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The Guthries & Seegers Are At It Again!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Guthries amp Seegers Are At It Again

Sarah Lee, Arlo, and Abe Guthrie, along with Johnny Irion, Sarah Lee's husband and performing partner.

A New Generation from folk's first families
        In American music, there is nothing new about children following in the footsteps of famous parents. There is now a Hank Williams III, trotting along after Junior and the original, who was country music's greatest songwriter. Jakob Dylan has spent 15 years trying to be known for his band the Wallflowers, and not as the son of Bob Dylan. Blues diva Shemekia Copeland is exuberantly carrying on the legacy of her father, guitar legend Johnny Copeland. The Carter Family, and its progeny, the Carter-Cash clan, remains a country music dynasty. Even the King of Rock'n'Roll, ol' Elvis himself, has a a royal heir in Lisa Marie Presley.
        But there is something special happening around the new generation of Seegers and Guthries, America's first families of folk music. Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of the legendary Woody Guthrie, is rising fast in the modern songwriter ranks; her elegantly simple, deceptively intelligent songs more often compared to her grandfather's than her dad's. She performs with her husband, Johnny Irion, a lilting folk-rocker with a sly insight and crackling populist fury that is hard to describe any other way than Guthrie-esque. Her brother, Abe Guthrie, performs in Arlo's band.
        Tao Rodgriguez-Seeger, grandson of folk patriarch Pete Seeger, is banjo-guitarist in the Mammals, one of the most important and inventive groups in a flourishing neotrad string band revival. The group's fiddler is Ruth Ungar, daughter of influential old time fiddler Jay Ungar, who is best known for penning "Ashokan Farewell," the elegiac theme to the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War.
        The Mammals play old time music with a cunning, muscular abandon, their posters defiantly proclaiming them "Subversive Acoustic Traditionalists." But their fun-loving instrumental anarchy works only because it is rooted in an almost primal understanding of folk music's melodic structure, rhythm, and idiomatic graces.
        Through the rest of 2005, the continuing Guthrie-Seeger conspiracy will spread nationwide, as Arlo tours with the Mammals and, from time to time, his daughter and son-in-law, to honor the 40th anniversary of his famous arrest for littering, which inspired "Alice's Restaurant."
        It is striking how little these Guthrie and Seeger "kids-of" seem to wrestle with the shadow of their more-famous elders; how much less they feel the same burden of expectations that almost destroyed Hank Williams, Jr., and that Jakob Dylan still battles. The contrast reveals much about the difference between commercial pop and American roots music these days; and perhaps even more about why folk and roots are steadily on the rise, while the mainstream music industry is in a historic decline.
        "The young Guthries and Seegers are on good terms with their parents and grandparents," says Pete Seeger, 86. He proudly adds that in Britain, more young Seegers are on the rise in folk musicians Calum and Neil MacColl, sons of Peggy Seeger, Pete's sister, and her late husband, Ewan MacColl.
        Asked why more Seegers seem to be taking a crack at music careers, Pete says, "I think it's partly because their parents don't try to make it hard on them to find their own way. So they borrow some things from their parents and grandparents, and other things they don't. And that's fine."
        Indeed, it is revealing to compare how Arlo Guthrie remembers the expectations he felt about being Woody's son, with the way his daughter describes her more indirect, but less obstructed, path to music.
        "Whatever burden of expectations there was for me," Arlo says, "was mostly in other people's minds, not mine. I loved what my dad stood for. I loved his songs, his warmth, and his simple sophistication. So when I first started singing, and people wanted to hear Woody's kid doing Woody Guthrie songs, I was happy to oblige. But a 15 year-old kid singing about hard traveling; I mean, what did I know about that kind of stuff? So it ended up being more of a tribute than anything authentic. I didn't mind doing it, but it wasn't all I wanted to do."
        When Sarah Lee was falling in love with Johnny Irion, he put a guitar in her hand and said coyly, "Try it, it's fun." She was immediately hooked.
        "It never occurred to me that I'd end up playing," she says. "So I came to it my own way. My dad was absolutely thrilled, of course, and would teach me stuff every day when we were on the road together. That was a really cool way to get to know my dad, because I'd never known him that way. And that's another thing that made it easy: my dad was so supportive. A lot of time that doesn't happen with kids-of. The parents are a little worried about their own image, or feel like their have their own thing. My dad wasn't like that at all."
        This is not to say the road for these folk kids-of has been entirely strewn with roses. Tao Rodriguez-Seeger stresses that none of his grandfather's children became professional musicians, and for good reason. The kind of fame Pete experienced could border on obsession. He was almost a holy figure to some people, who would make pilgrimages to shake his hand. It nearly prevented Tao from becoming a musician.
