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This article by David McDonough was prepared for the April 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Keeping the Guthrie Faith
The not-so-good news is that eight-month-old Olivia
Nora Irion is not yet sleeping through the night.
The better news, her mother reports by telephone, is that she has
a wonderful schedule for a musician — she wakes up at midnight.
"Also," adds the musican and proud mom Sarah Lee Guthrie,
"She’s a great baby."
Olivia could have a lot of midnights in her future. After all, she
is the daughter of two musicians. Singer and songwriter Sarah Lee
Guthrie, with her husband, Johnny Irion, will be appearing together
with Sarah Lee’s father, Arlo Guthrie, at McCarter on Saturday, April
19. Sarah Lee’s brother Abe will play as well, and if you don’t know
that Arlo’s dad was the legendary folk-singing poet, Woody Guthrie,
well, wait a couple of years and chances are that Olivia, strumming
a guitar, will tell you all about her great-grandpa.
It’s not so far-fetched. Maybe eight months is a little early to decide,
but Sarah Lee, now 24, didn’t know she would be going into the family
business until she was out of high school.
"I kind of got side-swiped by this lifestyle of mine," she
says in a phone interview. "I didn’t see this coming at all. I
was kind of into punk. Then I moved out to L.A. and met Johnny, and
it all kind of just fell into place. He and the people who we were
hanging out with really made me appreciate the type of music I grew
up on. I never thought I was going to be a musician. It certainly
wasn’t expected of us — I think my parents wanted us all to be
Well, maybe. But music was bound to figure in there somewhere. Sarah
Lee and her siblings grew up in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts,
not far from the church in Housatonic made famous by Arlo in his best-known
song, the 18-minute shaggy-dog story, "Alice’s Restaurant Massacree."
(In 1991 Arlo purchased the church and turned it into the Guthrie
Center, a non-profit community service center.)
Like most working musicians, Arlo was on the road a lot, and Sarah
Lee acknowledges that her mother, Jackie, played a big role in the
children’s upbringing — and in some ways, a bigger role in Sarah
Lee’s musical development than Arlo.
"My mom is a wonderful mother," she says, with feeling. "She
held this family together through everything. She’s a strong woman
and deserves a lot of credit. And she’s an artist herself — does
great sketches, she’s a painter, not really for the public, but it’s
all on our walls at home. She’s a great appreciater of music. She
met my dad when she worked at the Troubadour [a renowned folk club]
in L.A. in the ’60s. She knows everybody from that era, and played
all their music for me: Doug Dillard, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and especially
Axton was one of the best singer-songwriters of the
’60s and ’70s, with songs like "Never Been to Spain," "When
the Morning Comes," and "Joy to the World" among his credits.
Sarah Lee sang his "In a Young Girl’s Mind" on her first solo
CD in 2002. It’s an important connection, because the Axtons of Oklahoma
are related to the Guthries from that state. And Mae Axton, Hoyt’s
mother, co-wrote Elvis Presley’s first No. 1 hit. Thus "Heartbreak
Hotel" is a cousin to "This Land Is Your Land."
Sarah Lee also sings songs by such folk icons as John Prine and Gillian
Welch, as well as some guy named Woody Guthrie. Her eponymous CD,
released in 2001, contains much of her own material, but listening
to it, the influences are clear. "Big Square Walking" and
"Lazy Tongue" have some of the fun of Arlo’s songs. "Johnny
By My Side," with its yodeling chorus, could have come out of
Ireland by way of the Oklahoma hills. "Rainbow" is Pete Seeger-oriented,
and "You Gotta Sing" tips its hat to Woody. There is also
a lovely tribute to her Dad, entitled "Living By The Open Door:"
You had the courage to let us fly
Let us live, let us live.
You had the patience to let us try
Let us live, let us live,
And let our egos die.
that Sarah Lee’s songs "show the influences of her father, Arlo,
and his frequent collaborator, Pete Seeger, filtered through her own
unique musical glasses."
And if that it makes it folk music, Sarah Lee says, "I’m completely
comfortable with that. I think it’s hard to get away from it when
you’re a Guthrie. Anyway, it’s all music and it’s all the same. Folk
music is all kinds of music. It used to be a term meant to contradict
classical, something you learned by ear or from your family. So everything
you hear today could be called folk music, because most of it is not
from being trained."
