My family has several traditions when it comes to Thanksgiving, ranging from the huge spread of sweet breads at breakfast to watching Son In Law. However, one of our biggest annual traditions is listening to Arlo Guthrie's eighteen-minute-long epic folk song "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" during dinner. The story song of a good deed gone awry that leads to pure WTF at a Vietnam draft is a Thanksgiving staple. Rock radio stations have played it every Thanksgiving Day for nearly fifty years and it's even been made into a movie (that I haven't gotten around to seeing yet).
However, I'd gotten to wondering about the guy behind the song, Arlo Guthrie. Surely the man responsible for a song played around the country on Thanksgiving Day would have more to his career than just that. Hell, even the dude who did "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" had other songs. I looked him up and discovered plenty more. Namely, he's the son of Woody Guthrie, the one who wrote "This Land Is Your Land," the song we all sang at school at some point. He put out almost thirty albums including one in 2009. He still tours to this day AT AGE 70!
So I perused his discography. I wasn't expecting much; I had mentioned before that I'm generally not a fan of folk music. However, I was pleasantly surprised. While there's always "Alice's Restaurant" for Thanksgiving, here are ten songs from Arlo that can be enjoyed the rest of the year.
'City of New Orleans'
This is one that I heard on the oldies stations a long time ago that I didn't even know was from Arlo! He did a great job sculpting a mental image of a cross-country train journey. It's also a very relaxing song with a simple piano riff that's one of the most soothing earworms I'd heard.
'Coming Into Los Angeles'
He's done plenty of edgier tracks as well. This is one of those. It's rock vibe strengthens the lyrics which tell of a trip to L.A. Yeah, Arlo did a lot of songs that revolve around traveling which I'll always enjoy.
This is the closest I'd heard him go to country music. Normally that'd be a turn-off for me since that's one of my least favorite musical genres, but Arlo makes it work here. The pleasant arrangement is perfectly juxtaposed against the somber lyrics; it just held my attention. Hell, it even managed to make my least favorite instrument, the steel guitar, work!
For those who think the whole thing with Mexican immigrants is a recent problem, this song shows its true age. It even flips things around by telling from the perspective of the Mexicans who basically get used in the fields and thrown away. The story is told vividly; Arlo is a master at lyrical storytelling.
Everyone has the image of the old-fashioned hobo. This song is the most gentle way of destroying that mental image. It's just a guitar, a fiddle, and Arlo's very somber lyrics, and it all works perfectly.
With all his songs about traveling, one would think Arlo didn't have a home. Well, here he sings about his home. I guess the incident in Stockbridge didn't dampen his love for the state. He sings with all the passion that John Denver had when he sang "Rocky Mountain High."
This one paints a purposely harsh portrait of a corrupt politician. This is one of the most vicious songs I heard from Arlo, and it can apply to any point in the last fifty years (especially the present). It also shows that Bob Dylan isn't the only folk singer who can go electric successfully.
'St. James Infirmary'
This is the perfect fusion of Arlo's folk sound and New Orleans blues. While I'm largely indifferent about folk, I've always enjoyed blues. This was one that easily won me over.
This is a song that could've won me over just by the title. "Ukulele Lady" is just fun to say. Fortunately the song itself is great, too. The arrangement reminds me a lot of traditional Hawaiian music that I'd always hear when I go to Omni Hut, and that's a great thing.
'When a Soldier Makes it Home'
I was pleased with what I found from Arlo Guthrie. Maybe I should rethink what I thought of folk music. What do you think? Let me know, and Happy Thanksgiving!