Originally aired March, 2011 on WRGW Radio from The George Washington University.
Interview edited for length and clarity. Audio available upon request. All rights reserved.
Jesse Regis: It's so nice to talk to you, I mean, I've been a fan for so long. I know you hear it over and over again, but to have you here and supporting college radio means so much to this station so thank you for being here with us.
Arlo Guthrie: It's no problem. I'm actually enjoying it a lot.
JR: Where are you right now? You're in Maryland?
AG: I'm in Maryland and we're working our way through this part of the country before we sort of head West to the West Coast. We're just getting back on the road after a long three month break and I'm just chomping at the bit.
JR: Yeah, you got shows in Easton, Hagerstown, Alexandria, three shows in Hampton, goodness, you got a huge fan base over here, huh?
AG: [Laughs] Well, we like coming back here.
JR: I need to ask you this question right off the bat. I ran into my friend Ben today and he's a huge crossword puzzle guy and I said “I'm interviewing Arlo Guthrie today.” He said, “Arlo Guthrie, he's always in the crossword puzzles!" Arlo is always in the crossword puzzles apparently.
AG: It's true! That's my claim to fame these days.
JR: How does it feel to be a crossword celebrity?
AG: Well it's four letters – the son of Woody or something [laughs]. It's a no-brainer if you're over a certain age.
JR: He's 21 and he got it! You got a young fan base coming up.
AG: Let's move onto the current day. With all that's going on in the world today – I'm looking at the Middle East specifically – you're a guy with protest and social justice in your music. I'm wondering if you're at all inspired by what's going on in the Middle East and if it's becoming a part of your music at all. [editor's note: this interview took place during the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011].
JR: Wow, what a question. It's a big time that we're living in. There's a lot going on. It's not really that different than what's going on here and what's been going on here for the last 10-15 years. There's a buildup of religious fundamentalism on the one hand and you got this secularism on the other hand that says, “Leave me alone I just want to get on Facetime or Facebook and see my friends.” There's a lot of different world's colliding and it's happening all over the world. And I, frankly, think it's the greatest thing to happen in a while really since the 60's. There haven't been young people emerging from a dull background and saying, “We want our world.”
JR: Do you think that musicians today are really doing enough to convey what's going on?
AG: They can only do as much as people will support them. People are trying to make a living doing this stuff. It's like making pizza. You can make the best pizza in the world, it doesn't matter. It's a combination of people getting hungry for the kind of progress and evolution, revolution, that's going on and then people being able to supply the kind of confidence that it takes to pull it off and that's what the songs are all about.
JR: Help me out for a second, Arlo, because today's music industry drives me absolutely crazy. You got some great beats out there – they make my booty drop – I'm on the dance floor, I'm having a good time, but I'm not connecting with it at all. I know you have some experience with this, and your label Rising Sun Records, and you do your independent thing. Where can kids who don't really connect with today's music go to hear good music?
AG: I'm not the one to ask. Hungry people find their way to food. Thirsty people find their way to water. That question is better answered by the trends that are going on, and unfortunately I don't think that the music industry has kept up. The online services like iTunes have lead the way over the last ten years and made the music accessible regardless of the hype and publicity. The icons of my recordings are not any smaller than the icons of the big record industry – the recoding industry, the entertainment industry. It's on the merit of the music itself. Yeah, there's a lot of hype, there's a lot of money spent to buy and sell stuff - we all know that. That's true in politics, as well as in music. People will find their way to the stuff that moves them – the stuff that gives them something to drink, gives them something to eat, that gives them substance that's not just a lot of crap.
JR: I want to know about Rising Sun Records. I've heard the story a hundred times over where the artist isn't seeing eye to eye with the record company and they end up leaving. How has creating Rising Sun Records effected you as an artist?
AG: The very first thing that I did back in 1983 was we started our own record company. This was before the Internet, before everybody had computers. I left Warner Bros. I had a very nice deal going there. I wanted to make records with people not looking over my shoulder. The very first record I made was a record of old cowboy songs, which I know no one wanted to hear. There was no commercial value to it. We didn't spend a dime promoting it. We didn't spend a dime advertising. We just made the record and made it available.
About six months later, I'm out in the middle of Wyoming somewhere and we were playing in a little bar called The Mangy Moose or something, you know, one of these places that no one ever hears about. An old rancher comes in about three o'clock in the afternoon while we're setting up for the gig that night. He says he's looking for Guthrie. I said, “Aw, man what did I do?” I told him, “I'm Guthrie.” He says, “Guthrie, I just want to thank you for making that record.” It was a record called Son of the Wind. Just cowboy songs. I thought to myself, here's a guy thousands of miles away from where we recorded it. We didn't spend a dime advertising, but it got to that guy who wanted to hear it. The guy said, “I just wanted to thank you for making that record, no one makes 'em like that anymore.” I invited him to the show. He said “No, I don't go to shows. I just wanted to come by here and thank you for making that record.” And I walked away thinking, “That's the way it really is.” You don't have to sell your soul. You don't have to become part of the industry or the business to make music. The real reason that we started our own company was to do the records without anybody looking over our shoulder, the kind of music we wanted to play for ourselves, and if there were enough people out there to support it, yippie, and if not we were gonna make 'em anyhow.
JR: I got a stack of CD's behind me, but I have to dig a little deeper to find some independent stuff instead of this Top 40 stuff.
AG: Well of course, everybody does. That's what they're doing. That's why the entertainment industry has become relatively irrelevant [laughs]. I mean who pays attention to that stuff anymore?
JR: I know! Let me ask you a more fun question. The summertime is coming up. It's music festival time. Obviously, you're very well known for your performances at Woodstock. Wondering if you have any plans to get back out there and do the summer festival thing.