        He was raised in Nicaragua, where his father, Emilio Rodriguez, worked as a war correspondent for the Sandanista party. When he returned to America in 1989, Tao was repelled by the way his grandfather was treated.
        "It was pretty smothering for me," he says. "I didn't want to play music. I remember just not liking all the cameras around, the weirdos coming up the driveway looking for my grandfather. You know, when you're six, you want to say, 'He's MY grandfather, go away! He's got to tell me bedtime stories, give me a backrub, and finish making the maple syrup. He doesn't have time for you.'"
        One day in his teens, Tao brashly criticized his grandfather's Spanish singing. He never even saw it coming, as Pete nodded solemnly, then said, 'Well, why don't you come up and help me with it?' Next thing he knew, he was touring with Pete. But he insisted he was not becoming a musician; he was just helping grandpa.
        At a festival in Denmark, when he was 18, a group of musicians on the bill chipped in to buy Tao his first guitar. They also tore up his plane ticket home, handed him a Eurorail pass, and said, "Go see what it's like out there, on your own."
        "They taught me enough guitar chords to get me started," he says, "and sent me on my way. I sat in the train, playing till my fingers bled, and found out I really enjoyed communicating with people that way."
        The scales finally tipped at an Irish pub, when Tao sang an antiwar song, and an irate patron slugged him. Now, to some young people, that might have served as a caution. But Tao is a Seeger, and to a Seeger, it meant only that he had been able to inspire deep and real feelings, just by singing a song. "I must be on to something," he thought as he scraped himself up off the floor.
        Ruth Ungar also tried avoid the family business. She saw the folk world as a subculture totally separate from the world her friends knew. This must be what kids who grow up in a cult feel like, she thought.
        "There was a definite vibe with me that folk was a different thing than people my age were into," she says. "It was like something you were either born into or knew nothing about. Explaining all that was just not a job I wanted."
        That changed when she fell in love with Michael Merenda, the folkie-come-lately of the Mammals. He grew up on indie-rock, reggae, ska, and punk, and was falling in love with folk music at the same time he was falling in love with her. His enthusiasm was contagious; she suddenly didn't mind admitting she was a fiddler.
        Merenda's bracingly modern songs, with winding melodies full of smart surprises, give the band an enticing urban edge.
        "I'd be a fool to pretend the Seeger/Ungar thing hasn't helped us get a foot in the door," he says, "but it also hasn't overshadowed what we're doing on our own terms."
        How can that be? These days, Pete and Arlo may seem like minor stars to audiences weaned on stadium rock and reality-show divas. But in the folk world, they are legends.
        "There's more of an urgency in the folk world around that old cliche of carrying on the music," Merenda says. "Fans seem to be rooting for us to succeed, to carry on Pete's legacy. There's more of a nurturing atmosphere than there is in the rock or pop world; like with Jakob Dylan, which seems more like, 'Oh yeah, let's see [i]you[i] make 40 albums, and write the most important songs of your generation. I dare you.' In the folk world, it's more like people genuinely want to see where Ruth and Tao are taking the music - but they are also just thrilled that they want to do it at all."
        Examining what Jakob Dylan is going through trying to promote his new Wallflowers CD is instructive. In Anthony DeCurtis's recent New York Times profile, he wrote that for Jakob, a new CD "can mean only one thing: more questions about his dad."
        "You go right to the head of why people have a problem with me," Jakob told him. "If people want me to talk about Bob Dylan, I can talk about that. But my dad belongs to me and four other people exclusively."
        Told of Jakob's response, Tao says, "That really resonates with me. There's two totally different guys: that famous guy called Pete Seeger, and my grandpa, who chops down trees, makes maple syrup, and tells slightly dirty jokes. I'll always hold knowing that guy much more sacred than knowing Pete Seeger, even though he's done so many important things. But that guy will never affect me the way my grandpa has."
        Arlo is quick to point out that the level of fame and expectations is very different today than it was in the '60s, when music was going to save the world.
        "You've got to acknowledge that music these days is nowhere near as important a source of information today as it was in the '60s. It'd be hard for young people to understand, but anybody over 40 is going to know what I'm talking about. It was a time when music - folk music, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, all of that - was the vehicle and the voice for the heart and soul of that generation."
        His daughter also thinks that a lower-burning level of fame allows her family to come to music more comfortably.
        "It seems like all the attention was as much a burden to Bob Dylan as it is to Jakob," she says. "There's the masses and the media rocking your world and turning everything inside out, wanting to know everything about you and your family. The Guthries are really fortunate not to have that. My dad's able to walk down the street, go to the supermarket."
        Perhaps another reason it's a gentler road for the Guthrie and Seeger kids-of is that their elders are kids-of themselves. People forget now, but Pete's father, Charles Seeger, was a towering figure in the folk music movement of the early 20th century; a composer and scholar who practically invented the field of ethnomusicology. Pete says he did feel a burden of expectations as a young man, but that his dad always said, "Peter has to find his own way."