"I’m just quite comfortable calling myself a folksinger. In my
live shows I play my guitar and sing, and my husband plays the dobro.
And in the shows with my dad, there’s me and my brother — he plays
the keyboard and bass and a couple of guitars. We do some old folk
tunes and have some fun, and that’s really what it’s about — getting
together with your family and having some fun."
"I feel like I’m part of all the people in the big family of folk
music, all traveling on the same road. I’m doing it more recently,
but guys like Tom Paxton, who I work with now, and Pete [Seeger],
who has been around since my grandfather’s day, are still traveling
that same road."
It can be tough trucking down your father’s highway;
just ask Julian Lennon or Hank Williams Jr. And when your grandfather
took that same highway so famously, the route can be downright hazardous.
Fortunately, Sarah Lee says, she hadn’t really understood her grandfather’s
"Oh, I heard the songs," she says, "I knew they were there.
But it’s hard to gauge how popular they were, hearing them in your
own house. You don’t whether your neighbor knows about these things,
until you go out into the world, and that’s when I discovered that
everyone knew Woody Guthrie. Not only that, the people I was listening
to were influenced by him. My eyes were opened by people that I thought
were cool, and they were doing covers of his songs. So I did gain
a large appreciation of who I was through my friends."
"I was thinking about this the other day. It’s a good thing Woody
was who he was — he wasn’t Sinatra or somebody perfect. He was
just a common guy, just this little guy, totally himself, and he makes
people feel comfortable. He was down to earth, so I don’t feel like
I have to fill his shoes. He kind of set it up for my dad and me and
the other kids to just be ourselves."
Sarah Lee is aware, though, that in a way, being a Guthrie prevented
her from some of the useful mistakes that can actually prove helpful
early in a career. She never had a chance to play the small clubs,
and fail in quiet anonymity.
"I know exactly what you mean," she says. "I started out
in Carnegie Hall, with my dad and Pete Seeger, and as we went off,
my dad whispered, `Well, it’s all downhill from here.’ My first solo
gig was in Milwaukee, and it was packed. I just giggled my way through
it, played every song I knew. But people are receptive, and they make
it feel like family."
Her one regret is that younger people are not as in tune with folk
music as she would like. She and Johnny Irion frequently tour by themselves,
and she’d love to play more college towns.
"With my dad, probably 60 percent of his audience is people who
grew up with him. And he still gets about 10 percent of his dad’s
audience. And a lot of people are bringing their kids. Some of the
college kids who have heard about him from their parents, the kids
like the Grateful Dead crowd, show up."
"I wish I saw more of them. I think folk music still is a lot
of those built-in audiences of a certain age, those are the ones who
show support for the folk circuit. They are great, but we sometimes
feel silly. I mean, we’re just the kids going in and playing to an
audience that knows a lot more that we do. But we have fun.
"Kids really don’t know this music. We have played some colleges
where kids come up and say, `Wow, we didn’t know people did this kind
of stuff.’ They had no idea that people were still playing this kind
of music. It’s nice when we can find those kids."
Sarah Lee thinks that her grandfather would have had a lot in common
with some of them.
"Take punk music," she points out. "So much of punk is
questioning authority. And that isn’t very far from Woody Guthrie.
If he were around today, as a 17-year-old kid, he’d probably be playing
in a punk band, because those are the ones that have enough guts to
stand up and say whatever they want whether you like it or not. And
that was very much the spirit of Woody, that feisty little fella."
It’s also the spirit inherited by Arlo, his sister Nora, and his brother
Joady. And Arlo’s children, Abe, Cathy, Annie, and Sarah Lee. And
now, it’s the spirit of Olivia Nora Irion, a feisty little lady who
decides for herself when she will sleep, and for how long. But it’s
a safe bet that she wakes to the sound of music.
— David McDonough
Place, 609-258-2787. The son of folk icon Woody Guthrie performs with
son Abe, daughter Sarah Lee, and her husband, Johnny Irion. $30 &
$35. Saturday, April 19, 8 p.m.
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