I grew up during the pretty cool ‘60s when nearly everyone in my generation listened to the same music. Back then, mainstream radio played songs by artists ranging from Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, to Jimi Hendrix, Motown and the Doors. Even Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell got airplay alongside the British invasion. Music defined the era and gave us a sense of a shared culture.
Arlo Guthrie helped define the ‘60s. Arlo was known less as a producer of multiple pop hits than he was for the cultural imprint he made penning and performing the anti-war anthem, "Alice's Restaurant," and arriving by helicopter at the 1969 Woodstock to look out over the crowd. "Lotta freaks!" he exclaimed. "The New York Thruway's closed. Isn't that far out?"
And then there was the moment when Arlo testified at the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial and in response to cross-examination, started singing "Alice's Restaurant" until he was stopped by Judge Julius Hoffman who ordered, "No singing. No singing. No singing, sir."
More than most other performers from the ‘60s, Arlo endures. He performs constantly, all over the world. He's the son of legendary activist troubadour Woody Guthrie but, over the years, Arlo's had to share Woody's legacy with Pete Seeger, who toured extensively with the elder (and younger) Guthrie; Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who lived at the Guthrie home when Arlo was a teenager and adopted some of Guthrie Sr.'s performing style; and Bob Dylan who openly harnessed his huge talent to Woody's populist persona and sensibility. Dylan famously made a pilgrimage, in 1960, from his Minnesota home to Woody's bedside when Guthrie was struggling with Huntington's disease.
As recently reported in the London Guardian, "Dylan started mimicking his hero's speech patterns and even told the crowd at the Cafe Wha? when he arrived in New York: "I been travellin' around the country, followin' in Woody Guthrie's footsteps."
Arlo has been nothing but gracious about sharing Woody Guthrie's cultural inheritance with so many other musicians. He's even joked onstage about wishing that Dylan would stop writing so many good songs -- or at least share a few of them. And I remember a morning I spent with Arlo in 2003, where he choked up when talking about Bruce Springsteen, who, during the past two decades, became increasingly inspired by Arlo's dad.
I've brought Arlo to perform in Vermont on a half-dozen occasions, and we met and talked several times, during the early 2000's, about the possibility that he might play the lead character, Quebec Bill Bonhomme, in my 2007 film, "Disappearances." Arlo would have made a memorable Quebec Bill, I'm sure -- and we worked together to find funding with the help of writer John Steinbeck's daughter-in-law. Arlo liked the idea that the Guthries and Steinbecks, who so vividly detailed the dustbowl culture of the Depression era, might collaborate. But, as so often happens in the movie business, this didn't come to pass, and Kris Kristofferson ended up playing Quebec Bill -- with Arlo's blessing.
I first reached out to Arlo in 1982, when I asked him to come to Vermont to perform two benefit concerts for the nuclear weapons freeze and against American involvement in the growing war in El Salvador. Guthrie agreed and, on the day of the St. Johnsbury show, he rolled up to the venue in a steel-gray and black Cadillac Eldorado that, despite being pretty new, looked like it had seen better days.
As he slid into a parking space alongside St. Johnsbury's Fuller Hall, I couldn't help but notice thick tufts of hay sticking out through the car's trunk. "Looks like you're putting some pretty hard miles on the old Eldorado," I said to Guthrie.
"Thing is, I've got animals at my place in western Massachusetts. So we have to cut hay to keep ‘em going," said the long-haired star. "I like having the critters around. But I've always wanted to drive a Cadillac, too. And it cost enough that I didn't really have cash left over for a more practical vehicle."
"Like a pick-up truck," I said.
"Yeah. That's right," Arlo mused. "I guess the hay in the trunk kind of takes away from the whole idea of the car being a Cadillac. But it ain't as bad as driving the sucker along behind the baler. You can fit quite a few bales into the back seat and trunk of a Caddy, but it's hell on the shocks."
Arlo's St. Johnsbury visit bubbled up again a couple years after I produced the benefit concerts. I'd put in some firewood and was enjoying a long hot soak, reading the newspaper in my bathtub at home when a sharp knock at the door interrupted my relaxation. Frustrated, I stepped from the tub, grabbed a towel and went to the front door, where the postman handed me a certified letter and asked me to sign for it. I did, returned to my bath, and added an ample dose of hot water.
Settling back, I opened the envelope and found two pages of official-looking court documents. There was no cover letter -- just the documents that revealed that my phone had been tapped for the previous two and a half years. It seems that the U.S. Justice Department had approached the Federal Court in Rutland where they successfully requested a wiretap on my phone for "national security" reasons. A subsequent court action required the wiretap's disclosure. Wow.
My mind raced, thinking of what it was I could have done to warrant this attention. I was running Catamount Arts at the time, the Northeast Kingdom community arts organization I'd established in 1975, first as a traveling film series and then as a performing arts producer and launching pad for my films and start-up projects like Circus Smirkus. And, yes, I'd also written articles about my trip to El Salvador, and I made a documentary film (with Doreen Kraft) about the 1980 literacy crusade in Nicaragua.
Then I remembered an incident a couple years earlier when a local Barnet friend approached me to explain an incident she witnessed at the town clerk's office, where a man flashed his FBI credentials to the town clerk and started asking questions about me. Several of his questions had to do with the Arlo Guthrie concerts I'd staged.
To his credit, the Town Clerk said nothing except to confirm that I lived in town. But my friend's teen-aged daughter berated the FBI agent, telling him that he should be ashamed of himself. She said that she had been to the Arlo concert and would go again, even if it meant being investigated by G-men.
I didn't have anything to hide back in the mid-1980s, so the wiretaps didn't really bother me. At least not as much as knowing how broadly the government was allowed to throw its net -- and how first amendment activities like writing newspaper articles, making a film and staging an Arlo Guthrie concert made me suspect. I only wished that I could write a song like "Alice's Restaurant" to mark the occasion.
Arlo Guthrie will perform in concert on Friday at 7:30 p.m., at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro. Tickets and information are available at KingdomCounty.org or by calling 802-748-2600.
Jay Craven is a filmmaker, producer of the Kingdom County Productions Performance Series and professor of film at Marlboro College. His latest film, "Northern Borders," stars Bruce Dern and Genevieve Bujold, was filmed in the Brattleboro area and made through a unique collaboration between Kingdom County Productions, Marlboro College and students from several regional colleges and universities. Visit www.KingdomCounty.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.