This Land Is Our Land

Arlo Guthrie's musical passion and tireless charity keep the heart in folk

If there are troubles in the world, don't blame Arlo Guthrie. He's doing the best he can.

The son of Woody is the father of Abe, a keyboardist for a Massachusetts-based thrash quintet called Xavier that also finds time to back Arlo. And he is a devotee of Ma Jaya ("victory to the mother"), a guru who has moved the laid-back former flower child toward an activist social consciousness. They practice their good deeds from an ashram in the Brevard County outpost of Roseland, not far from the surfing mecca of Sebastian. "I'm his teacher," Ma Jaya says, "and I'm teaching him to have an open heart and serve others."

One undertaking representative of Guthrie's altruistic bent occurred a few weeks ago with the sixth Great Music Festival on the campus of Brevard Community College in Melbourne. There was no questioning the day's musical lineup A Xavier, the Outlaws, and Arrow performed, along with Miami folk trio Relative Viewpoint, who chimed in with fitting save-the-world songs. Late addition Lost City (featuring Cream offspring Kofi Baker and Malcolm Bruce) provided the rock edge. Bonnie Raitt couldn't make it.

More questionable: how many actually attended, and how much money was raised for AIDS, the Indian River, and sea turtle preservation. Those concerns were lost in the chaos of Ma Jaya displaying before-and-after photos of AIDS victims and Wavy Gravy A a tie-dyed clown, erstwhile Merry Prankster, and emcee of this show A decrying his recent appearance on the cover of High Times.

Guthrie took the stage after Xavier's toned-down set list (most memorable was an a cappella treatment of Hoyt Axton's "Joy to the World"), showing some of his talent for mixing messages with entertainment. He covered Dylan's "Hour that the Ship Comes In," slid in and out of a pacifist number about Afghanistan, and applied a bouncy keyboard feel to "City of New Orleans," a Steve Goodman classic that Arlo lost the thread of somewhere around "the graveyards of the rusted automobiles." It happens.

"I look back on those years a lot more fondly than I can actually remember bein' in 'em," Guthrie told the crowd of roughly 3000 as he introduced the faded jeans he was wearing A the same pair of pants he donned 24 years before when he welcomed attendees at Woodstock A and continued the flashback with "Comin' In to Los Angeles."

Left unsung, but hanging in the air like a mantra, was "Alice's Restaurant," the song, not the miniseries. The moral of that absent twenty-minute showstopper: that a few people bound together can create a conspiracy that can grow into a movement that can change the world. In a small and unspectacular way, Arlo Guthrie, whose shoulder-shrouding locks have turned silver, is attempting to live that theory. For example, Alice's Church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, helps administer his numerous humanitarian causes through a not-for-profit foundation.

During the recent festival, Guthrie took time to talk about his projects. "I think sometimes people get real serious about what's going on in the world," he says, "what's going on in their own town, what's going on everywhere, to a point where you don't even want to hear about it any more. That's a shame. My idea of changing the world is if you're gonna do it at all, you gotta have fun doing it. Otherwise, it ain't gonna get done." On this day it's getting done, and that doesn't escape the veteran folkster. "We set up one day a year," he continues, "that we think we can call in some friends, set up some information for people that like academic stuff, set up some T-shirts for people who want a T-shirt, and know that all the performers, all the help, everything is donated."

That's a good thing A the fest is not a cash cow by any means. Having moved to three locations in six years, the annual event, Guthrie says, has not made any money to speak of. It's barely publicized. In fact, Guthrie adds, "Up to this point, we're still hoping to pay back some investors from last year. I don't think we're going to do it today. But we're going to keep plugging away till we get it."

He has also been working quietly with promoters and Seminole tribal chairman James Billie to stage a major folk festival on the Big Cypress Reservation. Despite premature reports of a deal, most of the key details (dates, talent, prices) remain unfixed. Besides the obvious problem of tenderfoot urbanites stumbling through the Everglades in search of the party, Guthrie's own financial track record with such events doesn't augur well for a massive gathering in the swamp. Still, Guthrie says he's excited about the prospect.

The 45-year-old singer is also excited about last year's collection of children's tunes by his father, Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs. His brother Joady, sister Nora, and all their children sing on the Warner Bros. release. A songbook, written and illustrated by his parents more than 40 years ago, comes with the album, which was nominated for a Grammy. "The nice thing about the songs for kids," Guthrie offers in a tone as serious as mud, "is there's not a self-esteem builder in the bunch. I think my dad had a knack, just like he had for older people, of getting into their world. My dad wrote these songs for little kids, about their world, not trying to fit them into a big world. Songs about tying your shoes, which to a little kid is a big thing. He didn't spend a line on it, or a verse. He wrote songs about it. Songs about 'don't push me down. Let's go do this. Let's go do that.' And to a little kid whose world is that big or that small, he made them feel that world was important. It's worth writing a song about."

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