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The Guthries: Like father, like daughter, like son-in-law

By Scott Alarik
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2005

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Forty years ago, Arlo Guthrie, son of legendary songwriter Woody Guthrie, was the Great Folk Hope. Today, at 58, he is the revered elder, and eyes eagerly turn to the duo of his daughter, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and her husband, Johnny Irion. Their songs pulse with modern rock, but also with unmistakably Guthrie-esque populism, earthy romance, and folksy mischief.

Father and daughter will both be at the Newport Folk Festival in August: daughter making her bones on small daytime stages, dad lionized at a special tribute toasting the 40th anniversary of that fateful Thanksgiving he was busted for littering and inspired to write his signature 18-minute epic, ''Alice's Restaurant."

Asked if he plans to update his masterpiece, Arlo chuckles. ''Frankly, I don't think I have to change it to make it current these days. For me, 'Alice's Restaurant' was never an antiwar song; it's an anti-idiocy song. And the times seem fairly idiotic once again."

Sarah Lee, 26, who also appears at the ''Alice" tribute, agrees.

''All my life, people have told me that song changed their lives," she says, ''and I wondered how that was possible. Now that we're in another time of disaster, facing what so many people did with Vietnam, I see there's a sense of the little man vs. the big man in that song that makes us all feel like the little guys can come together and change things."

Neither Guthrie planned a music career (''Nobody in their right mind writes an 18-minute musical monologue to become famous," Arlo says). Revealingly, both use the term ''path of least resistance" to describe becoming folk singers.

The first time Arlo went to Newport in the early '60s, he was chaperoned by Bob Dylan. (''My mom wouldn't let me go by myself, and she talked him into taking me"). He haunted Greenwich Village folk clubs, and when he picked up a guitar was immediately asked to perform.

For his daughter, the path seemed no less inevitable. ''I fell in love with a guitar player -- just my fate, I guess," she says. ''Johnny put a guitar in my hand and said, 'Try it, it's fun.' The more I did it, the more I wanted it, and it wasn't long before dad took me on tour, and really threw me in the fire."

It is becoming increasingly pointless to distinguish Sarah Lee Guthrie's songs from Irion's. On their new CD, ''Exploration," they create a smart ensemble sound, rich with hugging harmonies, spacious melodicism, and honky-tonk strut.

''After a few years touring with Arlo, and playing Woody's songs, it's bound to rub off on me," Irion says. ''I think a lot of my writing now is inspired by the way that family writes songs and, even more, lives their lives."

Asked if he hears his father in his daughter, Arlo Guthrie speaks very softly. ''Oh, I don't just hear him in her; I see him. She's got that same look. Part of his spirit is certainly alive and well in her. It's not just her voice or her writing. It's a real presence, the same humor, the same twinkle in her eye."

Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Festival, Aug. 4-7 (401-847-3700, Also appearing: Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Bright Eyes.

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