Guthrie's Family Fusion of Sound

Arlo Guthrie says he had planned to take September off so he could finish a new album, but he couldn't say no to playing at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Arlo Guthrie says he had planned to take September off so he could finish a new album, but he couldn't say no to playing at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra. (By Michele Mcdonald -- Rising Son Records)
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By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 12, 2008

When people talk about Arlo Guthrie, they always talk about his father's influence. And why not? His father was the legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, and Arlo sings the same kind of songs with a similar acoustic-guitar accompaniment.

But no one ever talks about the considerable influence of his mom, Marjorie, who was a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company and a classically trained musician.

"She taught me my first chords on the guitar," Guthrie says. "We'd be driving down the road, listening to the classical music station, and one of the games we'd play was guessing what the piece was, who the composer was, what the style was and, if we were really good, who the conductor was. So I was raised in my mom's classical world as well as my dad's back-porch world, and I thought it would be fun to join those two worlds in one evening."

That's just what he'll do when he comes to the Kennedy Center on Thursday to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra. Guthrie has done similar concerts with more than 30 symphonic orchestras, he says, and his latest album, "In Times Like These," captures one such show with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra. It may seem counterintuitive, he admits, to put a conversational singer and guitar strummer with a huge ensemble of classical strings and woodwinds, but he insists there's a logic to it.

"American composers like [George] Gershwin and [Aaron] Copland have always drawn from the well of their national folk music just as the European composers have," he says. "That's not so different from what I do as a musician; I draw from the old bluesmen and balladeers. When Copland uses an old Shaker theme for 'Appalachian Spring,' it's like me using an old Appalachian tune for 'Alice's Restaurant.' A lot of my dad's songs use melodies that were used by the Carter Family before him. It's like we're doing the same thing but going off in different directions; I wanted to see what would happen if we brought them back together again."

On Guthrie's most recent album, the version of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" begins with an unaccompanied strings. When listeners from his father's generation hear that introduction, Guthrie says, you can hear them gasp, because it recalls the Weavers' recorded version of the song. The Weavers were four of Woody's good friends (Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert), and they allowed Frank Sinatra's arranger, Gordon Jenkins, to put a classical orchestra behind them. The result was a 1949 hit single on the pop charts, one of folk music's biggest commercial successes. To hear that sound again more than 50 years later is to be reminded that the combination of a folk singer and strings is nothing new.

Which is not to say that putting the two together is easy. Pops concerts, whether with a folk singer, a cabaret singer or an R&B singer, can be almost embarrassing because the arrangements merely make the sound bigger without making it deeper. It wasn't until Guthrie found an arranger he trusted, John Nardolillo, that he was willing to do these orchestral concerts.

"What's different about my concerts is they're being arranged and played by people from the classical world. It's not folk music played on classical instruments; it's classical music on classical instruments added to me and my world," he says.

Except for "City of New Orleans," his biggest hit, the symphonic album emphasizes Guthrie's lesser-known compositions. Some of them, such as the gospel-flavored "Last Train" and the happy-traveling "Last to Leave," echo his father's work, while others, such as the knotty relationship songs "Darkest Hour" and "Epilogue," bear the mark of Woody's greatest disciple, Bob Dylan. The album also includes numbers from some of Guthrie's biggest heroes: Leadbelly ("Goodnight, Irene"), Charlie Chaplin ("You Are the Song") and Elvis Presley ("Can't Help Falling in Love"). The album's title track, the terrific "In Times Like These," is the only new song and the only one without orchestral backing.

Guthrie hasn't released an album of all-new material in 12 years, but he's trying to complete one this fall. He had hoped to take September off to finish it, but the chance to play with the NSO was an offer he couldn't refuse.

"When I walk onto a stage with an orchestra I haven't played with before," he says, "I can see the glares from the musicians. I know what they're thinking: 'Oh, here's another pops concert I have to put up with.' In rehearsal, you can see those glares go away as they realize the score is more complicated than they had expected. You can see them thinking, 'Oh, I have to pay attention to these charts or I'm going to screw it up.'

"Later, during the concert, they can sense the emotional reaction from the audience, and it gets their adrenaline going. Every time I've done this, and I've done it with 30 or 40 orchestras, I've had that moment where I can sense the musicians changing their minds."

Arlo Guthrie Appearing Thursday with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets:$20-$65; 202-467-4600, The Download: For a sampling of Arlo Guthrie's music, check out: From "In Times Like These":· "Goodnight, Irene" From "Live in Sydney":· "Coming Into Los Angeles" From "Alice's Restaurant":· "The Motorcycle Song" From "Son of the Wind":· "Dead or Alive"

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