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Published: 2009/11/25
by Mike Greenhaus

Four Generations of Guthries Go Waggaloo at Carnegie Hall

In many ways, Arlo Guthrie’s music is synonymous with Thanksgiving. Not only does the holiday provide the backdrop for his famous 1967 satirical anti-war hippie anthem the “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” but the holiday feels inline with the singer/songwriter’s commitment to his family and the entire American folk tradition. Each Thanksgiving Weekend since the 1970s, Guthrie has also performed at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall—a tradition the Guthrie family inherited from Pete Seeger. This year’s Carnegie Hall show will be part of the traveling The Guthrie Family Rides Again revue, which brings the entire Guthrie family together onto one stage. Shortly before thanksgiving, Arlo’s daughter Sarah Lee and her husband Johnny Irion caught up with Relix/Jambands.com to discuss this weekend’s Carnegie Hall show, their new family album Go Waggaloo and why you won’t be hearing “Alice’s Restaurant” this November.

This year’s Carnegie Hall show is part of The Guthrie Family Rides Again tour. Can you start by giving us some background on how that package came together?

Johnny: The whole family tour started about three of four years ago. Arlo decided to take Sarah Lee and I out and do some of [Sarah Lee’s grandfather] Woody’s song with my Sarah’s brother Abe [who tours regularly as part of his father’s band], and we had a really good time doing that. This time he decided to add on and bring our kids, as well as Sarah Lee’s other siblings Kathy and Annie. It kind of harkens back to a tour that they did in ‘83 or ’84 when Sarah was 5, but now everybody’s singing and playing. Sarah Lee and I are doing songs off a kid’s album we just put out with Smithsonian called Go Waggaloo, songs off a record we just made [with Shins associates Vetiver], and a lot of Woody songs. It is just a fun evening of passing the songs around. There will be four generations of our family represented since our daughter, who is 7, is actually singing with us as well.

Will this be the first time the entire family has shared the stage?

Johnny:: This is the first time ever. I think Arlo’s pretty amazed about the whole thing. I mean there are 17 of us, I think, and there are two busses and a sprinter van, and we still don’t have enough room [laughter]. And a lot of the kids are under 10, so the backstage area is just absolutely mayhem. After Carnegie Hall we are playing [Newark, NJ’s NJPAC] and then we will be doing this tour until May. Hopefully, we all last that long [laughter]. Arlo is the ring leader—he’s the main cat herder and then we come out and do some songs off of Go Waggaloo. It’s kind of a kids record, so it’s a really great show that anyone from 4-90 can enjoy. Actually, Pete Seeger is over 90 so if he comes he can enjoy it too.

Speaking of Go Waggaloo, can you give us some background on that project?

Sarah: We have two kids so it was great timing when Smithsonian Folkways actually gave us a call last summer, and they asked Johnny if we’d be interested in making a children’s record that doesn’t make you want to jump out of a minivan [laughter]. I loved that idea, and I thought, “Well, that’s just a great inspiration, and I think that we could do that.” It was also great timing since we had just moved back to the Berkshires where most of my family lives after having lived in South Carolina for 7 years.

Our two kids inspire most of our daily singing to begin with so we had all these ideas in our heads when Smithsonian called. We just built a house up here, and we recorded [the album] in the house, which was really great because you can’t just tell the kids to go, “1-2-3 sing.” So we had a really nice, relaxed atmosphere. When the kids were into it and were having fun we could press play and record and capture them. All our cousins and everyone were also around so we could just called them up and had them come over to record with us and that’s what we did for about two weeks last summer. We just kind of invited people over and got everybody to sing, including my dad.

Also, when we went down to meet with Smithsonian, they handed me a folder of my grandfather Woody’s lyrics that had never been recorded, and they picked out about a dozen or so that were kids-themed songs. We included three of those on the album and put some music to them, which was a great part of the project. We just really loved including his songs and, of course, we called Pete Seeger who was really wonderful. He agreed to playing on the record right away, and we went down to New York and recorded with him. So we just had all these things kind of fall into place and were really, really excited to be working with Smithsonian—who put out so many of Woody and Pete’s records. Everything kind of just worked out and fell into place.

You also mentioned a project featuring the members of Vetiver, a band many of our readers know through the Shins. What does that entail?

Johnny: It hasn’t come out yet, we just made it so these will be new songs we’ve also been playing onstage. We made the record in Woodstock, and it will be coming out in the fall with Thom Monahan and Andy Cabic from Vetiver and Gary Louris with the Jayhawks playing on it. [Ryan Adams guitarist] Neal Casal and a bunch of people are also on the album. I’ve played with Vetiver, who I met through Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes. That’s actually how I met Sarah Lee as well, through Chris. I was in a band from North Carolina that opened up for The Crowes and moved out to LA in ’97. Chris was producing a band that he invited me to play guitar in and that’s how I met Sarah Lee. She had just moved out there. It’s been awesome, I mean every time I see him it’s like, “It’s all your fault, dude.” [laughter]

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