The Guthrie Family, you may well know, is one of the most universally appealing families in the history of American folk music. From Woody's historical tales and working class songs to Arlo's humorous topical tunes, those of his daughters Cathy and Sarah Lee (the latter of whom errs on the side of introspection), there's plenty of great songs to love in the Guthrie family line. You can take a look at some of Woody Guthrie's most important creations or keep reading below for five of Arlo's finest, most essential recordings.
Sarcasm is not an easy thing to capture in music, if you're trying to inject it into a single line or verse. Carrying it on for an entire song is another thing altogether, and it takes a darn-near genius to pull it off without sounding like a jerk or a joker. Guthrie's epic tale of Thanksgiving-themed sarcasm - commenting on war, classism, waste, poverty, and rebellion in general - is probably one of the most adeptly sarcastic songs in the history of contemporary music. It's the type of tune that would never pass in a radio format and yet has helped make Arlo Guthrie a force to be reckoned with all his own.
This song was not actually written by Arlo Guthrie, though it's his version which has become known as perhaps the most famous recording of the tune. It was written by Steve Goodman for his 1971 solo debut album, but Guthrie's version from Hobo's Lullaby one year later has proven much more popular. (Willie Nelson took the song into the Billboard Top 20 a decade and a half later.) It's a train song about riding from Illinois to the Crescent City, and all the sites and ideas which might enter one's mind along the way. Since Guthrie popularized the song in the early 1970s, in addition to Nelson's hit recording, it has also been recorded by John Denver, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, and a legion of other artists.
After mentioning the train song, it only makes sense to move on to Arlo Guthrie's motorcycle song. Taken from his landmark 1967 album Alice's Restaurant (and the film of the same name), "The Motorcycle Song" is another in the same tactic of story-songwriting. Its meaning is quite a bit less layered and...well, meaningful, than the album's title track (explained above). But "The Motorcycle" Song" continues to be one of his most popular and most requested songs at concerts. Check out this recording of him performing it live in Sydney, Australia.
As the primary heir of Woody Guthrie's behemoth folksinger legacy, you might expect Arlo to, every now and then, write a song of considerable topical import. "Cooper's Lament" is one of many in his repertoire, but is perhaps the most timeless due to its nuance. It's not necessarily a song about doing anything specific other than resolving to show up and do something at all. It came out in 1973, as sentiment against the Vietnam War was at an all-time high (the fall of Saigon was two years later), so there's a sense that perhaps he was asking people to show up in support of the cause of peace, but the overall message is as true now as ever.
This is about as close to gospel music as Arlo Guthrie has ever gotten, singing a song basically about everybody getting along and doing the right thing while they have a chance. It's decidedly not a blues song in the traditional sense, though there is a slightly bluesy progression. The mood is reflective regarding what one person can do to make the world a better place. There's an element of frustration with one's peers. It's a plea of sorts, calling for an awakening. Much like "Cooper's Lament," the tune is vague enough about topical references that it could apply to almost any situation at any point in history. In other words, it's an excellent display of Guthrie's ability to capture the world the same way his father did, for a new generation.