By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Arlo Guthrie just loves the idea of this week's annual Woody Guthrie Free Folk Festival. He's got only one complaint.
July? In Oklahoma?
"I know it's a real grand notion to schedule this event around my dad's birthday and all, but I kind of thought September would be nice," Arlo said, chuckling in an interview this week.
Arlo Guthrie performs Wednesday night -- what would have been Woody's 87th birthday -- to kick off the second annual festival celebrating the life and music of the late Woody Guthrie.
He'll be playing indoors and out of the heat at Okemah's beautiful Crystal Theater, at the festival's fund-raising starter show. Wednesday's bill also includes the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald.
It's certainly not the first time Arlo has paid tribute to his legendary folksinger father in performance or even on record, but he's been careful not to make his entire 30-year career one long torch-bearing ceremony for his father's music.
"I sort of became a poster boy at a young age," Arlo said. "Luckily for me, though, my own success has made it possible for me to do both -- to sing my own songs and help keep my dad's alive.
"If I was nothing but Woody's kid, that would be fine, but you know, there are probably more people today who know Woody Guthrie as my dad than know Arlo as his son. I think I just lasted longer in the public eye. My dad really only had 15 really good years being a public entertainer. I've had 30, almost twice as much. I've also had the advantage of living in a media-driven age, and because of that my record, 'Alice's Restaurant,' outsold all of my dad's records combined. I'm not saying this to have a popularity contest but to point out that the way things work now made it possible for me to support all the things of my dad's life without compromising anything for myself."
Still, Arlo and the rest of the Guthrie clan don't jump onto every we-love-Woody bandwagon. This festival, though, organized by the Oklahoma-based Woody Guthrie Coalition, passed muster with the entire family. Arlo's sister Nora, who runs the Woody Guthrie Archives in New York City, has contributed materials and supported the festival. Woody's sister, Mary Jo Edgmon, has a hand in this year's symposium on Huntington's Disease, the ailment that killed Woody.
"There are moments when events have a larger scope than just publicizing or promoting Woody Guthrie's name," Arlo said. "We've tried to stand behind things that are most valuable and meaningful and contribute to the things he enjoyed ... Not everyone who hangs a 'We Like Woody' sign in their window should have instant support from everyone else."
Arlo said he was impressed with the way the Okemah festival tries to present the whole picture of Woody -- more than just the greatest hits of his music. In the same way, he said he enjoyed the "Mermaid Avenue" album -- last year's historic CD of Woody Guthrie lyrics put to music by British folksinger Billy Bragg and American alt-country band Wilco -- because it put into perspective other sides of Woody's life.
"There was a time when folk songs were synonymous with protest songs. That's changing, in part because the way the world is now but also because we're beginning to understand that the songs of Woody and others were not just complaints about the world. They wrote about everything, a lot of which was pretty funny," Arlo said.
"The whole focus of Woody's writings was that everyone is a regular guy, that people are regular people. The underlying philosophy behind all his work is that those regular people are just as valuable as all the kings and queens, that there's nobility in being a regular person."
That outlook on humanity led Woody adamantly to support -- and sing about -- workers unions and some socialist causes. As Woody became a public figure in the '40s and '50s, these notions got him branded as a communist, a stigma that hung on his name long after his death in 1967. His home state was particularly slow in letting go of the old myths, a stubbornness Arlo sees as an amusing irony.
"My dad was a free thinker. He was convinced that if people were left alone, they'd do right by each other. I find it difficult to understand that people who also find too much big government around them also are afraid of too much free thinking," he said. "I mean, that kind of irony gives rise to a sense of humor which is unique to that part of the country. There are places where the wind blows a certain way or the preacher speaks a certain way or the water tastes a certain way that gives rise to a certain way of thinking about things. If they don't add up quite right, you either hang your sign in the window or go on and smile about it. There's some of both going on there."
After last year's lavish welcoming home of Woody's spirit -- involving the unveiling of a Woody Guthrie statue in downtown Okemah -- Arlo said he looks forward to coming back. He'll be performing Wednesday night with his son, Abe, who's traveled with Arlo for several years now, and his daughter, Sarah Lee, who started singing with Arlo and Abe last year.
The travelling troupe has been so busy on the road lately that they haven't found time to mix the latest record, the follow-up to Arlo's 1996 album "Mystic Journey." Last year, Arlo and Abe went into a studio in Branson, Mo., and recorded an album called "32 Cents," a record of Woody Guthrie songs celebrating Woody's appearance on a postage stamp. The album was recorded with the Dillards, icons of bluegrass music (though you may remember them as the demented hayseeds the Darling Family on "The Andy Griffith Show").
Fans can hunt down more information on Arlo events at http://arlo.net.
The Woody Guthrie Birthday Hootenanny featuring Arlo Guthrie, the Kingston Trio and Country Joe McDonald
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Crystal Theater, on Main Street in Okemah (about an hour south of Tulsa on Interstate 40)
Tickets: $27, available at all Carson Attractions outlets, (918) 584-2000
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.