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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

November 22, 2001

The year 1969 was big for Arlo Guthrie.

That spring, he bought the land that has been his home ever since. In August, he played Woodstock. In September, Hollywood released "Alice's Restaurant," the story of a fortuitously ill-fated Thanksgiving Day trip to the dump. The movie secured Guthrie's place as a folk musician and as an icon of the counter culture. Then, he got married in October.

He and his wife, Jackie, raised four children (Abe, Cathy, Sara, Annie) all adults now. They are still married and going strong, having built new dwellings and expanded existing structures on the land as their household expanded.

"You have to put aside the normal family idea and think in terms of the clan tradition," explains Guthrie, now 54, about his lifestyle. Their compound sits at the end of a dirt road in the Berkshire County town of Washington, population 593.

Two of the children still live there, as do all four grandchildren: Krishna, 10, Shiva Das, 6, Serena, 4, and the youngest, Jacklyn, born Sept. 6. All of Arlo and Jackie's offspring are involved one way or another in the family enterprise, which is making music and attending to the business side of touring and recording.

"All of my children sing and play, not because I wanted them to but because I guess there's nothing good on TV around here," Guthrie said.

Though "home" was always Massachusetts, the children did much of their growing up on the road. Guthrie bought his first touring bus in 1976 as part of a deal in which he gave 30 benefit concerts for Oklahoma senator and presidential candidate Fred Harris. As part of the deal, the campaign provided the singer with wheels. At the end of the tour, Guthrie paid off the lease, and the bus was his.

That bus and another decommissioned coach are parked in a small field on his property with tall grass growing all around them. He has a gleaming modern coach, outfitted like a real home on wheels, with which to get around now.

In the early days, the whole family piled into the bus for months at a time. Tutors came along to make sure the children kept up academically. Now adults, the children, who affectionately call Guthrie "Pops," still go on the road with him, and often join him on stage.

Guthrie's father, the legendary troubadour of the Oklahoma dustbowl, Woody Guthrie, wrote such American classics as "This Land Is Your Land," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You." He died of Huntington's disease in 1967 and never got to see the refuge his son created in the hills of New England. He was able to hear the song that paid for it.

"The joke in the family is that he heard the first pressing of `Alice's Restaurant' and he died," said Guthrie. The 18 1/2-minute ballad tells of an arrest for illegally disposing trash, which, in the context of a ludicrous draft board interview, becomes a reason for not being fit to serve in the Army.

Several years ago, Guthrie bought the deconsecrated church where Alice and her then-husband Ray Brock lived. It is now the Guthrie Center (, a place for interfaith spiritual practice, which also serves as an educational foundation for, as Guthrie puts it, "cultural preservation in the face of globalization."

If nothing else, he said, the events of Sept. 11 should teach us that "these days, the battle lines, if you want to call them that, are between the fundamentalists and everybody else. Every religion has got its crazies." Guthrie is active in an organization called the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions, devoted to dialogue between belief systems.

Guthrie moved to Western Massachusetts in the early 1960s as a teenager from the Coney Island section of New York, where he was born. His father had been hospitalized since 1953, and his mother, Marjorie, a professional dancer, sent Arlo to boarding school in Stockbridge. Alice Brock was one of his teachers there.

His connection to the area goes back even further to when his mother, Woody Guthrie's second wife, would bring her children along when she taught classes at colleges and arts camps in the region.

After high school, Guthrie went to college in Billings, Mont., to study forestry. ("It was the closest school to Massachusetts that would accept me.") That venture lasted only a semester. He returned to make his life here.

On the wall next to a desk in Guthrie's living room is a framed enlargement of a 32-cent stamp bearing his father's picture, given to him by the United States Postal Service. Above the desk, in another place of honor, is a small portrait of his maternal grandmother, Aliza Greenblatt, who immigrated to this country from Russia. She was a Yiddish poet.

Guthrie, who still spends up to 10 months a year on the road (including a New York City concert Saturday night in Carnegie Hall), said he is satisfied with his life. "I love working with my kids, I love playing music, I love going down the road, I love going out, and I love coming home again," he said.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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