Folk mainstay Arlo Guthrie reflects on ‘transformative’ Woodstock experience

American singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie speaks about Woodstock during an interview with AFP at The Guthrie Centre and Foundation in Great Barrington, Massachusetts August 13, 2019. — AFP pic
American singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie speaks about Woodstock during an interview with AFP at The Guthrie Centre and Foundation in Great Barrington, Massachusetts August 13, 2019. — AFP pic

NEW YORK, Aug 15 — Performer Arlo Guthrie doesn’t remember sleeping or eating during 1969’s Woodstock festival, nor does he remember whether he took any drugs.

He does remember walking onstage in upstate New York, seeing hundreds of thousands of hyped-up youth gathered before him, and thinking, “We can’t hear ourselves. I wonder if anybody else can?”

“But it didn’t seem to matter,” said the mainstay of America’s folk scene. “You just keep playing.”

The now 72-year-old singer — son of folk music revolutionary Woody Guthrie, who inspired legions of socially conscious stars after him including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Bruce Springsteen — played on the first day of the legendary festival, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend.

“Most people couldn’t hear the concert, most people couldn’t even see it,” he told AFP outside his centre for cultural and spiritual exchange in rural western Massachusetts. “They were just there because everybody else was there.”

“We were drawn in, like moths to a flame.”

‘Transformative’ experience

Riding the success of his classic 1967 album Alice’s Restaurant — which contains the more than 18-minute long satirical talking blues hit Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, a deadpan protest against the Vietnam War draft that inspired a 1969 film version — Guthrie, then 22 and baby-faced with a shock of dark curls, recalls being most aware that he was a part of something monumental.

“History is generally thought of from hindsight,” said the Brooklyn-raised folk singer, who now sports shoulder-length white tendrils, a horseshoe moustache and rimmed aviator eyeglasses.

“It’s very rare to be in a historic moment and know that it’s historic.”

Though the enormous party took on airs of a disaster zone and endured a lack of food, clothes and shelter from the pounding rain that August 15-18, Guthrie says “we were amazed. And we felt good about being regular human beings”.

“It’s just one of those moments that you think of as being transformative, like being born or getting married, or your dog dying, or whatever it is,” he continued. “Something emotional, something that’s bigger than you can put into words.”

“You just have to take it in and it becomes part of you.”

End of an era

Guthrie — who will play today evening to open a commemorative concert series that will also feature Ringo Starr, Santana and John Fogerty at the original Woodstock site in Bethel, New York — said he’s not nostalgic for that golden era of American folk and rock, but simply proud. “That music still holds up,” he said.

“It meant something — that doesn’t happen every generation,” he said. “I was lucky to be a part of that in my lifetime.”

While counting himself among the 32 acts at Woodstock was personally formative for Guthrie, he sees the chaotic weekend as an exclamation point closing the era’s counter-cultural chapter.

“It was a great celebration to end an era of being anti-authoritarian,” he said, donning a flannel shirt, blue jeans and brown clogs. “Leery of anybody in positions of authority — left, right or centre.”

Still today, he said “you have to sort of take these people in positions of power with an air of suspicion.”

‘Original social media’

Though the heady times of peace, love and music are long gone, Guthrie said the mass gathering in the fields of a farmer illustrated the power of trust among strangers, brought together by music.

“I’ve played music with people whose language I didn’t speak, and they didn’t speak mine,” he said. “But we didn’t need language. We had music.”

“The language that was spoken at Woodstock was this musical language,” he continued. “Music is the original social media. And it still holds that place.”

The communal, love your neighbour spirit of the mid-20th century folk revival that Guthrie, along with stars like Dylan, Baez and his late friend Pete Seeger helped popularise is one that reverberated at Woodstock, the singer said.

It’s an ethos he said would be worth remembering in today’s heated sociopolitical environment.

“People should learn how to be a person where they are, and also know and feel comfortable and safe about going somewhere else,” Guthrie said. “And learn how to adjust from one place to the next.”

“That’s not too much to ask of any human being.” — AFP

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