When first he found his fame 11 years ago, singer Arlo Guthrie was a kid just out of high school. Whacky and endearing, he seemed the friendly folkie, a kind of Movement jester, Woody's bemused heir. He made pickle rhyme with motor-cycle, more often he sang songs about his draft board, dope, the war.
That was long ago. Guthrie has just turned 30. He still wears jeans and moccasins, but he is no longer skinny. He has a dark moustache. He is sitting cross-legged on his bed in another bland motel room; he's been on the road for years. For an hour he's been talking. He laughs, he sometimes yawns. Though the sun is setting, he just got out of bed.
"Look at us," he says. "We could drink and talk all night about anything at all, about sailing boats or trucks, but look what we got into."
He has not mentioned politics. His subject has been awe, not outrage. He's been talking about God.
His father roved the country, he rode the rods, he walked. Arlo tours by private bus. "The Blunder Bus" he calls it. His father wrote "Hard Travelin'." "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," and a thousand other songs, some of them still sung. The father left the son that legacy - and with it, an even chance of inheriting the cruel, incurable disease from which Woody Guthrie died.
Arlo says, "Every poet flashes, at some time in his life. And then he sees the infinite. The perception is a gift." Has Guthrie also seen it? "I'm a musician, not a painter. I've heard it," he replies.
He does not proselytize or preach. He avoids reciting dogma. He says he's "Catholic-Jewish" and does not explain further. Has he experienced a conversion? "It's nothing like that," he says.
"We're in an interesting situation. Most of us, I figured, don't know if we're religious, or athesists, or not. You can't live without confusion, not in a world like ours. But then something happens. I don't know how to tell you. I know that something yanked Me - it was not of my own doing. It's like being thrown in water when you don't know how to swim. If you learn to paddle, wonderful. If you drown, why that's a shame."
Suddenly he smiles. "There are not many circumstances that allow me to be me. I think everybody feels that, I'm limited by life, by the work I have to do, by mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. The world is a restrictive place - except for those who go at it with pride or lust or envy. Spirit is however, not burdened by such things."
He starts to laugh again. He knows it might sound corny. It's 1977, and the papers are chock full of E meters and Moonies, and here is Arlo Guthrie, a child of the 60s, on tour in his motel room, talking about Diety and Spirit and the dialogue of prayer.
All his life he's lived at the center of the fringe. Folk music, after all, was never all that folksy. The songs that made him famous, like those his father sang before him, rarely made the Top 40. Their tunes were old, their words were new and their wordiness had pruopse. The folk songs of the 30s had messages as blunt as the paintings of Ben Shahn . . . "There once was a union maid who never was afraid of goons and ginks and company finks. . ." And while liberals applauded (and bought their kids guitars, 10-inch Folkways records, Peter Seeger concert tickets), many others mumbled, "Lefties, Commies, punks."
Folk music, at times, seemed peculiarly conservative. It didn't have much beat. It seemed earnest, and not free. The singers who stood up at countless college hoots in the 1950s had memorized their songs. They sang Woody Guthrie's lyrics to Woody Guthrie's chords. Accuracy was all.
The rules changed in the '60s. Innovation spread with rock 'n' roll and hifi, the bulging of the baby boom, amplified guitars, the Beatles, dope, the war, and there stood Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son, now hip 18, in the middle of it all.
He is still there today. He is touring with Pete Seeger, and the old men in the audience bring along their Brownies, their neckties and their memories, and the kids who sit beside them pass joints from hand to hand. "If the '60s were a war," he says, "there is no doubt who won."
Arlo Guthrie is frequently perceived as half a youngster, half an oldster, half a media star. "I'm in the midst of an enjoyable situation. Nobody knows what to do with me, with me or with my product. I can tour 10 months a year, and sell my concerts out, but try to find my records. I'm never on the radio. I'm half in and half out."
Still they come to hear him, the oldsters and the youngsters, and Arlo Guthrie gives them all flashes of the past. There is in their nostalgia, and in the way they sing along the lod familiar words, something bittersweet, pleasure mixed with fear. Even now at ease, laughing on his bed, Arlo Guthrie brings to mind something that is aging, something that is going as the Christians say, for good.
He does not seem to have this father's joyous rage, the old Testament prophet's anger that runs through Woody Guthries' songs. "Woody, like Dylan, was a singer driven by the muse. I'm not like that," says Arlo Guthrie. "She and I are on much friendlier terms." He does not seem a soldier in the war for change. He seems, well, resigned.
Woody's family was not lucky, fire killed his sister. His father killed himself. His mother died in an insane asylum of the same disease - Huntington's chorea - that was to kill her son. When he died, at last, in 1967. Woody Guthrie had spent almost 15 years in bed. The disease destroys muscle coordination. At the end, only his eyelids moved.
Not until the victim is well into his 30s do the symptom first appear. Arlo Guthrie does not know if he carries, the disease. It does not skip generations.If he does not have it, then his three kids are free.
The textbooks say my chances are 50-50," Arlo Guthrie says.
How could his father bear those 15 years in bed? "He wanted to stay alive, at least he was willing to be there," Arlo Guthrie says, I was talking to a priest the other day. He told me a story. He'd been to a meeting of Jews who had survived time in Hitler's camps. One of them, a rabbi, toasted those then present. He held his glass in one hand. The other fist was clenched."