If Arlo Guthrie’s surname sounds familiar, it’s because it is: he’s the son of folk music legend Woody Guthrie. Since the release of his debut album Alice’s Restaurant in 1967, Arlo Guthrie has forged his own path, becoming one of folk music’s essential artists. It’s a legacy that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his old man’s.
The singer-songwriter’s career spans over half-a-century, with over two-dozen albums under his belt. That’s a lot of music, but we’ve managed to pare it down to 10 essential tracks to get you in the mood before Arlo Guthrie takes the stage at Bluesfest this month.
1. Alice’s Restaurant Massacre, Alice’s Restaurant (1967)
The first track from his first album, Guthrie pretty much nailed it right of the gate. This 20-minute long, spoken-blues epic is a semi-auto-biographical story about the time Arlo got arrested for illegally dumping trash. This then leads to a story about how Guthrie was rejected from the Vietnam draft because of his prior criminal record. Turns out the US army don’t want any litterbugs killing women and children in Vietnam. Incredibly dry but very funny, ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacre’ is Guthrie’s signature song, and for good reason.
2. The Motorcycle Song, Alice’s Restaurant (1967)
Arlo Guthrie is a simple man. He doesn’t want a pickle, a tickle or to die. The only thing he wants to do is ride his motorcycle. It is an incredibly goofy song that captures the carefree attitude of the sixties, but it’s also damn catchy. Dig that great harmonica sound.
3. Coming Into Los Angeles, Running Down the Road (1969)
Don’t you hate it when you’re flying into Los Angeles and you hope customs don’t check your bags because you’ve got a couple keys of weed in them? Guthrie does! ‘Coming Into Los Angeles’ is another fun, tongue-in-cheek track drawing inspiration from Guthrie’s life, with some great folk instrumentals. Although, according to Guthrie he didn’t have thatmuch weed. The live version from Woodstock is a particular treat.
4. City of New Orleans, Hobo’s Lullaby (1972)
Guthrie’s only Top 40 hit, it’s a nice slice of Americana that reflects on the death of the train in contemporary America, something that used to be the nation’s lifeblood. It was originally written by Steve Goodman, who managed to convince Guthrie to cover it when he ran into him at a bar. Guthrie agreed to listen to Goodman play it, but only if Goodman bought him a beer and played it before he finished drinking it.
5. Lightning Bar Blues, Hobo’s Lullaby (1972)
A cover of a Hoyt Axton song, ‘Lightning Bar Blues’ is incredibly simple but solid folk rock. That twangy guitar sound and saxophone solo have such a great dive-bar feel to them. An alcoholic anthem to sing with your mates when you’ve hit the bottom of another Ripple wine bottle.
6. Last Train, Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys (1973)
It’s funny to think the guy who wrote ‘The Motorcycle Song’ could write such a beautiful song about dying. ‘Last Train’ continues folk music’s long-standing obsession with death and is a moving meditation on catching that “last train” to the great unknown. With its gospel inspired backing vocals, it’s the kind of song that you’d want played at your funeral.
7. Last to Leave, Arlo Guthrie (1974)
‘Last to Leave’ is a great example of Guthrie’s strengths as a song-writer and how well he can tug at your emotions. With heartfelt lyrics like, “And it’s a lonely world, I know / When your friends are hard to find”, Guthrie grapples the pain of loss as your friends and loved-ones fade away in one way or another, but the joy of having that love in the first place.
8. Massachusetts, Amigo (1976)
You know you’ve written one hell of a song when the state it’s named after declares it their official folk song. ‘Massachusetts’ is Guthrie’s love-letter to the state he calls home. Guthrie knows that there are plenty of beautiful and amazing places around the world; but nothing can touch that deep, unbreakable connection we have with the place we call home.
9. Darkest Hour, Amigo (1976)
‘Darkest Hour’ is apparently based on a dream Guthrie had, which explains the songs fantastical lyrics. Guthrie personifies the night, contrasting its two sides. It’s both incredibly beautiful and alluring (“She is dressed up like a bandit / With a hundred sparkling rings”), but there’s also a danger that lurks in the darkness (“Her father’s in his chambers with his / Friends all gathered ’round / They are plotting their enemy’s demise”)
If you’ve never listened to Arlo Guthrie before and want to know which album to start with, go with Amigo. It’s his best.
10. All Over the World, Someday (1986)
It’s nice to know two-decades into his career Guthrie still feels the defiant spirit of the Sixties. Released while Ronald Reagan was President, the Berlin wall was standing tall and the Cold War was still going, ‘All Over the World’ is a protest song – a liberal anthem promoting peace and unity on a global scale. It’s as relevant today as it was then.
Arlo Guthrie returns to Australia for Bluesfest 2019. Guthrie will also play four sideshows in Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Adelaide. See dates and details below.
Arlo Guthrie Bluesfest Sideshows
Wednesday, 17th April 2019
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Tickets:City Recital Hall
Monday, 22nd April 2019
Theatre Centre, Canberra
Tickets: Canberra Theatre
Tuesday, 23rd April 2019
Recital Centre, Melbourne
Tickets:Melbourne Recital Centre
Wednesday, 24th April 2019
The Gov, Adelaide