Wise old pa

18. 10ARTSARLO GUTHRIE first picked up a guitar at five and he’s been learning how to play ever since.

His dad—some bloke called Woody—had handed him the instrument and said, “Arlo, it’s going to take you 10 years to become a guitar player”.

“I said to myself ‘what an idiot, he doesn’t know anything, I’ll figure this out in three weeks!” Arlo chuckles.

“Then when the 10th anniversary came along and I was 15 I said ‘Jeez, the old man was right! I had to go back and relearn everything again.

“And not only was he right once, he was right every decade.”

Every 10 years or so Guthrie teaches himself to play again, he says: “I had to go back, start from scratch”.

The folk music movement has been healthy over the past decade with the alt-folk movement becoming widely popular, mainstream artists like Bruce Springsteen recording with Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg teaming up with Wilco to put music to dozens of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs (Woody died in 1967).

But Arlo says folk music’s been going strong all along in the hearts of unknown musos who toil away without recognition.

“Most of the musicians in the world are probably not well known. They don’t have recording contracts, nobody interviews them, they’re not on TV… they work their local events,” he told the Herald.

“[If] somebody’s getting married you’ve got to hire a band. You don’t call Bruce Springsteen, you call some guy down the street.

“Those are the guys that keep the music going, and they’re the ones that deserve the credit.”

He says folk music can get lost in navel-gazing as academic musicologists study obscure reels to the nth degree, but the real folk music is whatever people are playing and singing at important points in their lives: Birthdays, funerals and weddings. For some it might be the Beatles, for others it might be hip hop.

“It’s music that’s important to people for all these occasions. That’s folk music. The rest is all, pardon the expression, BS.”

While he has a broad definition for folk music, Arlo Guthrie’s tunes tend towards more traditional country folk-rock style with a bit of a bluesy lining.

This time around he’ll be playing a few of his pa’s old favourites to celebrate what would have been the old man’s 100th birthday (which was last year, but he’s been touring the world non-stop) and throwing in a few of his own classics like Alice’s Restaurant, Coming into Los Angeles and his spin on City of New Orleans.

Guthrie says the songs his dad was singing in the ‘20s and ‘30s are still relevant now: Ballads about immigrants, old union songs, people robbing banks and banks robbing people: “It’s still in the headlines, so I’ve included them because they ring true.”

He’s also bringing a new generation of Guthries to Australia, with muso daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion joining him in Perth.

“She was not interested in music as a child,” Guthrie says of his daughter, who didn’t pick up an instrument until well into her 20s. “She was unimpressed with anything that had to do with this fame business or music, until she met a guy who played guitar and he said to her one day ‘it must have been awesome growing up in that family’.

“She said ‘it was?’ It really did inspire her to take a new look. He gave her a guitar and she brought it to me and said ‘dad, could you show me how to play it?’

“I thought: She’s not really interested, she’s just in love. She came back a few days later and her fingers were bleeding. I said ‘oh god, here’s another one’. I knew she was serious.”

Arlo and Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion play the Octagon Theatre on March 13, tickets $88 from 6488 2440 or theatres@uwa.edu.au.

by DAVID BELL

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