Arlo Guthrie on Dad Woody's Legacy 50 Years After Death: Protest Songs Were 'The Original Social Media'

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Arlo Guthrie performs during the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 1, 2016 in New Orleans.

"The way you knew what was happening was from traveling entertainers, musicians and balladeers."

Fifty years since the death of Woody Guthrie, the folk singer’s topical messages are as timely as ever, his eldest son Arlo Guthrie tells Billboard.

“I think that’s one of the things I like about my dad,” says Guthrie, 70. “He was able to provide us with a timeless sense that humanity has been around for a long time, but we haven’t changed all that much since the very beginning. I love that about what he wrote.”

“This Land is Your Land” and “Do Re Mi” are among the thousands of Guthrie songs that inspired generations of outspoken musicians, including his friend Pete Seeger and a young Bob Dylan. Guthrie died this week in October 1967, following a 12-year hospitalization for the genetic disorder Huntington’s disease.

His spirit was revived before an audience of 111 million viewers earlier this year, when Lady Gaga performed “This Land is Your Land” during the Super Bowl halftime show. Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 when he moved to Coney Island, but it took on renewed significance in February when President Trump was pushing for a wall along the border with Mexico.

Just before his father died 50 years ago, Arlo Guthrie released his own protest anthem, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” a satirical tune about his experience with the Vietnam draft. The success of that epic, 18-minute record helped launch a following that keeps Guthrie and his children active on the road.

Yet decades before Spotify playlists steered our listening habits, musical messages demanding freedom and encouraging hope traveled the streets from town to town, he says.   

“The way you knew what was happening was from traveling entertainers, musicians and balladeers who came to town telling you what was going on in the next town and in places beyond where you would normally go,” adds Guthrie. “In fact, it’s the original social media.”

A tweet can instantly call attention to a musician’s condemnation of social injustice. But Seeger, who played extensively with both Guthries before he died in 2014, recalled a significantly different means of communication.

“The folk songs that I was introduced to some 70 years ago were mainly from the Appalachians, where families who liked music had to make their own,” Seeger said in an unpublished 2012 interview. “There were no towns with nightclubs they could go to.”

Today, songs with political and social themes proliferate digitally, and rapidly: In August 2014, days after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri., The Game released “Don’t Shoot.” It reached No. 1 on the Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 chart. Later that year, Hozier had Spotify’s most viral song with “Take Me to Church,” which dissents against organizations trying to control how or who other people might love. 

More recently, this year Pat Benatar released her first song in over a decade, “Shine,” for the Women’s March on Washington; in 2016, Jimmy Eat World recorded “My Enemy” ahead of the election as part of the 30 Days 30 Songs series that rallied against Trump, and A Tribe Called Quest confronted Trump-era bigotry and nationalism with “We the People,” the group’s first single in two decades.  

Last month, a judge ruled that Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” adaptation is part of the public domain. The song, made famous by his group The Weavers, had been making about $70,000 a year in publishing. A similar copyright fate for Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” has yet to be decided.

“That kind of music was the only way that people found out what was going on,” says Arlo Guthrie.

“It comes from an era before this technological age we’re living in. It still exists, it’s just not as popular now as it was 40 years ago.”


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