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Q&A with Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie

Arlo Guthrie

Concert preview
Arlo Guthrie and family
8 p.m. March 5. $35-$45. Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive, N.W., Atlanta, 404-894-9600,

By Bob Townsend

Arlo Guthrie, the son of American folk music icon Woody Guthrie, arrives at the Ferst Center for the Arts on March 5 with his entire clan of children and grandchildren in tow.

This “Guthrie Family Rides Again” tour, he said, is all about highlighting some new songs that have come out of his sister Nora Guthrie’s ongoing effort to make lyrics from the Woody Guthrie Archives available to musicians from around the world.

“We’re attempting as a family to say ‘thank you’ to all of these people, like Billy Bragg, Wilco, the Klezmatics, Eliza Gilkyson and Janis Ian, who have brought these lyrics to life,” Guthrie said.

Among those musicians, count Guthrie’s daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and her husband, Johnny Irion, who have been performing together since 2000. Late in 2009, the folk-rock duo released a kids’ album, “Go Waggaloo” (Smithsonian Folkways), featuring several songs with lyrics by Woody Guthrie. And they have another album, “Bright Example,” due out later this year.

Just before embarking on the latest leg of the Guthrie tour, Sarah Lee talked about being on the road with her father and family to celebrate what she calls “the spirit of Woody.”

Q: So, what’s the skinny on this tour?
Dad decided to take the whole family on the road. That was a very brave move [laughs]. We did something like this about three years ago, as the “Guthrie Family Legacy” tour. But that was just me and Johnny and my brother Abe. Now my dad’s grand kids are of the age to be playing and singing, too. So we’re all out there to spread the love and the spirit of Woody.

Q: Your dad has been quoted as saying touring with the family is “like herding cats.”
We’re traveling in two buses. There’s 17 of us, and the crew, so we’re about 20 people. There’s 13 family members on stage. That includes seven grand kids. My daughter, Sophia, who’s 2 1/2, is the youngest.

Q: Everyone’s heard “This Land Is Your Land,” but do you remember when you first became aware of the legacy of your father and grandfather?
It grew on me. And it’s still growing. I remember specific moments, being at my dad’s shows. People would come up and say what they felt about the family — how Woody’s music or Arlo’s music had changed their lives or helped them through hard times. So I started hearing these stories at a very young age. But it wasn’t until I started playing music that I sat down and really listened to my grandfather’s records and read his book, “Bound for Glory.”

Q: Most people know Arlo Guthrie as the “Alice’s Restaurant” guy, but what’s he like as just “Dad”?
He is a very quiet guy. He doesn’t say much at all. I can remember when he would say something, gosh would we ever listen. He was on the road a lot so when he was home we just cherished that. He’s a very spiritual guy and I’ve always respected how he raised us without words, just actions. He taught by example, and he still does. If we mess up on stage, he never says anything, because he knows we already feel bad.

Q: Your two children are part of your kids’ album, “Go Waggaloo,” which includes several songs with Woody’s lyrics. How did that come about?
The great thing about this record is that my whole family was able to be part of it — from the songwriting on to the recording and now performing some of it on tour. We made the record due to a phone call we got from Smithsonian Folkways. They asked if we would “consider making a record that didn’t make you want to jump out of a minivan.” They had a bunch of kid-themed lyrics that were written by Woody in the late 1940s. I got to put music [to] them, and we even got Pete Seeger to lead us in a couple of songs.

Q: So many of Woody’s old lyrics have been put to new music now, starting with Billy Bragg and Wilco. What’s your take on that?
When the Billy Bragg and Wilco album came out, there were a lot of mixed feelings. But I loved it. I was a huge Wilco fan. It was Nora’s project, and she put a lot into it. I don’t think people realize that there are 2,996 lyrics in the Archives. These songs need to get out through the consent of Arlo and Nora and people who knew and loved Woody. Woody’s spirit flows through them and they have every right to be doing this.

One comment Add your comment

Boogers floating in your soup.

February 24th, 2010
2:46 pm

Who cares about Arlo Guthrie. Just another fat ole screwed up burnt out hippie.