This piece was originally published as an opinion in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 31, 2017.
There are two septuagenarians, both Americans, who know America and how to work an American crowd. I saw both on different stages in a single day.
On May 18 Arlo Guthrie ambled out slowly onto the stage of the old brick Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., a big shock of white hair and a droopy mustache. Gaudy painted figures festooned the ceiling, as white, blue and red lights shifted in steamed air among the four figures who moved with him. In blue jeans and without any discernible ceremony he sat on a stool in the middle of his countless precious guitars.
Around him were a middle-aged guy who played electric guitar like a bank teller working an adding machine and Arlo’s plump, shaggy-haired son, who beamed a smile down onto the keyboard. In back was a 50-some-year-old drummer and over his left shoulder was the woman who had been there 40 years ago playing a tambourine.
He mumbled something about playing their “stuff” and went right into some recent songs. The crowd, which did not completely fill the venue, did not wait until he started playing the old stuff to become enthusiastic. But when he started into “Coming into Los Angeles” it got warm. Holding a shiny blue 12 string guitar, he picked a tune while telling a story that mostly made fun of himself. He was passing the songs around. It seemed from his telling that he’d just been lucky. He pulled “Alice’s Restaurant” from some recess in his old white head, meandering through a convoluted tale of littering and the insanity of a Vietnam era New York draft station.
He took all of us right with him down along the Mississippi from Chicago to New Orleans, right through the middle of America. With every word and chord he told us about who we are. And we all knew it. He joined us together with a kind of gentleness. There was no welding going on, just a coalescence. We seemed to belong there and together. He brought out a little Bob Dylan and more than a little Woodstock.
He only got serious a few times, when telling the tale of a Chilean singer who’d been murdered by generals and whenever he talked about his dad. That’s the first time we opened up our throats and sang along with him. We’d do it again at the end of the show.
This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York Island From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me
And that’s when I really started thinking about what’s going on in the world right now. Woody Guthrie’s old song made me think about the only good solution to any kind of real trouble. When he wrote that song there were few reasons to be optimistic. The world was pretty messed up in 1940. But I think what Woody Guthrie said about us in that song had more to do than anything else with us getting through it.
After he finished his second set everyone knew we’d clap hard enough for him to give us one more song. He said it really didn’t count as a song, it was just some of Woody’s scribblings he’d found and set to some music. Arlo called it “My Peace.”
My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you My peace is all I ever had that’s all I ever knew I give my peace to green and black and red and white and blue My peace my peace is all I’ve got that I can give to you
Of course, we’re not always that good, no one is. I’m pretty sure neither Woody nor Arlo was always so good, maybe never. But sometimes we forget who we are, who we can be. We forget that we can be that good. Sometimes we’re scared and mean. Sometimes even worse. Sometimes who we are depends upon whom we listen to. Sometimes we’re listening to the wrong song. Sometimes we just need reminding.
I almost forgot to talk about that other old guy I saw on a different stage. He’s almost exactly one year older than Arlo. He has a head of carefully combed-over blond hair. He was on TV saying how hard he’s been working for us. He spends a lot of time in a place in Florida called Mar-a-Lago where he says he worries about the little guys, like you and me.