ARLO GUTHRIE: SUNDAY, MAY 1—BLUES TENT, 5:25 P.M.
Once folk music’s goofy, witty young gun, somewhere along the line the inveterate hippie Arlo Guthrie became an elder statesman. “Alice’s Restaurant,” his narrative comedy masterpiece with a dark, serious antiwar subtext, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, which he’ll mark again on the closing day of Jazz Fest 2016 with a headlining slot in the Blues Tent, as well as a 2 p.m. interview the same day, with interlocutor Tom Piazza, on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. In advance of his visit to New Orleans, Mr. Guthrie answered a few questions via e-mail:
You just celebrated the 50th anniversary of “Alice’s Restaurant” with a tour and a PBS special. Any surprises or thoughts in general? Has your relationship with the song changed over time? (Did you get sick of it, find new things about it to love, etc.?)
When we were preparing for the Alice 50 tour, we really looked at it as a complete show, and not just the song. So all the lighting, video and archival photos became part of the tour. It was a lot more than anything I had ever staged. What surprised me was how well our audience reacted to those kinds of additions, and how much the band and I enjoyed it all. And doing “Alice’s Restaurant” again after so many years was wonderful. I’d forgotten what the response felt like from the stage. I think it had to do with so many younger people who’d discovered me recently, who came and lent their energy to the shows. It felt really good.
Are you following the presidential campaigns closely? You were pro–Ron Paul in 2012—any thoughts on this race, or advice for the various candidates?
I think it’s obvious to almost everyone, that the way our government has functioned, and the way we as a nation have done business has been disappointing to many people. It has been particularly hard on the average guy and gal. That said I’m actually very excited to see so many younger voices taking part, and reclaiming their right to participate. In the long view I’m not as worried as most others. I have a deep trust in the average working family, even if I differ with some of the choices people make as to how we get out of this mess. I am and have always been suspicious of authority whether it’s left or right, and remain that way—too far in any one direction leads to trouble. I don’t give advice, especially when I’m not asked to do so, but I’m hopeful that my friend Bernie will do very well.
Speaking of politics, it seems like there’s been a resurgence in widespread activism in the past few years, with movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Music was a big part of your generation’s activism. Do you think there are enough topical songs coming out of these movements?
Songs are (and always were) the original social media. They get heard by those who want or need to hear them. If someone isn’t hearing them, it’s because it’s not important to them.
When you got started, it was in the midst of a folk-music revival that looked back at older songs and styles of playing. There seems to be another resurgence of that going on, with the popularity of what’s called Americana. What do you think of that kind of cycle?
When I was a kid, there was only about 50 years of recorded music available to learn from. These days, there’s 100 years of things to listen and learn from, and although that’s amazing, there’s nothing quite like learning or being inspired by other living musicians. The tradition evolves and returns again and again to the roots. I love that.
Any thoughts on the Bob Dylan archive that’s being housed near the Woody Guthrie Center in Oklahoma? Do you think that’ll bring more attention to Woody and his legacy?
I think it’s great that Bob Dylan’s archives will find a home near the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. Dylan has had a tremendous impact on modern music. He’s quite a scholar as well as an artist. Like my dad and others, like for example, Pete Seeger, Dylan is a strong link in a long chain.
And, of course, you’re coming to New Orleans for Jazz Fest, and “City of New Orleans” is one of the most beloved songs in your set. Will you share some thoughts about the song or the city? Any favorite New Orleans memories or music?
American music was born and bred in New Orleans and my first love, as far as music goes, was ragtime. For that reason I have a special place in my heart for that great city and the merging of musical streams that took place there. I’m just glad I have added some small part to that history. And I’ve tried over the years to repay a debt in my heart to the musicians who made that history come alive, and those who keep it going.