AG: We're doing a few of them, I know that. We're going over to Europe for some festivals. I'm working my butt off, man, I wish I had more time off, but there's a lot of places we're going. I'm traveling with my son and my grandson this coming summer. I'm looking forward to that – the three of us out there. So, we keep a lot of stuff in the family and we just have fun playing music, which is what we love to do.
JR: What do you say to people who compare every large gathering to Woodstock?
AG: [Laughs] Well, it ain't large enough, man. There's only so many events like that in your life that you can be expected to have participated in. I remember being there on stage and saying, “This is it, you're never going to play in front of more people than this so make the best of it.” Unfortunately, I was in no shape to be playing that day [laughs]. So what? We had a great time. There were other things, other events that were going on. Look at the people up there in Wisconsin standing up there singing their tunes and getting people riled up and rallied and feeling like they belong there and feeling like something is going on. I guarantee they're singing songs in Egypt and Libya and all these other places, and Iran and Iraq. There are places all around the world where music makes a difference. It gives people the courage to make them feel like they're doing something worthwhile. I've always supported that. I always will. I'm thankful to live in a time when that's going on.
JR: You were 22 years old when you did that weren't you?
AG: I was probably 21, something like that.
JR: Oh, my goodness. I can't think of anyone who would have the – excuse my language – the cojones to go out there in front of all those people and sing from the heart like that, but I don't know.
AG: [Laughs] Well it wasn't really cojones. It was a matter of what we were doing those days! It was easy! No, I mean I was scared. I'll tell you the truth. It was scary. But sometimes you just got to swallow it, and just deal with it, and just go for it and if it sucks, alright. If not, all the better.
JR: You were there for like a day and a half, right, just taking it all in?
AG: Yeah, it was great.
JR: Let's step back for a second here. You lived through these times, you created some cool stuff, what is it like when kids like me, or anyone comes up to you and looks at you like an oracle of advice and good vibes. What do you make out of people asking you advice, and asking you about the history of an era?
AG: Oh my God - it's a tough thing to do. But, I've learned some lessons in my life that have been really valuable. The main one is – if you really want to know what someone else knows, you don't take a course, you don't read a book, and you don't sit in a class. You wash their freaking dishes. You mop the floor. You do whatever you need to do to be there so that you can observe what's going on, without changing what's going on. To me, we've lost sight of the old school. That's how guys like Socrates and Plato and all these others taught. How all the Yogi's teach. How all the Saint's taught. They didn't have a course. They were just themselves. So, if you can find somebody who knows something you want to know – go hang out with them. Don't be afraid. You don't have to work, it's not a matter of a job, you don't need credit for it, you're not going to get paid for it – just go do it. That's the only advice I ever have to anybody is - go do it.
JR: That is great advice. We have unpaid internships here does that count?
AG: Yes! Exactly. That's what I'm saying. It's not a secret. It's not like a formula or something. People actually do it, but it's very old-school. If you think you're going to work your way into it, or learn your way book learning into it – it's not going to happen for you. But if you want to be with somebody and actually figure out who they are, what it is, and who you need to be when you're in the presence of somebody who knows something. That's the important thing.
JR: Yes. Hands on, experience. I love it.
JR: You are very much an individual making a difference – making the world a better place. For people listening to this, what is one thing they can do today or tomorrow to make their circle – their world, this world – a better place?
AG: Stop counting on other people. The prevailing theory is that to combat the evils of the world – the great corporate multinational evils – the great evils of a nation or a region – that you have to be as big as them – you need to raise as much money as them – you have to do all of these things to form your own organization or your own corporation – form your own government, whatever it is. None of that is going to work. The thing that will work is for people to do in their own little places – where they are – things that need getting done. You don't need a community to do it, and you don't need a democracy to do it and you don't need an organization or a corporation - just do it yourself. If enough people do that than it can't be stopped. Any large corporation that has something to lose will stop your new organization from getting its word out. It's all over. If you come out with a new wonderful way of fixing yourself medically there will be sponsors – the pharmaceutical companies will get out there with organizations like QuackWatch, or some horrendous thing like that and tell you that your new information is totally false and has been proven that over and over and over again – it's all lies but it gets out there in equal force to whatever you put out. So if you want to actually do something, just do it. There are millions and millions of people all over the world who do things in their own hometown. There's no organization that has the wherewithal to stop that.
JR: Don't rely on anyone else. Create a force. Where do you get your passion, Arlo?
AG: Well, I'm just telling you the things I've learned over the years in sound bites as quick as I can because I know what the world is like. I can tell you that these are lessons that I learned working with some really wonderful people. Guys like Pete Seeger and others over the years. I've learned a lot from them. It was given to me freely, and I'm giving it out freely. It's not advice, it's just where I'm at. If it has some use to somebody great, and if it doesn't then fine, deal with it yourself.
JR: What should people expect from the show at The Birchmere on Saturday?
AG: The usual stuff, I would imagine. I got a great band – some local guys that I love playing with and The Burns Sisters from Ithaca, New York, my son Abe is on the stage with me, I haven't seen him for three months. We've been on a break. These shows are going to be really fun because we're getting out chops back together for the rest of the tour, which ends in May. The songs that we're doing I think are awesome. The sound of the band is great, it's powerful, it's fun, and if somebody comes that's great, and if not, we are going to love it anyhow. There's times when you suck and the audience is great, and there's times where you're great and the audience sucks, and there's times that are sorta in between. I can guarantee you that every one of the shows that we're doing is just going to be awesome and powerful – now's the time to do it.
JR: And it's sold out, too.
AG: Is it? I have no idea [laughs].