Arlo, Sarah Lee and the Guthrie Family Ride Into Your Town
by Terry Roland
She speaks in a voice which rings with generations of American folk music. If you listen to her youthful enthusiasm, you can hear dust bowl and train-riding songs and tales, the essence of her grandfather, Woody Guthrie. You may hear her father, humorist, songwriter, and philosopher Arlo Guthrie with his tales of Woodstock, Alice and passenger trains they call the City of New Orleans. But, mostly, you'll hear the voice of Sarah Lee Guthrie. As she talks and sings, her voice brings up a folksinger as American as those wheat fields waving her grandfather once wrote about. So it is only natural that she has been appointed the spokesperson for the new Guthrie Family Rides Again American tour rolling into town on April 15, at the Escondido, California, performing arts center.
On the morning of our phone conversation, over the hum of her Mom's cappuccino machine and the sweet sound of children's voices in the Florida background, we traveled to her childhood of being raised in an ashram, her newly discovered connection with her iconic grandfather, the spiritual example her parents have set for her, the passionate skill of her husband, Johnny Irion's musicianship, songwriting and the joy's of the music she's been making with her recent GRAMMY-worthy Waggaloo, a collaboration of friends and family of original songs for children. Her collaborators, like the upcoming tour, spans generations to include Woody through his archives of unpublished lyrics, Pete Seeger, Arlo, Johnny Irions and more family members than it is possible to count.
Arlo, the forever storytelling-song-singing-folk legend in his own right, has insights into his own journey over the last few years that shows how the folksinger can't be bound by any traditions or pre-conceived notions. The Guthrie Rides Again follows last year's Solo Reunion tour, titled in Arlo's typical absurdest humor. For this tour he's handed the reins to a new generation of family musicians led by Sarah Lee and her posse of children, cousins, nephews, nieces, brothers and sisters. And, I have a feeling Arlo would agree, a special guest in spirit, Woody Guthrie. Arlo for the past forty years has carried two legacies with grace, humor and dignity: Woody's and his own misadventures which began in the 60's with the counter-culture epic, "Alice's Restaurant." But, while he occasionally resurrects the 22 minute opus, the point of the song and his career has been that of a talented teller of stories, both tall and short, large and small, true and well, maybe a bit exaggerated. Be it his mythical motorcycle adventures, bringing questionable substances into 'Los Angeleees,' or singing an 'old Elvis tune somewhere in Eastern Europe.'
Regarding the tour, Arlo recently said,"What we're really trying to show is that music's a part of the family life. Some of it might be better than others. But it's all fun, and we like playing together, and we like traveling around together. So that's what we're doing. It's pretty special to have four generations of Guthries represented in some way on the tour. You start to notice things about the family. Like even though my children are into different kinds of music, there's a certain humor and political sense that runs through it all. I love being able to see that. All the kids all doing great on their own. I didnít think the majority of my children were going to get into music. They have their own styles of songwriting, their own way of doing things. I figured, before they all get too popular, letís get together to do a family tour."
Talking about traveling with generations of kids, Arlo said, "Having all the children on tour is like herding cats. They were told over and over again, 'You donít have to do this. If you donít want to be there, just say so.' And on some given nights, if theyíre getting grouchy or something, they donít show up. It's a zoo up on stage. There are dozens of us at this point - some of the younger grand-kids may even come on stage for a bit before heading behind the curtains to have some fun. We obviously don't have some of the littlest ones on stage all of the time because they would fall asleep, like the ones in the audience at that age. Basically what we are working on at the moment is seeing how long they can stand up..."
Both Sarah and Arlo agree folk music has no boundaries in style or substance and both artists carry Woody's legacy and even more so, America's treasure of folk music, with ease, humor and a celebration of joy.
Interview with Sarah Lee:
Roland: Tell me about the Guthrie Rides Again Tour.
Sarah Lee: It's just that it fits into this space and time. It may not ever happen again. But it's just great to be the Guthrie family and feel Woody's spirit. He comes to visit us at each every night we play...like an extended visit. You can feel him there.
Roland: I read there's a lot of new songs by Woody.
Sarah Lee: We've been singing a lot of the new songs. We've been singing a lot of what others have recorded, the new lyrics....You know, Billy Bragg, Wilco, Janis Ian. It's been my dad's way of thanking these artists for the songs of Woody's they recorded.
Roland: And the family is all with you?
Sarah Lee: We have the entire family, kids, grand kids, and they're all getting up on stage in one way or another. We've been inspired by The Carter Family. My sister's even playing the auto harp. My niece, Serana, Abe's daughter, is playing clarinet. I'm playing mandolin. I've never played the mandolin before.
