One of the things Arlo Guthrie remembers most about his first show at Carnegie Hall, 50 years ago, is having his mother and his piano teacher in the front row.
“I could see the looks on their faces, which could only be described as ‘How could this possibly happen? What is he doing there?!'” Guthrie — who celebrates that anniversary on Saturday (Nov. 25) with what’s become an annual Thanksgiving ritual at the venerable Manhattan theater — tells Billboard with a laugh. “My piano teacher knew that I was an awful student. And my mother could not imagine that her kid would be on that stage. It didn’t make any sense to her. She didn’t get it.”
Fans, of course, have gotten it ever since, over the course of 54 more performances at Carnegie — often with good pal Pete Seeger. “My first few times there I was literally shaking, of course,” Guthrie recalls. “I knew the history of that stage and it scared me. It took a few years to be able to breathe and sing at the same time. Now it feels like going home. We’ve done it so often and so many times that it’s very enjoyable and something I look forward to doing every year. It’s become a tradition not just for our family but for the larger family that will be there that Saturday night.”
This year the Carnegie show comes in the midst of the iconic folk singer’s Re:Generation Tour, on with son Abe Guthrie and daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie. The pan-generational tour began in late October and has dates booked into May and is an endeavor Guthrie’s father Woody desired but never executed. “I’ve seen my kids mature as performers, which I love,” Guthrie says. “I didn’t push any of them into being entertainers; I think the water runs downhill, as they say. This was the path of least resistance for them. Abe and Sara Lee in particular have become really good up there, which I love. And when we all get together it’s family. It’s fun. We don’t have any divas in this family, so it makes it easy.”
Some of Guthrie’s other children will be part of the show at Carnegie Hall, and they bring a different perspective on the hallowed venue. “My kids have grown up there, and so have their kids, so to them it’s not a big deal at all,” he notes. “If that stage ever intimidated them, they never let on to me. So it’s just fun for us. I don’t know if that tradition will continue or not once I’m outta here, but I feel it’s up to me to continue it for as long as I’m here, for as long as I’m able to do it.”
What Guthrie won’t be doing this year is playing his fabled “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” the 18-minute opus that’s also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — though Guthrie started commemorating that back in 2015 since the song is based on a true littering citation incident on Thanksgiving Day 1965. “I quit doing it every year about 30 years ago,” Guthrie says. “It’s just too long. Nobody wants to get up there and repeat the same 20 minutes of their life every day, no matter what you do. And it eats a lot into the two hours that we have on stage, especially when we have the kids doing their stuff as well as me.” “Alice’s Restaurant” may return to the set next year, however, leading up to the 50th anniversary of the 1969 feature film that was based on the song.
Guthrie says he’s working on “nothing in particular” in regards to new music. “We’ve got so much in the catalog at this point, there’s not enough time to do them,” he notes. And while the times may seem to call for new Guthrie songs, he feels the old ones will actually suffice.
“The situation we find ourselves in, politically or whatever these days, is not really all that different than stuff we’ve been through before — you just have to live long enough to see it,” he says. “We’ve already got some good songs about this stuff. This is obviously not the sunny day that we had imagined might be here at this point. It looks awful cold and cloudy. But I’ve been reminded over and over again…that it’s darkest before the dawn, and you’ve got to keep that in mind. Part of the work or the message that we try to put out at every show is we’ll get through it. It WILL be better — the only question is how long do we have to endure this, and how many lives is it gonna cost? That’s the real issue for me. But if the world was meant to be perfect it would have found a way to be so by now, so it’s not meant to be perfect. It’s meant to be this way because that helps us focus with what’s important. Despite everything I think the world IS evolving, and the destiny I see is a lot brighter than what other people see sometimes. I don’t know if I’ll still be around when we finally get there, but I’m confident we will get there.”