Arlo Guthrie brings his life stories to the stage in Boston

Download Audio
Arlo Guthrie (Eric Brown/photographer)
Arlo Guthrie (Eric Brown/photographer)

Arlo Guthrie is one of America's most enduring folk rock artists. He sang at Woodstock in 1969. And he's had a faithful following since then.

The now-75-year-old with long silver curls has experienced health issues and announced in 2020 that he was retiring from touring. But Guthrie is coming back to the stage for a handful of shows starting Saturday at the Shubert Theatre in Boston. The shows will feature Guthrie in conversation about his life, as opposed to performing music with a band.

Guthrie says much of his life story is influenced by his late father, the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, whose spirit he still embodies. Guthrie spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins.

Interview Highlights

On how he came to learn the famous protest song written by his father, Woody Guthrie:

"We had changed schools. And I remember walking in there, and our music teacher led the entire assembly in 'This Land is Your Land.' And I was the only one that didn't know the words. I mean, I knew that my father had written the song, but I had never bothered to learn it. I didn't think that anybody else had learned it.

"And so I ran home and told my dad what had happened. And so he sat me down in the back yard with a little guitar that he'd given me, taught me the chords, taught me the words. And I've been singing it for the rest of my life.

" 'This Land is Your Land' has become more important as time goes by. When my father wrote it in [1940] ... it wasn't critically important. It was only afterwards, during the 50s and 60s and 70s, that his songs became known. And there were people coming to see me who were hoping that in some way I would carry on his work, because he wasn't able to do it himself.

"I never felt uncomfortable sharing my father with other people. I wouldn't have done it exclusively. I wouldn't have been a clone of Woody Guthrie. I saw a lot of people come to our house [who] dressed like my dad, talked like my dad, sang like my dad, wrote songs like my dad. But they weren't my dad. And try as they might, they couldn't replicate his importance.

"And I thought his songs are important to a lot of people, and I owe it to them to continue singing them and to continue writing about the same things in a world that I was familiar with.

"One of the things my father noted was that it's better to fail at being yourself than to succeed at being somebody else. And I never wanted to be him. ... But I did want to be myself in a way that he would have approved, frankly. I mean, I'm a kid, I'm a son. And I wanted to bring it to a broader audience, so that we could all laugh together and sing together and enjoy life together."

On whether the success of his 18-minute-long song "Alice's Restaurant" was a blessing or a curse:

"Well, nobody in their right mind creates an 18-minute monologue to be played on radio. And that was certainly not my intent. My intent was to stand up on stage and waste 18 minutes of my time so that I had less songs to learn. It was really simple, and I found a way to do that. So I was entertaining at the same time that I was wondering, 'How the hell are you going to remain on stage for another hour? What else you got?' Well, luckily for me, I had my father, and I would sing some of his songs. And luckily for me, I started writing some of my own songs."

On why he decided to do a tour in which he's mostly in conversation with someone, as opposed to singing:

"Well, there was a time when I was able to do 30 nights in a row. Each night was two hours long or something like that — two-and-a-half hours. I mean, it was fun. It was great. Look, when you're 18 and you're a guy, and you don't need a reservation at a restaurant because everybody knows your face, I would recommend it to anyone.

"But to live your life like that, something's got to be wrong with you. [It's] fine for a couple, a few years, 10 years maybe — even 20. But to live 50 or 60 years or 70 years like that, where you can't go anywhere without somebody stopping you for whatever it is they want, it gets a little nuts. And over time, my voice couldn't physically handle it — the travel, the big band, the lights, the sound, the whole thing was getting to be too much."

On what song best imparts his life philosophy to his four grown children, all of whom are involved in music to some extent:

"It was a song that came to me through my sister Nora that was my father's lyrics — a song called 'My Peace.' I added music to it and frankly turned it into a song. I had to change a few words around because it was a poem. It's, 'My peace my peace is all I've got that I can give to you.' I love that idea.

"I mean, you can tell your kids — you can explain to your kids about why the sky is blue and all that kind of stuff that they want to know when they're little. But the truth is, it's how you feel about yourself, how you feel about the world, your place in it. Not to get so frantic when times get crazy. And not to get too excited when things go well. There's a balance. And if my kids have learned that through songs like 'My Peace,' more power to them."

This segment aired on March 30, 2023.


Headshot of Lisa Mullins

Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.



More from WBUR

Listen Live