A Guthrie family affair at Birchmere


He’s been singing drug-toting narratives about flying into Los Angeles and paeans about New Orleans for decades, but Arlo Guthrie chose Alexandria’s Birchmere music hall last week to launch The Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour about 40 years after his eminent performance at Woodstock.

Guthrie and his endearingly large family played the club last Friday in front of a sold out swarm of fans, who experienced more firsts than just being the initial sounding board for Guthrie’s new tour: For the first time ever, several songs from Arlo’s father, folk legend Woody Guthrie, were taken from his archival reservoir of written verse and put to music. 

It was a unique show for sure, catalyzed by Arlo’s youngest daughter Sarah Lee, whose stage presence almost outshined her father’s at points though his renditions of Coming Into Los Angeles at the end of his first set and City of New Orleans in his second proved to be an immovable force.

Not that it was a competition. Of the three generations of Guthries and their in-laws on stage, they sang, played and quipped seamlessly for the audience. One of the more interesting revelations was a revival from Woody’s archives inspired by his interactions with his mother-in-law Aliza Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet. Written in the late 1960s, a bundle of songs with lyrics about Hannukah, Jewish history and social struggle went undiscovered for 30 years and without music for even longer. But the family debuted their very Yiddish-sounding version of one of them Friday night.

The show flaunted more variety with a few laid back renditions of children’s songs complete with the voices of Arlo’s grandchildren that came about when getting requests from parents “who wanted a kids’ CD that didn’t make them want to crash the minivan,” Arlo said.

Then there was the not-so-childish but good-natured Shit Makes the Flowers Grow: “You’re not good for nothin’ / Don’t let them tell you so / Your life has a purpose / And I think you ought to know / Shit makes the flowers grow.”

At the Birchmere, the performance by Arlo Guthrie and his family turned out to be a night of bigs: Big name, big family, big laughs, big pitchers, big turnout, big entertainment.