Roland: So, when were you first aware that your dad and grandfather were these great icons of American folk music?
Sarah Lee: It was because of overzealous teachers during elementary school. I was just a kid in this small town in Massachusetts. The teacher would make a big deal and talk about it. Even stand me up in front of the class. Also, when I'd come home from school there would be people like The Dillards or Ramblin' Jack Elliot. That's pretty unusual. But that's only surface. When it really hit me was when I started playing music. Then, I started thinking of Woody. He's like this endless well. I go to the archives and I keep finding more. And I haven't found the bottom. There just seems to be more and more. Then I meet people, like people who knew Woody. It makes my life richer. But, it's really when I'm out there in front of people, I can feel Woody. During this tour, when we sing the familiar songs Woody wrote, like "Plane Crash At Los Gatos," I cry. I get deep into the meaning.
Roland: And how about Arlo?
Sarah Lee: My dad? He has been so important to me. Like my spiritual teacher. He's so in touch. He's taught me to be in touch with the big things, all things much bigger than us and to not worry about the little things. He's also my teacher in what I do. The music. He has so much energy on stage. He keeps everyone together. He never divides people. It's really good. I'm his student.
Roland: He's a great storyteller.
Sarah Lee: Yes. He can do things on the spot. He tells a little story and he'll get all wrapped up in it...(laughs)
Roland: What about the spirituality behind the music?
Sarah Lee: For 20 years I grew up in an Ashram in Florida. We lived there with the guru. I took it for granted. The difference didn't hit me until I left. I didn't know what the world was like out there. So, being there has been so rejuvenating.
Roalnd: How did you come to live there?
Sarah Lee: My dad's always searching for something real. You know, he was a monk for a while and into Christianity. He met this guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati and he said he found something real. And she's from Brooklyn and Jewish, so it was perfect! But, it's an interfaith ashram. Primarily Hindu, but there's a Christ garden and Zen garden....
Roland: How does your music and this faith experience work together?
Sarah Lee: I just heard, from Tom Petty, some people have a religious experience and they preach the rest of their lives. They go to church. For me, that's the music. It's my religion, my church, it's what keeps filling me up.
Roland: One of the songs which has been a stand-out for me this last year is "Kindness."
Sarah Lee: Thank you. That was written by Johnny(Irion). He's such a good songwriter. He's more of a songcrafter. He works at it everyday and takes the song through from start to finish, carefully. When I write it's more like something is moving through me..but, you never know when that's gonna happen. Johnny will get up in the middle of the night and start working. Usually, for me, it's hard to get up out of bed. But, I've learned so much from him.
Roland: What is folk music?
Sarah Lee: It's the music of the people that has survived for thousands of years. You know, it's just recently we've started making recordings. Before that, it was always the music people would play in their homes. It's the underlying melody of our lives. You know, it has no boundaries. It's blues, gospel, rock and roll.
Roland: How about rap, hip-hop?
Sarah Lee: Yes, of course, it's folk music. The only thing I'd say is not folk is classical, which takes some actual disciplined skill training. But, with folk music, everybody can do it in one way or another. Everybody can be a part of it.
Roland: Who are some of your favorite groups or artists?
Sarah Lee: I grew up loving punk. Of course, I love The Drive-By-Truckers. Patterson Hood is great. I love Wilco.
Roland: Tell me about your approach to songwriting.
Sarah Lee: Well, I've taken a lot from my dad. I've always written in some way, essays, poems and it just seems like the words come through. It's like they come in like a breeze. Dad always says its like fishing. You gotta catch the songs. Johnny is a songcrafter. His songs keep getting better and better. I tend to wait for inspiration, but Johnny's at it everyday. You gotta figure, you might write 20 bad songs to get one good one, but at least you got that one. I've really become more about performing though and Johnny's really the songwriter. This question could really be answered better by Johnny. He's the one who does the hard work at it. We have a home studio, which makes it easy. We have another record ready. We're shopping it around right now.
Roland: How did you meet Johnny?
Sarah Lee: I was 18. I met him in California. Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes introduced us.
Roland: You have a new album for children?
Sarah Lee: Yes. Go Waggaloo.
We put together all of these songs. Three of them were songs of Woody's
with no music. "Go Waggaloo" is one of those. Pete Seeger plays on it.
We even have two and three year olds on it. We're planning some shows with
just the kids. I'm excited about it. It was voted the #1 kid's album in
Parent magazine over Elmo! Be sure you print that. It was #1 over