He still performs the original words.
When Arlo Guthrie was a boy, he sat in the backyard with the guitar he’d gotten for his fifth birthday and listened as his father taught him the end of “This Land Is Your Land” — the lyrics, cut in many renditions, that decry hunger and private property. Those verses didn’t strike Arlo as much more political than the rest of the song, but he typically closes each performance with one of them.
He still sings for the dissenting and downtrodden, as his father did for so many years. In 2011, he joined Pete Seeger, his father’s old comrade, to serenade Occupy protesters in New York. And he’s used the railroad, the transport mythologized in “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and other songs, to spread his message. In 2005, he rode from Illinois to Louisiana to perform for Hurricane Katrina victims.
Guthrie has 65 years behind him now and a musical family of his own. His name graces more than two dozen albums, as well as the plaque memorializing the 1969 Woodstock festival, where he played. But on his current tour, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of his father’s birth, he’s quick to admit he’s the kid.
“I have been Woody Guthrie’s son for as long as I can remember — until recently, when I became Sarah Lee, Cathy or Annie Guthrie’s dad or someone’s grandfather,” he said by email between stops on his “Here Comes the Kid” tour, which hits the Irvine Barclay Theatre this weekend.
On “Here Comes the Kid,” which launched last summer, Guthrie is honoring Woody’s legacy by performing in the folk singer’s iconic style: just his voice, plus a guitar or piano, to carry the show. He slips in some of his own compositions, but mostly his music takes a backseat to one of the most influential songbooks of the last hundred years — which means patrons who come expecting “Alice’s Restaurant” may not find it on the menu.
To borrow a phrase from his father, the tour has been hard traveling at times. Shortly after Guthrie began in Ireland in August, his wife of 43 years, Jackie, died of cancer; he canceled some dates and interrupted the solo tour for a brief Carnegie Hall engagement with his family and Seeger. Now, he’s facing the crowds alone again.
Asked which numbers he might perform at upcoming shows, Guthrie declined the question: “While your readers can find the set lists somewhere on the Internet, I hope they won’t look them up. I want my audience to come without knowing what it’s going to be.”
Courtesy of the Internet, here are a few he’s played so far: “Pretty Boy Floyd,” a ballad about a heroic outlaw; “1913 Massacre,” about the slaying of striking miners and their children; “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),” which decries racist treatment of immigrants; and, of course, “This Land Is Your Land.”
Are the songs heard often today? While Woody Guthrie ranks among the figures who defined American music over the last century, his voice seldom comes on the radio. But judging from the tributes in the last year, the elder Guthrie still resonates with many as an image of his country: Smithsonian Folkways put out a “Woody at 100" box set featuring a book and 57 tracks, while the Grammy Museum has co-sponsored tribute shows in the U.S. and abroad.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who befriended Woody in the early 1950s and played at his last recording session, said while America may have changed in the last seven decades, the issues in the songs haven’t.
“We still have a drought,” Elliott said. “We don’t have dust storms anymore, but we got hurricanes. We got tornadoes. We got people hungry, people out of work. That was the main feature of a lot of Woody’s stories and songs, working people that were not getting a decent wage.”
When Elliott met the Guthries, Arlo was 3 years old; before long, Woody began showing signs of Huntington’s chorea, the hereditary disease that would take his life in 1967. In the years since, by his admittedly imperfect count, Elliott has joined Arlo onstage dozens of times. In the Kid, he sees a lot of the Father — the same off-the-wall humor, the gentle sarcasm, the love of telling a yarn.
Maybe the wanderlust, too. If Woody were alive to celebrate 100 years, would he strap on his guitar and hit the road?
“Yeah, I think so,” Elliott said, a smile creeping into his voice. “If he was well enough to travel.”
If You Go
What: “Arlo Guthrie: Here Comes the Kid”
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $34 to $46; $25 to $39 for patrons 30 and under
Information: (949) 854-4646 or https://www.thebarclay.org