Arlo Guthrie and the power of song, at the Mayo in Morristown

In today’s world of disposable pop music, it’s easy to forget the power of song.

Yet great songs can connect us to people and places and move us in visceral ways that other media cannot.

Arlo Guthrie reminded listeners of this during his show at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center on Saturday.  The 65-year-old performer is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, folk legend Woody Guthrie.

Arlo Guthrie at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Arlo Guthrie at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Woody had a journalist’s eye for detail, and as Arlo sang his dad’s 1913 Massacre, the theater was transformed into a Michigan banquet hall on Christmas Eve. The story of a stampede that killed dozens of children–a stampede provoked by anti-union thugs who yelled “Fire!”–is chilling 99 years later.

The lights on the Christmas tree…the little girl playing the piano…the miners enjoying a break from their dangerous jobs for some holiday cheer with their families. Each lyric conveys a sense of foreboding, building to a climax made all the more powerful by its spare, dispassionate language.

Here is Woody’s recording:

Another vivid one is Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos), about a crash that killed Mexican farm workers in California in 1948. These lyrics are more poetic; the nameless dead are strewn across the hills like dry leaves. This song has been covered by many folk singers, and it always seems timely, given the country’s continuing immigration dilemmas. But it carries extra punch coming from Arlo; he channels the source better than anyone.

Arlo acknowledged it was gratifying to see a song with that kind of shelf life.

“On the other hand, it’s too bad the world still sucks!” he added, fracturing the audience.

'THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS': Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, would have turned 100 this year.

'THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS': Woody Guthrie, who died in 1967, would have turned 100 this year.

While the evening touched on some serious themes, Arlo did not take himself too seriously. He is an accomplished songwriter, guitarist, and pianist–and an entertaining storyteller and comedian.

Even if you’re not a big fan of his music, his shows’ comic moments are worth your attention.

Arlo shifted gears effortlessly on Saturday, keeping things light with his own The Motorcycle Song and Me and My Goose–a delightfully silly tribute to a pet who showed up unexpectedly at dinner.

Among his stories about growing up around such folk icons as Leadbelly, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Pete Seeger, Arlo managed to find humor in a dark chapter of the family scrapbook. Some of Woody Guthrie’s last years were spent at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany, where he struggled with the devastating effects of Huntington’s disease.

A patient there told Woody he enjoyed his book, Bound for Glory. Woody lit up.

“You read my book?” Woody asked.

“No,” the patient said. “I ate it.”

That Arlo could give a performance with so much heart is astounding. He lost Jackie, his wife of 43 years, to liver cancer just last month.

He closed the show with a singalong featuring his dad’s lyrics, set to his music.  Right back at you, Arlo:

My peace, my peace, is all I’ve got, that I can give to you.

My peace is all I’ve ever had, it’s all I ever knew.

I give my peace to green and black, to red, white and blue.

My peace, my peace is all I’ve got, that I can give to you.

My peace, my peace, is all I’ve got, it’s all I ever known

My peace is worth a thousand times more than anything I own.

I pass my peace around and around, cross hands of every hue.

My peace, my peace is all I’ve got, that I can give to you.

Arlo Guthrie is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, the late folk legend Woody Guthrie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Arlo Guthrie is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, the late folk legend Woody Guthrie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin



Comments

  1. Gerry Mantel says:

    The lyrics of “1913 Massacre” represent false history, unfortunately — although there indeed was a shout of “Fire” (likely by anti-unionists), there is no evidence that “the doors were held shut,” as is claimed in the song.

    Arlo says he’s learned his history “from songs,” but the reality of songs is that they typically don’t let the truth get in the way … and that’s why other folks write books and/or conduct similar research.

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