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Arlo Guthrie's Storied Career

Born in 1947, Arlo was the son of Marjorie Guthrie, a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and Woody Guthrie, whose songs of social justice helped spark the folk-music movement. After a 14-year battle with the debilitating Huntington's chorea, known for some time afterward as Woody Guthrie's disease, the folk icon died in 1967, a month before the release of "Alice's Restaurant." The song was at least partly influenced by Woody Guthrie and his circle of friends from the folk and blues worlds.

"It's not that far from a talking blues, and that style was something my dad was very comfortable with," Arlo Guthrie explains. "And there were other musicians like [bluesmen] Mississippi John Hurt or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee who would tell stories between and in the middle of their songs. It was like sitting around a living room and not seeing a performance so much as sharing stories and songs. I incorporated that -- I mean, I just stole it."

Guthrie, however, quickly established his own identity and crafted his substantial song catalogue, while championing numerous causes, from the social and the spiritual to the environmental. An occasional actor in films and television, Guthrie's not overly fond of the 1969 "Alice's Restaurant" movie.

"Arthur Penn is a brilliant director who happened to live in Stockbridge, and he knew, unlike a lot of other people, that the events in the song were true," Guthrie explains. "He knew Officer Obie and Judge Hannon and knew from newspaper articles that I wasn't making this stuff up, and he thought, 'I've got to turn this into a film.' Well, he's got a 20-minute piece of truth and he's got to make a 90-minute movie, so that was his dilemma. To help get over that, they created another 70 minutes of stuff, all of which was fiction. The sad thing was it didn't have the same gentle sense of humor that the song had: Everything falls apart, and everyone goes their own way. It was in some way a film about how the idealism of my generation could not possibly succeed in the way that we thought it would."

Penn used the Brocks' church/home as a metaphor, including one scene in which a man stands up and says, "We're going to reconsecrate this church."

"And that's exactly the one thing we did," Guthrie says.

In fact, "Alice's church" is now the Guthrie Center and Guthrie Foundation. Named after Guthrie's parents, it's an interfaith church celebrating religious and cultural diversity, and a not-for-profit educational foundation. And the story of how that came about is so Arlo:

"In 1991, we were doing one of those 'whatever happened to him' TV shows, and we were filming outside the church and the people who owned it came out and said, 'That's Arlo Guthrie, let's get him to buy it!' I hadn't even been back to the church since 1970, and it never even occurred to me. This was like a friend's home -- you would never think of buying a friend's home, even if they had moved out. It was never in the farthest reaches of my imagination that we would wind up in this old building that meant so much to so many people, where not only the song had been written but where we had made the movie.

"It wasn't something I wanted for me or could even do financially, but I thought if enough people were willing to help, we could do it and create another little place in the world where people of different persuasions could learn to get along and cherish traditions."

And that's exactly what happened. The church provides weekly free lunches in the community and support for families living with HIV/AIDS as well as other life-threatening illnesses. It also hosts a summertime concert series and Guthrie does six or seven fundraising shows there every year. There are several annual events such as the Walk-A-Thon to Cure Huntington's Disease and a "Thanksgiving Dinner That Can't Be Beat" for families, friends, doctors and scientists who live and work with Huntington's disease. The walk-a-thon, also known as the Garbage Trail Walk to Massacree HD, includes stops at the Stockbridge Police Department and Theresa's Stockbridge Cafe, where a sign outside reads "formerly Alice's Restaurant."

"We go from the church to the station, where they saved the old door of the jail cell, and they bring it outside and the chief takes pictures of everybody behind the bars," Guthrie chuckles. "Then we go to Theresa's." Ironically, the name of that restaurant was never Alice's but the Back Door (it was in the back of a grocery store) and it lasted only a year. Alice broke up with Ray, sold the restaurant and left town. She went on to become a successful artist and now lives in Provincetown, R.I.

Since 1983, Guthrie has owned Rising Son Records, which releases his albums (including his classics for Reprise) as well those by son Abe (who plays in his father's band as well as fronting his own, Xavier) and daughter Sarah Lee (who is married to and performs with Johnny Irion). Daughters Cathy and Annie Guthrie run the business, though Guthrie says he never anticipated a continuing family dynasty.

"I grew up in an era when if you were playing folk songs, it was when you got home from a regular job," he says. "It wasn't a profession. I mean, there might have been a few professionals, but they were few and far between, so I never thought I would be a professional. But I love playing, and after it created a demand, I just kept going with it. And it ended up being the path of least resistance, and I think my kids did the same thing. I mean, they all tried to become normal, it just didn't work out for them."

ARLO GUTHRIE -- Appearing Wednesday at the Birchmere.


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