Arlo Guthrie

Quote of the Day For the Talented Who Never Gain Fame or Fortune

“I figured out pretty quickly that attention to an artist, a song, a politician, or a religious leader has nothing to do with it being ‘deserved,’ as there are a lot of really great, talented people who never gain fame or fortune … and plenty who do that don’t deserve it. Same goes for songs or works of art. If you’re looking for a world where everyone deserved to be who they are, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. Knowing this, it’s easier to just be yourself and not take it too seriously. I perform what I enjoy doing, and occasionally learn to enjoy what others have favorably judged.”- Arlo Guthrie, interview with The Bluegrass Situation

Life Soundtrack Part II: Cuing Vinyl and Restroom Songs

DJYesterday I wrote a post called “What is Your Life’s Soundtrack?” In it, I wrote about the songs that were part of my story from childhood through college. I promised that I would continue my narrative with the music of my adult life. I realized that I have already written some of this, however, and so I give you this excerpt from the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans. It discusses my first radio job after graduating from broadcast school:

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Arlo Guthrie and Oscar Wilde

gsdfsfsfdsfdsA friend of mine posted a link to an article pointing out that it is the 50th anniversary of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.


On “Alice’s Restaurant” becoming such a cultural phenomenon, Arlo says, “Well, I’ve always loved good stories. And I’ve loved telling tall tales. Why people enjoy it is beyond me. I haven’t sung ‘Alice’ for years and people still keep coming to the gigs. ‘Alice’ has taken on a life of its own and become attached to Thanksgiving. If I had to guess though, maybe because it’s a story about a little guy against a big world.”

Arlo doesn’t know but I know. And I am saying that in my head with the same tone that he used to utter those words in the rambling story part of this clip of The Garden Song.

The reason people love Alice’s Restaurant, and Arlo, is that he is original. He doesn’t fit into the clean entertainment niches they promote on TV. He is sometimes a comedian and sometimes sentimental and philosophical. He’s witty, self-depreciating, and he makes language and story telling into music. There is a cadence to his speech not only when he is speaking over music as in Alice’s Restaurant but also when he speaks between songs or when he stops the song to speak. (As in the clip above.)

People hunger for good stories told by great story tellers. They don’t just want the written word, but the performed word. It is an ancient art and an increasingly lost one.

“Talk,” Oscar Wilde said, “is a sort of spiritualized action and conversation one of the lovliest of the arts.”

Wilde, raised on Irish oral folk tales himself, was known as one of history’s most brilliant talkers. “Oscar Wilde believed the possession of a musical voice to be the most indispensable attribute of a successful story teller,” wrote Thomas Wright in Table Talk Oscar Wilde. “…His voice inspired more adjectives and metaphors than any of his other attributes…It was clear that the rhythm and sound of words were as important to Wilde as their meaning… It is also evident that he used his voice to create ironic effects: he frequently narrated comic tales in a slow and solemn voice and told tales of fantasy as though relating everyday incidents.”

Wilde used cadence, tone, word emphasis, and wit to weave spells. Don’t let the vaguely southern-ish drawl fool you. Arlo Guthrie is part of the Wildean tradition.

There was a period of my life when I was entirely Arlo immersed. That voice, his pauses, his relaxed comic delivery, lived in my mind in familiar phrases. I could share those catch-phrases with others in the greater Arlo community, which I assure you does exist and is quite as vibrant as I imagined it might be when I had hippie fantasies stoked by the film version of Alice’s Restaurant.

Incidentally, when you go to a lot of Arlo Guthrie concerts in the same year, you tend to hear the same stories repeated. Oscar Wilde also told and retold his stories. His written works were generally worked out as oral tales and not put to paper until they had been road tested with multiple audiences. When you do hear the same story over and over, you start to notice different things. I have always admired how Arlo’s son, Abe, who plays the keyboards, remembers to laugh at the punchlines– a display of Ed McMahon-style support– even though he knows they are coming. Watch his performance in the background in this clip:

Arlo’s way of talkin’, the music of it, has found a permanent place in my thoughts and is probably a subconscious and generally unacknowledged influence on my writing.

I thought of that today when I was trying to find a way to encourage lurkers to support my Identity Theft campaign which has been stalled at 25% for a day or so. (My apologies, but I am contractually obligated at this point to bring every post back to my novel and to ask readers to support it.)

I thought of The Garden Song (shown above) and that moment when Arlo asks the crowd to sing along and then says, “Stop the song.” The audience is with him, but they are not enthusiastic enough. They’re happy to listen, but not yet ready to participate.

“Why should I sing along with that dingleberry folk song anyway?” In another version of this narration Arlo takes on the voice of an audience member and says, “I’m not going to sing that song because I hate gardens, and I hate songs about them.”

I am facing a similar enthusiasm gap. My friends offer words of encouragement, but many are not yet ready to participate. I tried to imagine how I could use this tactic. “I’m not going to buy that book because I hate words, and I hate books filled with them…”

I tried to imagine how I could start from that spot, modulate the cadence, bring people along until there was a crescendo of enthusiasm, good feeling and support; take my audience from passively clicking like to clapping and singing out loud, telling their friends what a great story they have experienced.

Ah, but I’m not Arlo. Print is not verbal poetry. And I don’t play the guitar.

Thoughts on Colbert’s “Case Against Charity”

This wrap up of last night’s Colbert report will have to serve as a stand in for the clip I wanted to put here. The Case Against Charity segment, which you can find via the link. I am not savvy enough to figure out how to make Comedy Central clips embed on Word Press.

In the beginning of Colbert’s show last night, Stephen named his fellow nominees in his Grammy category and said he was especially looking forward to beating 94-year-old Pete Seeger.  I have met Pete Seeger twice and one of those meetings stuck with me. It was outside Carnegie Hall. Seeger had just wrapped up a concert with Arlo Guthrie and a group of fans had gathered outside the stage door in hopes of getting autographs. Seeger spotted a homeless man sitting on the pavement across the alley. He walked over to him.

“How are you tonight?” he asked.

The man said he was doing OK.

Seeger asked him if he’d had enough to eat and if he had a place to sleep. “I know some places you can go if you need a warm place to sleep,” he said.

The man thanked the musician and said he had somewhere to go. He seemed pleased though that someone had taken an interest in him as a human being. They talked for a couple of minutes before Seeger went back to his fans and then on his way.

I still had this memory in mind when Colbert aired his Case Against Charity segment which featured John Stossel dressing up as a homeless man in order to show what a scam begging is.

Stossel says that “the people who work with the homeless” agree with him. He doesn’t actually quote any specific person or agency. He also implies that all homeless people are addicts without offering any actual studies to back this up and says that most of the people who beg for money are “fakers.” Again, he doesn’t have any source for his “most” figure nor explain what he means by “faker.” Not really homeless? Not really poor? How poor?

In any case “the people who work with the homless” according to Stossel say that you should not give a beggar money but “help the person get to one of the social service agencies.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if that is, in fact, what John Stossel does when he sees a homeless person on the street. Does he stop and ask the person his story, ask him what he most needs and help him to find an agency that can meet that pressing need?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have my suspicions.