Reviving a Musical Tradition: In Conversation With Arlo Guthrie and Joan Osborne
Guthrie and Osborne are just two of the headliners at Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival this month.
The shores of the Hudson went silent last summer while Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival, one of the biggest and best music festivals in the region, took a year hiatus while its namesake sloop underwent a much-needed renovation. But on June 17 and 18, the environmentally minded music festival is back with a diverse lineup of music, using proceeds to fuel Pete Seeger’s dream of protecting the Hudson River. Hudson Valley recently had the opportunity to speak to two of this year’s prominent performers.
Remembering Pete Seeger
The legendary folk singer/songwriter —whose iconic song “Alice’s Restaurant” marks 50 years since its debut — has a deep respect for the festival. Clearwater’s Revival officially set down roots in 1978 with the help of musician and activist Pete Seeger, to raise funds for the sloop Clearwater — America’s Environmental Flagship — which Seeger built in 1969 to educate people about the environment. The sloop has since taught more than a half-million people about protecting the natural world. Seeger, who passed away in 2014, was a longtime friend of Guthrie’s father, legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, and influenced Arlo’s work and lifelong activism. We caught up with Arlo Guthrie while he was finishing a nationwide tour.
You’ve sung at various venues throughout the Hudson Valley during the course of your career. What do you like the most about this region?
I love that’s it’s close to home. I’m just up the road in the Berkshires. I’ve stayed in the Hudson Valley area, but never actually lived there. Being so close, I’ve got a lot of friends who still live there and I like visiting them.
How many years have you played at the Clearwater Festival?
I don’t really remember how many times…it’s been on and off for quite a while. We’d like to be there every year, but sometimes we just can’t make the schedule work. I’m thrilled to be there this time, even though it’ll be the first trip back to the festival without Pete and Toshi [Seeger], so it’ll be a little sad in that respect.
Why are organizations like Clearwater important?
I learned from the Clearwater Festival that doing something in your own backyard is more important than trying to think of doing something for the whole world. The success of the sloop Clearwater, having the impact it did on people all along the Hudson, was the inspiration behind us creating something where we live — The Guthrie Center in Great Barrington. It’s become important to the area, and a place where people can learn to make a difference at home and abroad.
Was music always your aspiration, or did you have other goals?
I always loved playing music, even as a young kid. But I didn’t imagine that I would make it my life. I wanted to be a forest ranger and play music with friends after work. That never worked out.
What influenced your early music?
The first record I ever actually bought, was of The Everly Brothers. To this day, I think what they did was amazing. They captured the spirit of the tradition and made it popular, spreading to a huge audience around the world. My mom [Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Company] made us kids take music lessons, piano, and theory, etc. So I learned the basics through both the folk and classical traditions. In other words, I learned to play by reading and by hearing. My dad and mom came from different worlds, musically speaking: my dad from the traditional world of folk music, my mom, a classical background. It sort of came together in me.
What was it like to play at Woodstock in 1969?
I saw the movie. It looked like I was having too much fun.
When did you first meet Pete Seeger? How would you describe his influence on you?
I met Pete and Toshi Seeger when I was very young, maybe 5 or 6. We visited them in their mountain home in Beacon. All I remember about it was being asked to go out and play with the other kids. But over the next five decades, we became friends; closer than that. I’d describe his influence on me as awe-inspiring.
How is your current career different from your early career? Is songwriting and the music business easier now than it was then, or vice versa?
About 50 years ago, I used to write about 10 songs a day, and really only liked a few words. Then I started writing fewer songs, and came to enjoy entire verses. About 20 years ago, I’d write a song every few months, but I liked the entire song. Now I don’t write much at all, but I love the whole thing.
What’s next for Arlo Guthrie?
By the time we are in the area for the festival, we will have just completed a tour spanning the nation. Next up is a summer of solo shows that generally keep me around the New England area. They’re scattered throughout July and August, leaving me plenty of time to get on my motorcycle and look for trouble on the back roads. I’ll grab a camera or two and see what’s going on out there. Or maybe I’ll just kick back at the old farm and watch the days roll by. I’m good either way.
Taking on Bob Dylan
The seven-time Grammy nominee — who hit Australia, Germany, and Colorado earlier this year and plans to tour the US this summer — will bring her acoustic trio to Clearwater’s stage to perform a set of Bob Dylan compositions. In the midst of recording a second album with her star-studded band, Trigger Hippy, Osborne discussed with us this year’s upcoming performance at the Clearwater festival.
With all you have going on this summer, do you have room to be excited for Clearwater?
Yes, of course! I love that festival, it’s great because it’s close to home [in Brooklyn] and I can bring my daughter (age 12). She’s had fun hanging out backstage, playing with Woody Guthrie’s grandkids. So that had a special place in my heart. It’s a beautiful setting, and it’s just such a relaxed thing. I’m looking forward to it.
So what can we expect to see?
I’m working on a record of all Bob Dylan songs, so that’s the show we are probably going to perform, with a few of my songs at the end just as an encore. I’ve been steeped in the material since doing a two-week residency at the Cafe Carlyle last year. We included Bob Dylan songs each night: The audience loved it and we loved it. It’s going be with Jim Boggia and Kevin Bents, who is going to be substituting for Keith [Cotton]. He’s an amazing player, and a great guy who comes from the New York City scene.
Which of your own songs do you think you might focus on?
Usually people want to hear “One of Us” (her Grammy-nominated single), but we haven’t decided what else we are going to do.
Is there anything in particular you think your fans will be excited to see at Clearwater?
I’m hoping that they are interested in this Bob Dylan stuff; it’s such a cool, interesting show. We are doing some songs that people are familiar with, but putting our own spin on them. And we’re doing some more obscure stuff so they might discover a Bob Dylan song that they have never heard before.
I’m excited to play it at Clearwater. It’s interesting because of the history of Pete Seeger, the founder of the festival. I think it’s interesting to bring a Dylan show because of the connection of those two guys.