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From Arlo down to his 'folk diva' granddaughter, Guthrie clan carries on legacy

Ed Crowell
Arlo Guthrie, center, and 18 family members are on tour, playing a number of Woody Guthrie songs. 'We also do some of the kids' songs,' says Sarah Lee Guthrie, a daughter of Arlo Guthrie. 'There's a lot of spontaneity to the show from a rough outline.'

Bring the family and hear a big one. Touring family bands have been around since well before the Jonas Brothers. The Carter family performed out of Appalachia from the 1920s to 1950s. Willie Nelson tours with a big collection of close musicians dubbed Willie Nelson and Family, though sister Bobbie usually is the lone kin. The gospel tradition of family groups in Texas remains strong with the lively fest fave Jones Family Singers.

So it's no surprise that a family rooted in the great roaming troubadour Woody Guthrie carries the idea forward with the Guthrie Family Rides Again tour, which stops Wednesday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Arlo Guthrie is the anchor, but his talented daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her young family, plus a host of siblings and cousins, contribute to the show.

Sarah Lee Guthrie, 31, recently released an excellent children's album that adults can enjoy, with three of the songs culled from the Smithsonian Folkways archives of lyrics written by Woody Guthrie but never put to music. With her husband, Johnny Irion (and help from their two daughters on minivan rides), the album "Go Waggaloo" is serious and silly in turns and full of singalong tunes.

We interviewed Sarah Lee Guthrie from Asheville, N.C., where the two buses of 19 family members and friends parked for a couple of shows earlier this month.

American-Statesman: Tell me about the dynamics of this family concert. Is it like a giant songwriters circle or with openers and closers and a big group singalong?

Sarah Lee Guthrie: Johnny and I come out first. My dad wanted us to introduce the family, so we essentially host the show. After that, my sister Cathy (who lives in Austin) and Amy Nelson (Willie Nelson's daughter) play entirely inappropriate music as the Folk Uke, which is a really funny thing since we're ironically on a family tour. But everybody laughs and we've been having fun with that. Then my dad comes out and he's been focusing on the Woody Guthrie songs that have been pulled out of the archives in recent years (a process started by Billy Bragg and Wilco). We also do some of the kids' songs. There's a lot of spontaneity to the show from a rough outline.

Talk about the 'Go Waggaloo' collection you and your husband put together. How many Woody songs did the folks at the archives find for you to consider?

They found about 15 to choose from. The three we did were all written on the same day in 1947. He would sit down and write like 10 songs a day and dated everything. The "Go Waggaloo" song just popped out at me and started running around the house. I had this cool little beat box from the '60s that my mom had and I turned that on and started rapping the lyrics.

Another, "Bright Clear Day," was one where Woody wrote a paragraph at the bottom suggesting how the lyrics could be changed to fit what you would like to do on a lovely day, exchanging this word for this word. "Fox and the Goose" had written on the top "my version of an old folk song" and it was a great story. I put a little blues behind it on the piano. I asked my dad if he knew the song and he said oh yeah and started playing it with a different tune.

This album has a couple songs with a bit of a dark side. The fox and the goslings get eaten. On 'Oh How He Lied' (a song Pete Seeger wrote but never recorded), two lovers die before they can marry. She flies to heaven and 'he went the other way and frizzled and fried.' Did you purposely look for such songs?

I've always been very real with my children (Olivia, 7, and Sophia, 2), and I don't see any reason to bubble up this life with something it's not. If they don't understand it, then they're not ready to and if they do then they're ready. Otherwise, you're not preparing your child for anything. I love just being real and Woody did, too. The "Go Waggaloo" song is about hard times.

Modern lifestyles get their due in 'If Mama Had Four Hands' — checking e-mails, multitasking, changing a diaper while tuning a guitar. Your writing?

We needed a little release. Johnny actually sat down and asked Olivia what Mom would do if she had four hands. Olivia came up with every single one of those lyrics. The words are very childlike and very up to date because they came from a child. We call her our folk diva now, and I laugh a lot about at how great she thinks she is. There's so much to work on (making music) and I keep reminding her that we need to work hard at what we do to get better.

At what age did you fully realize the Woody-Arlo-Pete Seeger tradition and its place in music and social history? Any 'wow' moments about that?

I keep having those moments. I remember when I was 7 years old and looking out at this vast crowd at a festival and just laughing and adoring my dad. "Whoa, these people really like him." Mostly, though, it's been the stories that fans have. They will pull me aside and tell me, "Your dad and your grandfather have helped me through the worst times." Some people really elaborate about how this music has changed their lives.

How do you characterize the adult music you and Johnny make?

He came out of an indie rock scene in North Carolina. I'm a huge Jayhawks fan. It ended up being kind of Americana. We go for the tight harmonies and, of course, the song-crafting. Our new album is coming out this fall, and I'm so excited to call it folk music. There's a whole new wave of 20- and 30-year-olds listening to folk. Fleet Foxes and Monsters of Folk are making this great sound, and I'm so thankful.

Tell me about life on buses with a family and kids. Any aren't-we-there yet complaints?

Oh yeah. There's a hierarchy — big brother (Abe Guthrie) gets the back and we're up front. There's 17 of us on this bus, and mom and dad have their own bus.

We have our kids' atlas to follow along where we are and we've built into the tour a lot of fun stuff. We're going to the Grand Canyon, to Yellowstone and the alligator farm in Florida where 25 years ago my dad wrestled an alligator. We're taking bets now on who is going to wrestle the alligator.

In 2005, do you recall playing an outdoor show near Austin at a joint called Alice's Restaurant? The stage was next to a cow pasture. It was the 40th anniversary of Arlo's long story song 'Alice's Restaurant Massacre' and he sang it all, a rarity.

Yeah, I remember that place. Did he really do the song? You know, right now I'm looking at a shirt my brother is wearing and it's from there — Niederwald, Texas.

When Arlo performs on this tour, is there a certain song you definitely want to hear him do?

The song with the most heart and feeling, the one that he usually sings last, is called "My Peace." Dad describes it as about the little peace in you that makes people happy to see you. As long as we take care of that little peace ,then the big peace will take care of itself. I love that moment, and it's the kind of encouragement Woody gave people to make a difference. That was one of the last songs Woody wrote in the hospital before he died. It's just two verses, and it says everything.

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The Guthrie Family Rides Again

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $29-$59

Information: 474-5664, thelongcenter.org