Folk singer's words and guitar become his family's way of life

Arlo, other descendants of Woody Guthrie to play at music and arts festival

July 09, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The American Music and Arts Festival in Westminster tomorrow will be a tuneful reunion for one family that has spawned legends in the folk movement and still reaches into the roots of Americana for its songs.

Arlo Guthrie, famed folk musician and son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, will strum his guitar, trill his harmonica and intone storied lyrics. He will indulge the audience with a few father-daughter duets and be feted with a birthday cake, baked in the shape of Alice's Restaurant.

"He may forget it's his birthday, but we will remind him," said son-in-law Johnny Irion.

Guthrie, who turns 57 tomorrow, headlines an evening of music that runs the gamut from American folk and bluegrass to international rhythms with Celtic pipes or African drums. He will play his popular songs, maybe even "Alice's Restaurant," as well as tunes made famous more than a half-century ago by his father.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Irion, will join her father on stage.

"Not many families can run through this whole generational thing," said Irion. "It really opens up a whole new side of music."

Irion, 35, savors the relaxed atmosphere while performing with his father-in-law, whom he has found tolerant of musical miscues.

"Arlo can't really fire us," Irion said. "If I do make a mistake, he will usually take me out for a beer after and tell me not to worry about it."

Sarah Lee Guthrie, 25, remembers the gentle invitation from her father to "come out and sing with me on stage." She was 18 and had hardly mastered basic guitar.

"I was just getting to know guitar chords," she said. "I learned the rest really fast on stage in front of thousands of people. My dad was not afraid to let me make my own mistakes. If I was out of tune, it didn't ruin his show."

Her first recording preceded that initial stage appearance. When she was 12, the entire Guthrie family -- "all the descendants of Woody" -- recorded an album of children's songs written by her grandfather, who died in 1967, she said.

"We had some of his old recordings and he sang right along with us," she said. "We called it `Woody's 20 Grow Big Songs' and it is still selling great."

Her older brother, Abe Guthrie, stepped on stage with his dad at 16 and has provided keyboard and vocals for more than 15 years.

"He learned quickly, too," Sarah Lee Guthrie said.

Abe's 7-year-old daughter and Arlo share the same birthday and will share cake tomorrow, too. Two other daughters also dabble in music while running the business for their family.

"My dad always embraced the idea of having his kids play music with him," said Sarah Lee Guthrie. "I know that came from Woody. I didn't know Woody, but my dad brings those traditions to the table. That is how folk music is passed on through the generations."

The stage opportunities with her father have waned as the young couple forges their own musical careers. They have been traveling for performances and have recorded a new CD, Exploration, which comes out in the fall.

"This is a really big step for us," she said. "We are the next generation and we want to play for our peers. Americana is what we do. This is great music that tells a story and relates to real people."

The two-day festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum is the culmination of the 10th annual Common Ground on the Hill, an event that works to build community by celebrating the diversity among artists and musicians.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion were both teachers and students at Common Ground last week. She taught songwriting for families, often relying on her grandfather's tunes for background, and studied weaving and basketry. He stuck with music.

"I got into blues piano, teaching and taking classes and playing," said Irion, who taught at Common Ground two years ago and encouraged his wife to join him this year.

"The great thing about Common Ground is that it interfaces with lots of different music cultures and it also has art and a great community," she said. "The first day here I was running around with no idea of where my classes were and another teacher made me sit down for a foot massage."

Her class finished the week writing a catchy children's song inspired by her daughter's reaction to the long car ride from their South Carolina home to Westminster in the family "Vannie Mae."

The tune sparkled with improvisation, simplicity and repetition -- the nonsensical way to capture a child's attention, she said. The refrain of the untitled ditty goes: "I wanna be doot-doot-dooting down the street. That's what I would do if I was out of my car seat."

"You can make up words and make them sound funny and you will have a great song for kids," she said. "It is kind of Guthriesque to do it this way."

The extended Guthrie family gets together frequently but they don't automatically slip into song, she said.

"We need instigators," she said. "I think we will have plenty of them at the festival."

Irion needs no such encouragement.

"We will be performing with Arlo on Saturday and doing our own set on Sunday," he said. "The whole thing will be challenging and great fun."

The two-day American Music and Arts Festival will spread across four stages and offer songs, dance, crafts, storytelling and ethnic foods.

The festival runs from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Carroll County Farm Museum, 500 S. Center St., Westminster. Tickets, available at the gate, are $38 for both days; $24 for tomorrow (Arlo Guthrie's only show) and $18 for Sunday. Admission is $10 per day for teens, age 13 to 18; $5 per day for children, age 6 to 12; and free for younger children. "Camping in the rough" spots are available for $10 per person per night. Information: 410-857-2771.

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