Arlo Guthrie’s most famous moment was performing his satirical "Alice’s Restaurant" at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival. The song was later the basis for a film of the same name that starred Guthrie. Guthrie is also famous as the son of Woody Guthrie, who wrote dozens of folk music standards. He was involved in many social causes and died in 1967. Arlo Guthrie follows in his father’s footsteps by recording, touring nine months a year, and being active in social issues. His most recent release is More Together Again, with Pete Seeger (Rising Son Records, March 1994).
"Alice’s Restaurant" celebrated a church-turned-refuge for disaffected youth. Recently, Guthrie and others bought it. Located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, it houses Guthrie’s record company, Rising Son Records, production equipment, the Guthrie Foundation, and the Guthrie Center at Alice’s Church.
In his mid-40s, Guthrie’s health is good. His father died of Huntington’s Chorea, a rare brain disease that results in deterioration of speech and mental capacities and for which there is no treatment. It is hereditary and usually ends with total incapacitation. Guthrie remains up-beat: "I’m happy. I’m healthy. I’m at that age where no one knows what’s going to happen. I hope I’m living so that no matter what happens I’ll be doing the same thing." —Arthur P. Boers
Arthur Boers: What kinds of things does the Guthrie Foundation do?
Arlo Guthrie: We work with abused kids, AIDS babies, AIDS men and women, HIV-positive people and their caregivers, families, loved ones. We’ve been visiting hospices, hospitals, and private homes, just trying to help where needed. We travel every three months to Los Angeles and meet with more than 500 people who deal directly with AIDS. We’re supporting in both a financial way and a very personal way a couple of dozen organizations around the country.
We deal with AIDS primarily because there is still a huge stigma attached, and therefore a lot of service-oriented institutions have not made themselves available yet. Meals-on-Wheels’ charter, for example, limits them to the elderly.
A lot of organizations in place could help, but are caught short by the swiftly moving epidemic. We work with them using our own people and our own volunteers, network groups together who are already in business, and come up with services for people who fall through the cracks.
Boers: It is an ecumenical organization?
Guthrie: We’re interfaith: You bring your own God. We want to share spirituality with everyone but not necessarily religious views. Anyone who shares the requirement to love your neighbor as yourself or just to serve others (whether Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or whatever) we welcome. We want to celebrate that work and the spirit that motivates that work, to celebrate what we think of as the one God who has a lot of different faces.
Our spiritual life is service to humanity, as well as service to one’s God. We find that they generally go better hand in hand than either one independently.
Boers: I read in the 1970s that you are a member of the Franciscan Third Order [for lay people]. Have you learned some additional things from that experience?
Guthrie: Well, I don’t know if I’ve learned some additional stuff as much as I’ve unlearned some unimportant stuff. I’m one of these people who—fortunately or unfortunately, depends on where you come from—got caught up in the love of God, no matter what form he shows up in.
I’m happy to celebrate God with Catholics. I’m able to do that in a more than average way because I’ve had the great fortune of meeting some fabulous people who led me into that mystical part of the church that most people don’t get to come into contact with, unfortunately. I’m not picky at this point as to what I call myself, believing that it’s probably more important what God thinks of me than what I think about him.
Boers: How do spirituality and mysticism interact with your music?
Guthrie: Spirituality fits into everything but not everything fits into spirituality. To know the difference between what’s more wrong or more right is more of a direction than an absolute. You don’t need a whole lot of religious training to know the difference. However, I think it’s important for one’s own journey to make that the most important part of your life.
The spiritual life has been a struggle. The only reason I still indulge in it is because it seems to be the only worthwhile way. If you’re going to struggle anyway, might as well do it in something that counts.
So my singing and writing are pretty much unchanged. The only thing that’s really different is that I’m not in charge of myself as I used to be.
Boers: Are you talking about detachment or non-attachment?
Guthrie: What I mean is that one can take the responsibility for what happens to people very seriously as one’s own. I did that for a long time. I sang the right songs and showed up at the right demonstrations and was part of the right causes. All of that.
But, you know, it didn’t make me any happier. And at some point, I wondered if it was actually making anybody any happier.
Then there was a point when it didn’t matter what other people thought. And I began to wonder if I was making a dent. Then I wondered if it was my responsibility to make a dent. That’s how I was brought up: to make the world a better place.
The years had gone by and slowly but surely I had become spiritually mature enough to realize that my responsibility was an interior one and not an exterior one. If I took care of the interior stuff, the exterior would take care of itself. So I’ve become God’s problem, rather than my parents’ problem or the world’s problem. And I’m happy to be that.
Boers: You’re still involved in social issues but the motivation changed?
Guthrie: Well, I feel I have to be. My primary obligation as a being is not to the world and is not to my family and is not to my parents. All of those friends of mine who valued me because of my parents or because of my stance in the world on ecology or on nuclear waste or something got nervous. And the truth is they were right to be nervous.
I’m still interested in all of those things. How we take care of each other is very important. But if one day all of those issues were suddenly solved, I wouldn’t be out of work because my work is not dependent on what happens outside. My work is dependent on what happens inside. A lot of people are like Phil Ochs, for example, a wonderful friend of mine, who when the war in Vietnam ended was out of work. He wrote a lot of great songs about why we ought to be out of there.
Jesus asked, What if you gain the whole world and lose your soul. That’s a very important question even for today and especially for people who are involved in trying to change the world.
It’s a little late for me now to try and pretend that I’m smarter than I used to be. That’s not true. It’s frankly been a wonderful process of getting stupider. And I’m enjoying it immensely.
Boers: So you are having more fun?
Guthrie: I’m having a lot more fun. And I notice that when I’m getting serious it’s a lot more serious, too. I’ve been able to do both extremes, realizing that it’s not entirely my fun or my seriousness.
I’m not any different from most other people. But I do think that I have, by some fabulous unbelievable grace, found my way. It’s not by anything special that I did or by any great wisdom. That has relieved an awful lot of anxiety.
I always loved a sense of humor. I think that’s the most important tool. And to find that sense of humor also in the cosmos has been a thrilling discovery.
Boers: What is important about your concerts?
Guthrie: It’s a rare thing today to have a few thousand people sit around and sing together. We forget what a fabulous experience that is. It’s not the same as watching a few thousand people on TV sing, or sitting around the radio.
I think getting together with large groups of people every once in a while isn’t a bad idea. It’s a chance to share with each other some of the inexpressible things just by being there, to share in some heart, a little hope, and a little moment together.
The more positive an experience, the more times we can experience positive things in a given moment, the more we really change the world. Then it’s not something we’re going to do, it’s not something we hoped we did, but it’s something we actually did in the moment.
ARTHUR P. BOERS pastors Bloomingdale (Ontario) Mennonite Church and is the author of Lord, Teach Us to Pray (Herald Press) and Justice That Heals (Faith & Life).