Monday, April 12, 2010

These Songs Are Our Songs

Arlo Guthrie brought his family to Tucson last Friday, and The Virginians and I went to watch them sing.  Turns out, we got to watch them dance and hug and play the ukelele, too, but that's getting ahead of the tale.

I've spent most of this Spring watching other people's children perform (see posts on NCAA March Madness for proof) and I was ambivalent about devoting yet another night to that particular pursuit.  But Alice's Restaurant provided the soundtrack to my life for a while back in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and Woody Guthrie was there in my childhood and the tour was billed as The Guthrie Family Rides Again so, really, how could I resist?  

G'ma loved folk songs; they were the only tunes she thought she could carry.  There was a lilt in her step when she sang Woody's  This Land is Your Land,and though I can't conjure a specific image I can close my eyes and be there, with her, connecting to her Socialist (well, maybe Communist) parents and their vision for a world where hard work was rewarded... a vision they held onto as they worked two and three jobs at a time, pressing pants and pleats in the basement of the 6-flat that Zaydeh and Gladys' father had built with their own hands, going to work as a paperhanger and a seamstress, watching G'ma go off with her grandpa, carting bottles of "home made wine for religious purposes" on Prohibition Era trains between New Haven and New York.... in America the land of opportunity where hard work really could be rewarded.... just look at their children, college graduates, one a teacher, and their grandchildren, with fancy jobs and titles..... all of that was wrapped up in the song.  

It's nice to have a memory like that.
And it's even nicer when the performers share it.
That was what it felt like on Friday night. 
We'd all heard the same songs in the same way at the same time.
And it felt good.  
Really, really good.

Sarah Lee came out first, with her husband Johnny Irion and Terry A. La Berry (another fabulous name - he's the only one not related to a Guthrie who was on the stage all night).  They played - Abe was at the keyboard - and sang and told a few stories and then Cathy and her ukulele and Annie with her cowgirl hat and her autoharp came on stage and there were a few kids wandering around, appropriating the guitars' mikes for their own vocals, and it was a gentle flow of wonderfulness.

Arlo walked out looking just like he did on the cover of the album which lulled TBG to sleep first semester freshman year (yes, the roommate from hell played it as a bedtime story every night)

His hair is beautifully white and a little bit longer, but the waves and the shine and the perfection of the style on the man is still there. I'm telling you, it was a great night.

There was a distinction made between the tunes and the words.  Woody's archives are being explored by Arlo's sister, Nora (Woody's mom's name.... family means a lot to these folks).  The words are unmistakeably Woody Guthrie, the tunes are all over the map.  Yet there was a coherence, a respect for the vision, a gentle flow to them all.  

At one point there were Guthries playing harmonica, piano, keyboard, ukelele, mandolin, guitars of all descriptions while singing inappropriate lyrics written by Cathy and Amy Nelson..... yes, Willie's daughter.

You really do want to listen.  Probably not at work or in the classroom, though, Cuters.......

Abe's son, Krishna, the oldest grandkid on the stage, played "one of mine", and though the bridge was suspiciously reminiscent of the Allman Brothers' In Memory of Elizabeth Reed

there was also something of the Dust Bowl in it, too. 

City of New Orleans

was the only other oldie they played, and they made it a Chicago memory for me.  Arlo talked about Steve Goodman, the songwriter, a Cubs fan who died too young.  TBG and Oscar's Son and Big Steve and the rest of the gang and I would hear him on Halsted Street, or somewhere on upper Broadway with David Grisman. 

This is my favorite of his songs

It's a road I took every day and one which I never took for granted.  My memory of the big Cuter's birth involves the waters of Lake Michigan covering all the North and half the South bound lanes of The Drive as we sped to the hospital.  My first Chicago bike ride was from rags right up to riches along The Drive.  I answered the sperm and the egg question at the Fullerton Exit on The Drive.  Coming  home on The Drive late one night, Tree ran into a light pole and survived.  Oscar's Son and Dr. K ran the Chicago Marathon on The Drive and they survived, too.  Lake Shore Drive is a big part of most of my Chicago memories.... and somehow I got here from Arlo Guthrie.... oh, yes..... Steve Goodman and The City of New Orleans. 

That's how my night went.  The music was familiar even when it was new to me.  It took me places I was happy to revisit and to spaces that brought a frisson of happiness to my heart.  Looking around the auditorium, it was obvious that the feeling was universal.

The Guthrie Family is also a music conglomerate.  They have their own label, Rising Son, which creates and distributes all things Guthrie.  They are living the good life, on their own terms, surrounded by people they like.  And they are related to those people.  It's the American Dream lived large right before my very eyes. 

Lest you think that this was a remembrance of things past and nothing more, allow me to reassure you -- these people are really good musicians.  Arlo learned from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Pete Seeger and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.  He's an accomplished guitarist and much more than the carrier of his father's torch.  But I don't want to diminish the debt of gratitude I feel to him for keeping this music alive and relevant.  Children's records that don't make you want to jump out of the mini-van are on the horizon and I can see myself sending CD's to grandkids as yet un-born.

Because, after all, it's a family thing.