        "He might have suggested things," Pete recalls. "He would say, 'Have you ever thought of doing this?' But he never said that I should do it, never even implied it was better or worse."
        As for Arlo, he experienced the perks of being Woody's kid long before he saw any downside. The first time he went to the Newport Folk Festival, his mother asked Bob Dylan to chaperon him. At 15, he was able to get drinks in Greenwich Village folk clubs, just because he was Woody's kid.
        Still, he revealed that the reason he began telling his trademark comic monologues was to distance himself from his father. A couple of years ago, however, his sister Norah, who is also in the family business as director of the Woody Guthrie Archives, played him an old wire recording of their dad, made during one of his first New York performances.
        "He went rambling on and on, telling this story and that, all very humorous and wise," Arlo says. "I heard that for the first time, and I went, 'My God, I didn't invent this stuff.' You know what I'm saying? Forty years later, you find out the stuff you've been doing to distinguish yourself from him came from him anyway. And I never heard it before; there's no way I could have known."
        Sarah Lee feels the same way. She finds it virtually unavoidable to write the kind of deceptively plainspun songs Woody did, in which apparently simple thoughts weave together to form one large, not-so-simple theme. But it was not listening to old records that showed her the way to her inner-Guthrie.
        "Woody had a way of distilling through, and seeing exactly what was going on," she says. "And that's why he could write so simply. You know, just bringing the whole world in focus, and saying that the whole problem is in one word, greed. It's funny how things turned out with my music, because of course, I didn't know him personally, and I really didn't know his music or his books when I was growing up. I learned all of the things like that from our guru, Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavita. I lived in an ashram for 7 years, and learned there how to cut through the fat, to get to that core Woody had so strongly."
        She also thinks she feels less pressure, because the kids-of phenomenon is fairly common in the folk world today. Many young stars today grew up around the music, kids of performers, activists, or just fans.
        British folk diva Kate Rusby is the daughter of acoustic sound engineers; and singer-fiddler Eliza Carthy's parents are British folk stars Martin Carthy and Eliza Waterson. The hot Canadian band the Duhks is led by Leonard Podolak, whose father founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival. The singer in the brilliant Boston string band Crooked Still is Aoife O'Donovan, whose father Brian hosts WGBH's popular radio program, A Celtic Sojourn.
        "Being a kid-of is not such an odd thing in the folk world today, because so many of us grew up in it," Sarah Lee says. "And when you went to a folk festival, it was the whole family going, and their kids played with your kids. I think the sense of community in the folk world is so huge; we really are just one big family."
        Tao acknowledges that one reason he wanted to present himself to the music world in a band was to distinguish himself from Pete.
        "I realized that, despite my best intentions, I play a lot like my grandpa," he says. "So I didn't want that to be people's first impression. I don't mind if it comes later, because I'm proud of the influence he's had on me. I mean, it's real, it's  who I am, and who Ruthie is. And it comes up fairly often, so it must be important to some people. But once you listen to a Mammals show, you realize Jay Ungar and my grandpa would never, in ten lifetimes, do what we do. Because they are who they are; they grew up in a different time. And we are who we are; we grew up in this time."
        "Still," he adds, "I think we learned our lessons from them really well. But what they wanted us to understand is that it's important to try to be true to yourself; to figure out who you are, and put that into your music."
        It's not just Abe and Sarah Lee carrying on the Guthrie family business. Arlo's daughters, Annie and Kathy, help run his career and record label, Rising Son Records. Asked why so many Guthries remain in the folk fold, he is quiet for a long time, claiming to have no explanation other than being blessed.
        Finally, he says, "My wife Jackie and I have four kids who actually get along, and who enjoy playing music together. We both raised our kids so that we could get together and play music from time to time. Just for us. You'll never see my wife get on stage, but she'd pull out a guitar and sing for them. And they saw that; saw that you don't have to be a big-shot on a stage to play music. It opened up the possibility for them to do any part of that they wanted - but none of it was expected."
        The latest to succumb, he reports, is daughter Kathy, who has begun performing with Willie Nelson's daughter, Amy. Heaving a comically paternal sigh, Arlo says, "She was supposed to be the smart one of the family, you know."
        Then, one fateful day not long ago, she called to say she'd bought a ukulele. As if to soften the blow, she said, "It only has four strings, dad."
        "Yeah, I know," he told her, "but pretty soon you're going to want a five-string banjo, and then a freaking guitar."
        "She said that'd never happen," Arlo says, "but sure enough, within a year she'd gone through the banjo and on to the guitar; and now her first CD's coming out. So our hope for smart children never really came to fruition. But we have happy ones."
        Originally appeared in Elmore Magazine

updated: 13 years ago