Hippie-folk singer Arlo Guthrie takes a Republican stance

Brian Mackey

Folk singer Arlo Guthrie is, among other things, a hippie icon. Long before he started touring, he was on the bill at Woodstock. One of his best-known songs, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” is an 18-minute ballad that confronted the Vietnam-era draft with dark humor.

So the reaction was mixed, to say the least, when Guthrie began acknowledging he had registered as a Republican around 2003 or ‘04.

“To have a successful democracy, you have to have at least two parties, and one of them was failing miserably,” Guthrie told The New York Times in 2009. “We had enough good Democrats. We needed a few more good Republicans. We needed a loyal opposition.”

There was criticism online. At least one anonymous commenter called for a boycott. Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten wrote — kidding and not — that Guthrie had “shredded the last remnants of my faith that our hippie principles had any lasting meaning.”

As is often the case, however, reality is more complex than labels allow. Guthrie has described himself as a “libertarian Republican.” In the 2008 presidential election, he endorsed U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the anti-war Republican from Texas.

Last month, amid attempts to strip government employees in Wisconsin of their collective bargaining rights, Guthrie took to his blog to proclaim support for “the union guys.”

“America is a union. You cannot be anti-union and pro-America at the same time,” Guthrie said in a telephone interview with the State Journal-Register in Illinois. “That leaves a lot of people wading in the water when you’re still on the boat.”

Guthrie said he’s still singing some of the old union songs. Woody Guthrie, Arlo’s father, was a rabble-rousing folk singer best known for writing “This Land Is Your Land” as a poor man’s realistic retort to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”

“My dad was a big union organizer and singer. The right to have a union should be, in my mind, a Republican platform. That should be part of who they are,” Guthrie said. “The fact that they’re not doesn’t dissuade me from calling myself one; it just means that the rest of them are crazy.”

As Guthrie sees it, our political divides are not a matter of left and right; they’re a matter of corporate greed versus individual freedom and liberty.

“I don’t think it matters much what you call yourself. It matters what you do and what you say and how you feel about things. And I haven’t had to change a whole lot on any of those since I started out over 50 years ago,” Guthrie said.

‘It is just so freaking fun’

Now 63, Guthrie is traveling the country in a show he’s calling the “Journey On Tour.”

The emphasis is on the first two words, as in “Journey on, man.” The phrase comes from a song title by Guthrie’s friend Hans Theessink, an Austrian blues player.

“It’s about keeping on, keeping going, staying with it. And I thought, there’s no better time now for that kind of sentiment,” Guthrie said, citing political struggles all over the world.

He said the trend of naming tours started about 10 years ago.

“The venues that we were playing said, ‘What’s he doing now? What’s different about this show than the last?’” Guthrie said. It used to simply be, “Here he comes again,” which pretty much sufficed for the first 40 years of his career.

One of the things that has changed over the nearly 50 years Guthrie has been performing is the size of his family. He and his wife, Jackie, have been married since 1969 — it was a picture-perfect hippie wedding, with flowers in their hair, music by Judy Collins and Alice (of “Alice’s Restaurant”) in attendance.

He said that every one of his four kids is a professional musician, and many of his grandkids are heading in that direction, too.

“We just came off a tour where we were all together — all of them, which is 17 of us,” Guthrie said. Guthrie’s son Abe is performing with the band on this tour.

“It is just so freaking fun and great and sounds so wonderful that I’ve just been drooling waiting for this band to get back together on the road with me,” Guthrie said.

‘What’s for dinner?’

With a career that spans five decades and a folk music tradition more than twice as long as that, how does one go about choosing what to play?

“You have to pick ones that are meaningful,” Guthrie said.

“I remember singing ‘City of New Orleans’ one time, and in the middle of the song, my mind started thinking, ‘What’s for dinner?’ And I said ‘Whoa, stop singing that song,’” Guthrie said.

Written by Steve Goodman, the song is arguably Guthrie’s biggest hit.

“I quit singing ‘City of New Orleans’ because I didn’t want to insult the guy that wrote it and I didn’t want to insult my audience by thinking of other things. If my mind can’t be on the thing I’m doing, it’s off of the set list until enough time has gone by so that it’s fresh and new again to me.”

Over the past 50 years, he’s noticed both himself and his audience aging. But in the last four years, it seems more and more young people are coming to shows.

“I don’t know if they’re curious. I don’t know if they’re onto something. I don’t know if there’s nothing good on TV or what. But something’s happening,” Guthrie said.

“I think there’s a feel that’s coming back. I’m so freaking excited by it. We’re almost like in 1964, 1965, where it’s just beginning. This could take a couple or few years to build up, but if it does, we could make such wonderful changes in this country or the world that it would resonate for decades.”

It sounds as though Guthrie isn’t just talking about music.

“But it’s the music that leads it. You know, music is the first thing you hear — you hear it when you’re born and some people say you hear it after you’ve left,” he said. “It’s a language in and of itself that you don’t have to translate. You can go and take it and play it anywhere in the world and people will understand it, even if you can’t talk to them.”

Guthrie said he’s tried it around the world and, even though people couldn’t understand the words, they’d join in singing and dancing and playing their own instruments.

“That’s the kind of stuff we ought to be doing in Afghanistan if you’re asking me. We ought to be sending more musicians over there and more food and more clothes, and not be worried about how many tanks we got or how many drones or any of that crap,” Guthrie said. “You’ve got to take care of people. Then they’ll come around.”

Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.