He’s the grandfather they never knew. But the stories are rich and wonderful: the defiant Okie rambler, surveying America from the top of a boxcar, leading union rallies in song, and capturing the reverence of a youthful Bob Dylan as he neared death. Those stories are the past, but the songs remain alive in the present, still every bit as vital, still sung in classrooms and concert halls.
His granddaughters feel that restless creativity that drove Woody Guthrie to write thousands of songs — story songs, outlaw songs, political songs, children’s songs, and love songs. Like their father Arlo, each one took to music in her own way, but each one also embraces that guiding spirit of Woody.
Cathy, Annie, and Sarah Lee Guthrie are more than carrying on the family business; as singers and songwriters they’re forging identities all their own. The Guthrie Family Rides Again tour finds the sisters and brother Abe Guthrie, forty, subtly but surely starting to accept the torch as it’s nudged over from Arlo. And the tour introduces a gaggle of the next generation, Woody’s great-grandchildren.
The stage is as comfortable as the family living room, a place where everyone takes a turn singing and toddlers wander freely. The Guthries describe this tour and the family’s music in general as a journey of getting to know themselves, each other, their families, and finding personal connections with Woody in those songs that seem destined to live forever.
“When I’m up there singing his songs, I feel Woody all around us,” said Sarah Lee, 31, who is joined onstage by husband Johnny Irion. “And how can you not, with thirteen Guthries up there, with so much love for this man, and an audience of friends with so much love for this man? How can you not feel his spirit?”
Music and family are deeply intertwined for those children who grow up touring with their father, and joining him on stage when they were old enough to sing along.
“My first memory is me, probably two years old, and I ran out on stage to get my dad and my mom let me go,” said Sarah Lee. “I remember being up there in a diaper and looking down at the piano and looking out at this vast crowd of people and they were all trying to get me to sing, inch by inch.” Her first solo vocal in concert, at fourteen, ended up on a live album, Arlo and Pete Seeger’s More Together Again.
Teenage rebellion pushed her deep into punk rock and troublemaking. Instead of going to college, she became her dad’s road manager, and after meeting the Grateful Dead and the Black Crowes on the Further Festival tour, Sarah Lee moved to California. On the opposite side of the country from her Guthrie roots, she found her way into folk music when she met a former indie rocker from North Carolina.
“Whether it’s now or when you’re 18 or maybe you won’t get it till you’re 35, at some point when you hear that one song that’s just a voice and a guitar, it changes your life,” said Sarah Lee. “It’s going to call to you no matter what kind of music you’re into, because that’s what’s real. It was Johnny and his guitar that turned me around,” she said, referring to her husband.
Cathy was even more of a musical holdout, the black sheep who went to college and got a real job. But music caught up to her, too, working in a San Diego restaurant, where she met Amy Nelson, Willie’s daughter.
“She was the musical holdout of her family, too, and when we got together, we got a little braver,” said Cathy, 37. “In our families, it’s not an original idea to go into the music business, so we were rebelling by being normal. When we met each other and started playing, it was empowering to have your best friend who comes from a musical legacy as well and who kind of sucks, too.”
Cathy and Amy named their duo Folk Uke, and with a warped and irreverent sense of humor, paired the pretty folk music and sweet harmonies with lyrics that reach well into the gutter. The cover art for Folk Uke’s 2005 debut pictures Cathy and Amy as flowers, as well as an “explicit lyrics” advisory label.
“We started writing funny songs, maybe some inappropriate songs, and we were playing them for our friends and got a laugh out of them,” Cathy said. “I realized you didn’t have to be a brilliant musician to be on stage and have fun. … That was a pivotal point.”
Though she grew up with piano lessons and has played guitar for more than twenty years, Annie found herself gravitating more toward the business side of the Guthrie family music. She runs Rising Son Records, which Arlo founded in 1983 when he left Warner Brothers, and also works as Arlo’s personal manager. Annie, 34, plays autoharp and her son Mo plays bass on the current tour, the first and likely last time three Guthrie generations will be out together on the road for so long.
“For me personally, I’ve always wanted to give my kids a glimpse of what I grew up doing,” said Annie. “To be able to look across the stage and see my boy over there, as a parent, that’s one of my favorites. My daughter comes out and sings too, and when we were at Carnegie on this tour, there was a moment on stage when I saw my father looking at the kids and he just had this grandfatherly glow. I knew exactly what he was thinking, because I was thinking the same things about the kids.”
For Annie, it’s been the interest of various other musicians dipping into unpublished lyrics in the Woody Guthrie Archives (run by Arlo’s sister Nora) that led her to rediscover her grandfather’s music. She says “California Stars,” from the Billy Bragg and Wilco 1998 Mermaid Avenue collaboration, has her grandfather’s most beautiful lyrics.
When she was young, Annie chose to do a book report on Woody’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. “It was difficult to read because I was so young and it was written in such a dialect,” Annie recalled. “But I had such a curiosity about Woody and who he was and who I was that I really felt drawn to it.”
After reading the book, Annie sat down with her dad one night with a list of questions. “I wanted to know everything about him, everything my dad could remember on a personal level,” she said. “Through those stories and my own music, I started to develop a relationship with Woody because I started to find similarities.”
The Guthrie music will keep coming, even “new” songs from Woody. Sarah Lee’s 2009 children’s album Go Waggaloo features three previously unheard lyrics from Woody set to music she and her husband wrote (as well as one of Woody’s sketches as cover art).
“To have the opportunity to recently put some music to these lyrics myself has also brought me closer to who he was, to essentially work with him in a way like that,” said Sarah Lee. “We now share these songs that are out there in the world.”