To the general public, Arlo Guthrie is best known for three things.
No. 1, for being the singer and songwriter of the classic 1960s anthem “Alice’s Restaurant.”
No. 2, for being the son of Woody Guthrie, the iconic folk musician, author and activist whose contributions to American music landed songs like “This Land Is Your Land” in the music books of elementary schools around the world.
And third, for being, with his vowel-bookended first name, a popular crossword puzzle answer. And, go figure, the hint usually given is “Singer of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ ” or “Woody Guthrie’s son.”
If that’s all you know of the man, you’re missing out on what his devoted fan base has known for decades now: Arlo Guthrie is one of the greatest performers, storytellers and songwriters in all of music. He’s also one of the last artists to have a direct connection to the American folk music scene that his father helped to create and foster.
While many performers with a famous parent are forced to live in their shadow, Arlo, on his own, shot to prominence with the aforementioned “Alice’s Restaurant” (technically titled “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”) in 1967. The nearly 20-minute epic tells the hilarious story of how a teenage Guthrie’s littering on Thanksgiving two years earlier led to his “inability” to be drafted. The song became a staple of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hippie counter-culture. It even produced a movie of the same name, which saw Guthrie playing himself. Today the song is played on radio stations across America every Thanksgiving.
Guthrie, however, who easily could have faded into one-hit-wonder obscurity, proceeded to release a slew of albums in the 1970s such as Washington County, Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys and Outlasting the Blues that have stood the test of time and, quite frankly, are overlooked masterpieces. With a mix of new takes on traditional folk standards, brilliant covers like his Top 40 hit of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” faithful renditions of his father’s work and powerful originals (including “Darkest Hour” and “Cooper’s Lament”), Guthrie’s 1970s releases are near perfect.
The 1980s and 1990s saw Guthrie slow down his recorded output. Still, “The Folksinger,” as he’s known to his fans, remained incredibly busy. He started his own independent record label long before it was popular to do so and rereleased his sorely neglected catalog. He also guest-starred on television shows, including several PBS specials and documentaries, and even purchased the original site of Alice’s Restaurant, a former church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, which he turned into an interfaith community center, appropriately named The Guthrie Center, which remains active today.
Perhaps most notable, however, is that at a time when many artists his age began to slow down their touring schedule, Guthrie became a full-fledged road warrior. His performances — although always engaging, with sudden and frequent stops for often rambling, but always hilarious stories — became something else altogether.
Guthrie’s shows have evolved into a perfect mix of the celebration and continuation of folk music and the causes his father championed, a safe haven for and throwback to former and current hippies and, most of all, a master class in the art of storytelling. Whether recounting his own adventures or those of his father or sharing the origins and stories behind traditional folk songs and his own originals, Guthrie is an absolutely riveting storyteller and the rare example of an artist from his generation whose live performances have gotten better and even more relevant with time.
So yet again Guthrie, who turns 70 this summer, is back on the road, and in some ways his shows have taken on an even deeper meaning since the loss of his beloved wife, Jackie, in 2012. Often performing with both his daughter and son together onstage alongside him, an Arlo Guthrie show is a life-affirming testament to the power, importance and healing qualities of both family and music presented by a master performer.
So perhaps crossword makers of the future should change their hints to a more fitting description when it comes to Mr. Arlo Davy Guthrie: “One of music’s most important and underappreciated artists.”
Arlo Guthrie performs on Sunday, April 9, at 7 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.