This Land Is Our Land
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."
Guthrie, whose father-in-law resides in West Palm Beach, has been visiting Florida from his Massachusetts base for what he terms "decades." He has occasionally staged benefits on behalf of sea turtles in South Florida. But it wasn't until he began his tutelage under Ma Jaya that he began trying to infuse environmental groups with a human consciousness. "You've got a lot of environmental people who don't realize that humans are part of the environment," he says. "They had a little lady livin' on a houseboat twenty miles south of here. They kicked her out of the river because they said the houseboat was creating shadows that were killing the grass. There was no fucking A excuse me A there was no grass in the river. But it was the policy that kicked her out. I hate that. That's not environmentalism any more. That's craziness.
"There's a lot of people who are happy to save whales, but they don't want to do nothin' for their next-door neighbor. Something's wrong there. It's not that everybody's got to do everything. Don't get me wrong. It's great that some people are doing whales. But they got to respect the people who are doing people. You can't have everybody doing everything or we'll get nothing done."
Guthrie's stage show included not only his son's band, but backing vocals by his teenage daughters Sarah Lee and Annie, who've adopted the Indian names Gopi and Pavarty respectively. After relating one of his father's stories, concerning two rabbits holed up in a log by a pack of dogs, Guthrie told the crowd, "People ask me what I've been doing for the past twenty years and I tell 'em I've been home...breeding."
The son of a singing rambler and a Jewish mother is, on this day, living in the moment. In his newsletter he has written about this A "With a little practice, almost anyone can see that it is only in the now of a moment that anything actually takes place. Nothing ever comes in the future, nothing remains in the past. It all seems to happen now."
Not that one can't ponder what is to come. "I think what you ought to do is what's in front of you to do," he says. "If you go looking around all the time for what to do, you're not doing the right thing. So I'm learning, like everybody else, how to do what's in front of you, how to see what's in front of you so you can deal with it. 'Cause I got a sneaking spiritual suspicion that God puts in front of you what He want you to deal with. He don't put it off to the left. He don't put it off to the right. He don't put it up above you. He don't stick it down below you. He sticks it right in your face. That's what to do. Do the thing in your face. Everybody's got a different thing in their face. Then we'll all be doing what we're supposed to do."
Arlo Guthrie's "Oughtabiography" and a one-year subscription to his newsletter, The Rolling Blunder Review, are available for $5 at the Guthrie Foundation, P.O. Box 657, Housatonic,
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