Folk singer Woody Guthrie is such an American icon that a recent J. Peterman Company catalog (“Owner’s Manual No. 75”) has created a pair of jeans in his honor. “This land is your land, and these are the pants that helped make it,” reads the tongue-in-cheek copy in the latest catalog from the upscale clothier.
Speaking by phone from her Massachusetts farm/studio Guthrie’s granddaughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie — the daughter of Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo (of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame), is amused but unaware of the retro-trendy trousers. There isn’t much use for expensive pants in rural Massachusetts, it seems.
A singer-songwriter in her own right, Guthrie, her husband, Johnny Irion, also a singer-songwriter/ guitarist, and their two daughters, Olivia and Jacklyn, are taking a breather before heading out on the road with brother Abe Guthrie, sisters Cathy and Anne, their children, and the patriarch of the family, Arlo Guthrie. The Arlo Guthrie Family Legacy Tour arrives at McCarter Theater on Saturday, February 20, a family-friendly event featuring timeless stories and classic tunes. The tour features three generations of Guthries, with the littlest ones joining in on backing vocals on select songs.
The vibe on the tour bus is like the fictional Partridge Family times four, Sarah Lee Guthrie says. “We are living very full lives with not a moment to waste. This tour is everybody — my dad, my sisters, my brothers, nieces and nephews — and everybody plays. It’s a once in a lifetime experience, a rare opportunity for the family to be together — and we’re cherishing it. It’s 17 of us in a 40-foot tin can and it’s crazy, especially with the kids. We’re a traveling mess. But we all get along because of the music; it’s the glue that keeps us together.
“When you’re making music, whether you’re a family or not, you have to listen to each other,” Guthrie continues. “When your 14-year-old nephew is your bass player, there’s a different dynamic, and it helps us work out things.”
The concerts on the tour will feature Arlo Guthrie’s standards as well as a selection of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics recently put to music by such distinguished artists as Billy Bragg, Wilco, Eliza Gilkyson, Janis Ian, the Klezmatics, and others. Woody Guthrie’s catalog seems to grow deeper and deeper every year; in fact, his granddaughter reflects that there must be some 3,000 songs in the archives.
‘My grandfather didn’t write music; my grandmother did, and we’re still transcribing the songs. There are a lot left, which is amazing,” Guthrie says. “He never recorded them, so artists like Billy Bragg, Wilco, and Jonatha Brooke have gone into the catalog, taken a song, and put it to music. So these are brand new Woody songs, and we wanted to take some of these and shine a light on them. These concerts in part are a tribute to all the people who have kept his music alive. We have a need for Woody’s words. They are still powerful and still ring true, maybe even more so these days. It’s really nice to have this legacy, this information, these great songs and stories.”
Arlo Guthrie also has his own trove of musical treasures to dig into. In 2009 he celebrated the 40th anniversary of Woodstock with the release of “Arlo Guthrie: Tales of ’69” (Rising Son Records). Recorded just prior to the famous festival, the recording highlights a Guthrie live concert in Long Island, N.Y., and features nine tracks including three previously unreleased songs as well as “Alice — Before Time Began,” a half-hour talking blues tale and a kind of a prequel to “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Sarah Lee Guthrie and her family have also been productive and last fall released “Go Waggaloo” (Smithsonian Folkways). Chock full of original songs as well as a few settings of grandfather Woody’s lyrics, Guthrie and Irion humorously describe the record as “a family album that doesn’t make you want to jump out of the minivan.”
Guthrie has nothing but praise for Smithsonian Folkways, which reached out to her with an invitation to come to Washington, D.C., and plumb the depths of her grandfather’s archives. Even the artwork on the cover is a sketch by the late Guthrie. “It’s a little piece of my grandfather, and it’s a nice way to work with him, through these people (at the archives) who have worked through him for years,” Guthrie says. “It’s been a great experience working with them, which is not always the case with the record industry.”
She admits that much of what is out there musically for families can be a bit icky-sweet, so they made a conscious effort to keep a certain simplicity in mind for “Go Waggaloo.” “It has a home-spun feel that kids are attracted to,” Guthrie says. “It’s easy to listen to, and it draws you in.”
The Guthries got some heavy-duty help from longtime friend Pete Seeger, who sings and plays on several songs. The venerable folkie, who turned 90 years old last May, even took to the swing set to make sure “Oh How He Lied” had the right tempo. “He’s so full of energy — there he was, out swinging on a swing, testing the song out, making sure it had a rhythm that kids could sing along to when they’re swinging,” Guthrie says. “He also plays on ‘Daddy’s Shoes,’ one of my songs, which was such an honor.
“We had been playing with Tao, Pete Seeger’s son, so we’ve been close to Pete for years,” she continues. “Johnny called Pete to see if he would be interested in working on the album, and he said ‘sure.’ In fact he suggested we do it right away. So we took the kids out of school on a field trip and went down to Pete’s the next day. We really admire the way he goes about performing for children, and that’s the vision Smithsonian and I had for ‘Go Waggaloo.’”
Born February 17, 1979, Sarah Lee Guthrie didn’t plan on a career in music, saying it wasn’t going to be her thing, and that she was trying to be as normal as possible. However, she met Irion just after graduating from high school, and it was he who pointed her in the direction of writing, singing, and performing.
“I got my head out of the clouds and started playing music,” she says. “It was a natural progression since it was a time for growing up, figuring things out. I joined my father on the road, played with him for the next four years, and then Johnny and I got married. We had set out for solo careers but we work well together as partners.”
Guthrie says the goal in making “Go Waggaloo” was to keep the project down to earth. So you’ll hear that the accompanying voices of the children aren’t polished but they are spontaneous and spirited, the way kids really sing. Instrumentation includes autoharp, ukulele, squeezebox, sitar, and even a toy piano.
The songs have a lighthearted, infectious feel, with a variety of rhythms and tempos, from the tango-esque “Fox and the Goose” to the rocking “If Mama Had Four Hands.” Guthrie says that particular song was co-written by her daughter Olivia, 7, when her dad quizzed her about what might happen if “mama had four hands.” She adds that all of the songs were inspired by daily life, including the morning mayhem of “show and tell day.” “Many parents have experienced that, kids running around, not knowing what to take for show and tell,” she says. “So, one morning we said, ‘why not take me to show and tell?’ That turned into the song, ‘Take Me to Show and Tell.’ We came up with the ideas, and then we got the kids involved to finish the songs. We actually went to the kindergarten and asked the kids for ideas: what might be some crazy things to take to show and tell?”
“We made the record in our house, so at times I was holding the baby [Sophie, 2] on my lap as I was singing,” Guthrie continues. “We got to let loose a little bit, and that’s some of the magic of the record. For example, you’re hearing the kids right after they ate ice cream, so you’re hearing their smiles. It’s such a relaxed way to make a record.”
Arlo Guthrie Family Legacy Tour, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Saturday, February 20, 8 p.m. Three generations including Arlo Guthrie; his son, Abe; his daughters Cathy, Annie, and Sarah Lee; and their children present songs they have written as well as Arlo standards. $37 to $48. Visit Sarah Lee Guthrie www.sarahleeandjohnny.com and www.arlo.net 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.