Is This Good For the Jews?
Arlo Brings the Whole
Mishpuka to UCLA

A Review of The Guthrie Family Rides Again-
Live at Royce Hall

April 16, 2010

By Ross Altman

Guthrie_Family_2.jpgBilled as "The First Family of Folk Music," my first question is, "Did Pete Seeger die?" Did Peggy? I hadn't heard. This "first family" business is somewhat disconcerting, and immediately calls to mind the Lomaxes (John, Alan and Bess), the Seegers (Pete, Mike, Peggy and her late husband Ewan MacColl, not to mention parents Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger), and of course the Carter Family (A.P., Mother Maybelle, Sarah, June and her little known husband, the greatest country/folk singer of the 20th Century, Johnny Cash).

Now where were we? Oh yes, the "First Family of Folk Music." Well, no question Arlo is a great storyteller and entertainer-a star by any measure; and Sarah, from what I hear (and read, in Terry Roland's excellent essay and interview with her ) she is a worthy performer of Grandpa's songwriting legacy.

That would be Woody, of course, the only reason Arlo (or perhaps UCLA) was able to go out on a limb and bill them as "The First Family of Folk." And since Woody is arguably the Ur-American folk singer there is certainly a case to be made. I won't be the one to argue that Woody does not deserve his spot on the top of Mt. Olympus as Zeus of the folk music gods, but after the father and son, the bench is a little thin, don't you think?

Be that as it may, I didn't come here to cavil over rankings of this kind. I have a larger bone to pick with this show: To the question (adapted from its famous Carnegie Hall version), "How do you get to Royce Hall?" I am afraid that the answer has become twofold, "Either practice, or be born a Guthrie." I still believe in meritocracy, not the divine right of kings, and based on merit, there was only one performer on Friday who got there the old-fashioned way, by earning it-that would be Arlo. I suppose that is why, when I looked at my press pass (a very well situated orchestra section seat, thank you) it said not, UCLA Live Presents The Guthrie Family, but rather UCLA Live Presents Arlo Guthrie. In short, they knew whose name was selling the tickets.

There, now that I've gotten that off my chest, and have earned my medal of journalistic independence by guaranteeing that I will never be invited to a Guthrie Family Thanksgiving, let's move on and take a close look at the concert that Arlo and "four generations of the Guthrie Family" presented at Royce Hall last night.

It was perfectly splendid and enjoyable, with many layers of meaning coursing through the "first family of folk music's" bloodlines.

As I looked at Arlo and his family band (let's call it what it was) I couldn't help but be moved by the fact that their very presence on stage represented a triumph of the human spirit, of hope over adversity, indeed some might argue, hope over good sense.

Some forty years ago, when Arlo and his wife Jackie were married and starting their family, they were only a few years away from having witnessed first-hand the tail end of Woody's 17 year-long, lingering and excruciatingly painful death from the genetic illness of Huntington's Chorea on October 3, 1967-which all of Woody's children had a significant chance of inheriting. Indeed, four of Woody's children by his first wife Mary did inherit and die of the disease.

The onset of symptoms in Woody's case began when he was 38 years old, and his mother, who died in the state insane asylum in Norman, Oklahoma, before there was sufficient medical knowledge to accurately even diagnose the disease, was assumed to have inherited not a physical but a psychiatric illness. That is an important bit of information, since it means that Woody may not have even realized that he was a carrier of this deadly gene, when he was making life and death decisions about starting his own family.

But Arlo knew the odds he was facing-and quite deliberately decided that life-even a foreshortened life-was worth living whatever the medical risks one was taking, and asking his children to take. He had no idea at the time whether he would wind up dying in the same fashion his father had-for at this point at least Huntington's is still incurable.

The good news is that once a child of a Huntington's carrier (like Woody) dodges the genetic bullet, it is gone from the family of that child (i.e. Arlo); his children and their children have no chance of developing it in the future. In other words, the Huntington's gene is not like a recessive family trait that may skip a generation and reappear down the road-when it's gone it's gone.

Happily, and almost miraculously, the same may be said of Arlo's full siblings-both his sister Nora and brother Joady have now lived long enough that it is evident they too have dodged the genetic bullet.

To therefore see a stage full of Arlo's children and grandchildren accompanying him on this tour-and to know that none of them is a carrier of the family curse--is little short of amazing, and extremely moving.

The concert itself gave everyone of them a chance to shine, including the youngest (only two or three years old-who were little scene stealers as soon as they trooped out from the wings to start dancing to one of Woody's children's songs).

