings. Just listen sometime. Really listen. A couple of recommended recordings that reveal his guitar skills are “Gabriel’s Mother’s Highway Ballad #16 Blues” and “Wouldn’t You Believe It.”
Guthrie was raised in the Jewish faith (his mother was Jewish) and received bar-mitzvah training as a boy. He later converted to Catholicism but eventually became a proponent of interfaith religious expression. He founded The Guthrie Center at the Old Trinity Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, whose mission is “to bring individuals together for cultural, educational, and spiritual exchange.” The Guthrie Center offers interfaith services and participates in a variety of community outreach projects.
With a heritage that leads directly to the motherlode of American folk music and with a career that surpassed every expectation and promise of one who dared to follow in those footsteps, Arlo Guthrie has returned to his beloved Massachusetts. Now retired from touring due a series of minor strokes that has made getting around a burden that eclipses even his sense of obligation to his listeners, he now resides in Washington, Massachusetts, visited often by his phenomenally talented children in his beloved Berkshires, where it all began.
(by Chris Elliott)