Tonight was the annual Guthrie Family concert at Carnegie Hall. I’ve seen Arlo take the stage at Carnegie 10 or 11 times; sometimes solo, sometimes backed by a symphony, most of the time with his kids & various grandkids and – ever more rarely these days – with Pete Seeger.
Pete and Arlo’s Dad Woody, who would have been 100 years old this year, started writing songs in the 1930’s and singing them wherever anyone would listen. They were troubadours of sorts, writing songs about the common men and women they met, agitating for unions and civil rights and against war. After Woody died, Arlo carried on the tradition and in effect took his Dad’s place at Pete’s side.
These days the message from both men has softened. At 93, Pete still takes the stage with his banjo in hand; the banjo that reads “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” and plays the old songs. Tonight he sang “Turn, Turn, Turn”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, “The Hammer Song”, “English is Crazy” and, finally, “Goodnight Irene”. Or I should say, he led everyone in song. No one gets people singing like Pete Seeger, and nowhere does a room of regular people sound better than at Carnegie Hall.
But although many of the songs are the same as they’ve always been; “This Land is Your Land”, “Pretty Boy Floyd”, “Deportee” & “Do Re Mi” were among those Arlo played this evening, the tone is less that of protest against and more one of working toward. Working toward love and peace and sharing. Acknowledging that songs become great because of all the people who sing them more so than because of the songs themselves. Talking about the importance of family and the wonder of children. (Arlo clearly adores his grandchildren, but when they take the stage & the crowd applauds he leans in and says, “Don’t clap, you’ll only encourage them” with a wry smile and a chuckle.) Tonight there was also mourning, as Arlo told the story of the first time he laid eyes on the woman he would marry, and sang the song he wrote for her before they’d even met. Jackie Guthrie died 4 weeks ago from liver cancer and in a way the entire evening was a tribute to her as well as to Woody, and Pete.
Every time I leave Carnegie Hall on the Saturday after Thanksgiving I remember some important things. Woody Guthrie, as Arlo reminded us this evening, could neither read nor write music. The only reason we know the tunes to any of his songs is because they were either recorded or he sang them in front of people who then sang them and/or wrote down the music. Think about that. Arguably the most influential American songwriter of the 20th century did not know how to read music.
Along those same lines, perfection is not necessary or even desirable when it comes to moving people. As Arlo consulted on stage with Pete and his daughter Sarah about which song to do next, he told the audience that one of the things his family had learned from Pete was that “you never want to over-rehearse.” Arlo routinely stops songs in the middle to tell a story, or screws up the lyrics and repeats a verse or just makes something up to fill in the words he’s forgotten. And it’s always fantastic.
Seeing Arlo & Pete is a living history lesson. It’s also a great lesson in life from two men who have pretty much seen and done it all and who seem to have decided that if we can just all work together, all our differences will fall away.