Sarah is a terrific folk/country singer, and her husband, songwriter Johnny Irions, is a first-rate guitarist whose guitar work up on the fourteenth fret was a joy to watch and listen to as well.

But the showstopper was Sarah's sister Cathy, whose explicit lyrics (one of which is unprintable in a family newspaper) are all the more entertaining coming out of her studied expression of refined innocence. She performs with Willie Nelson's daughter Amy as the duo Folk Uke.

With all of the family trappings, however (including his son Abe's expert background support on keyboards and harmony vocals), Arlo Guthrie managed to put on a show that fully entertained the sold-out house. Despite his long flowing mane of white hair he is not anymore the hippie persona of old-but rather every bit the proud papa and grandpa of a sprawling brood that is able to rock out on some songs and lay back on others-to highlight some of the lovely melodies that a number of contemporary songwriters have now put to Woody's previously unsung archive of lyrics that Nora has been bringing to light over the past twenty years.

Arlo conscientiously gave each of them credit, including Janis Ian, Billy Bragg, Wilco and even the Klezmatics, who were given a treasure trove of Woody Guthrie's previously unknown Hanukah songs (though one of those songs was actually published in Woody's small-press edition of The Nearly Complete Collection of Woody Guthrie Songs.

And thereby hangs a tale. In case you did not know it, Woody's second wife and Arlo's mother was Jewish-and a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, whose own mother was the very well known Yiddish poet Eliza Greenblatt. And Woody loved his mother-in-law who was every bit the radical poet he was. Thus inspired he wrote many songs for her-including these Hanukah songs, one of which Arlo sang Friday night.

Since Judaism is something inherited from one's mother, one might observe that while Arlo fortunately missed inheriting the Huntington's gene from his father, he definitely did inherit the Jewish gene from his mother. That's right, folks, America's favorite folk singer is Jewish (as well as a few other things-like Scotch and Irish from his dad). And he was quite happy to bring the audience into this side of the Guthrie Family too.

With all of the threads woven into this dense family quilt of a mishpuka, it is only fair to ask where is the center of gravity? What is the figure in the carpet?

Well, let me put it this way: Arlo did a great show without even doing his own masterpiece, the epic canti-fable Alice's Restaurant. Clocking in at 18 minutes and 34 seconds (which made him quip in previous shows that it must account for the missing 18 minutes and 34 seconds in the Nixon tapes), there simply wasn't time, with all the other family members sharing the stage.

So absent Alice, what was the emotional heart of the concert? The Guthrie Family Rides Again (the title of the tour) may conjure up images of Arlo and kinfolk on horseback from some old western, but make no mistake-they rode into town on a train-Steve Goodman's City of New Orleans. That was the true highlight of a wide-ranging homage to American folk music mostly written or co-written by Woody Guthrie.

Arlo made it a hit, if you'll remember, and when he left the guitar stand with the half-dozen guitars he used during most of the concert to sit behind the piano, he brought the whole evening to a pitch perfect climax. For he didn't just do the song, as great as it is; he told the story of how he responded to the Katrina catastrophe in the only way he could-by trying to help out the musicians in New Orleans who had in many cases lost everything-including their instruments.

What better way than by riding the City of New Orleans down to New Orleans itself, and arranging for a whistle-stop fundraising series of benefit concerts along the way. His daughters Annie (who runs the family business of Rising Son Records from Massachusetts) and Cathy (who runs the LA office of same) worked out the logistics, and within twenty minutes of sending out Arlo's initial email to rally support for this cause, they heard from-folk legend? Not at all-comedian Richard Pryor- offering to do everything he could to help. Then they heard from Willie Nelson, and Arlo suddenly realized (in his inimitably delightful fashion) "Oh my God-I've actually got to do this!"

And do it they did, one of the more extraordinary concert tours in the annals of American music.

Chicago's wonderful, quirky, Jewish singer-songwriter Steve Goodman-whose own life was sadly cut short by another fatal illness, leukemia-had penned one of the great songs in American music, a song that truly transcends music history and through Arlo's heart-stopping performance has become a lifeline to the city of New Orleans, America's city.

If that isn't the "first family of folk music," I don't know what is.

And that's definitely good for the Jews.

Ross Altman may be reached at Ross will be performing at the Claremont Folk Festival on Saturday, May 1, and the 50th anniversary of The Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest and Folk Festival on Sunday, May 16.