This decade may not be that similar to the Sixties, but the eras are now intersecting in at least one clearcut way. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the marches, demonstrations, arrests and violent pushback from police are reminiscent of that moment over 50 years ago when civil rights issues and the Vietnam War brought a new generation out into the streets to voice its outrage.
It certainly looks familiar to Arlo Guthrie. The son of the late folk legend and songwriter Woody Guthrie, Arlo, who will turn 73 next month, has witnessed his share of history and change. He attended 1963’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — where 250,000 people heard Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. — to call attention to racial inequality. He also performed at the decade-ending Woodstock festival: three days of peace, love, music, mud and surprising harmony.
Last month, Attorney General William Barr threatened to prosecute protesters at some of the earliest Black Lives Matter marches — “many of whom,” he claimed, “travel from outside the state to promote the violence.” For Guthrie, It was a chilling reminder of when protesters and police clashed at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention and the U.S. government brought charges against a handful of activists, including Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden.
The trio were charged with conspiracy to “incite, organize, promote, encourage, participate in and carry on a riot” and were the first people tried under the then-new federal anti-riot act, with Guthrie becoming a defense witness at the notorious Chicago Seven trial. (The defendants were ultimately acquitted of the conspiracy charges, but five were convicted of crossing state lines to incite a riot. The convictions were overturned on appeal.)
Like many of his musician peers, Guthrie has been stuck at home since the coronavirus shut down his summer of touring — and he hasn’t been able to join anti-police brutality protests due to his age and the virus. Still, he’s watched as family members joined the fray. “My kids and grandkids are showing up at the demonstrations, adding their voices and bodies to the front line,” he says. “I encourage that. The world really belongs to them at this point. It’s easy to assume the world belongs to you because it once did, but it doesn’t anymore.”
Speaking to Rolling Stone from his home in rural Massachusetts, Guthrie shared some insights and experiences — and talked about the switchover from protest songs predominantly written and sung by white musicians to the more diverse range of current musical commentators.
Some people compare what’s happening now with protests to 1968. Do you see that?
I remember Nixon talking about the Silent Majority out there and “law and order folks” and blah blah. And of course, he came to realize that that wasn’t working out for him that well. This current administration will discover the same thing. The times are different. It’s not a direct comparison, but the destination is, for sure. People like [Attorney General William] Barr were not elected. People who have infiltrated the American system have taken it over.
One of your most scathing songs was 1974’s “Presidential Rag,” about Nixon, Watergate and his impeachment. Have you gotten any pressure to bring that back during the Trump era?
I’ve been asked a lot to resurrect that one because it’s so close to what we’re enduring at the moment. I wrote that after the guy left office. I could see the whole picture without having to leave it open-ended. I wanted to write a song that told the story.
And one of the last lines is “You’ll be remembered very well.” And here we are, still talking about him! So it was good that I waited. We’ll have to see what happens with this guy and his buddies.
It’s not all good or bad, or black or white. I remember singing songs about Lyndon Johnson, who I didn’t like very much, mostly because of the war in Vietnam. But in hindsight, the guy did a lot of good stuff, too! All the civil rights stuff went through him. He made it work, as tenuous as it may have been.
What do you think of the state of protest songs?
They’re out there; they’re just not in the format that has been as popular. And frankly, it wasn’t even that popular back in those days. It was popular for one or two or three years, which is not a long time. The music business went from figuring out how they could make some money selling protest songs to realizing, “Well, they don’t really sell that well so we’ll move on to something else.” [Laughs] Which they did. And so did I. Everybody did.
It’s not that they weren’t important. They were. And they still are. But they have to be important to people who are young enough and energetic enough to make a difference. It’s one thing to sing about something. It’s another thing to be there on the line. And I suspect that songs will be written and performed and will encourage people to get out and do stuff, and they will be as important as always. But they have to be created by younger people. They have to take that over. I was a link in the chain, but I’m not the chain.
Most of the prominent topical songs are coming from hip-hop.
It makes total sense. It’s not in the form we’re used to, but they’re still there and it’s as powerful in the community for whom it’s written. We don’t call them “protest songs” anymore. We’ve given it other names.
What advice would you have to someone who wants to sing or write a protest song?
I would take my father’s advice: Write what you see. You don’t need to make up stuff. For any songwriter, the truth always comes through if it’s actually true. I’m leaving that to people a lot younger than me.
The FBI had a file on your father. Did the same happen to you?
I was against the war. I was a political figure in the sense of the songs I sang and the protests I attended. I was at the March on Washington. I was anti-nuke. So there were guys who followed me around for years. I filed a Freedom of Information Act form 30 years ago and most of it was redacted. So I couldn’t tell who said what.
I live at the end of a dirt road. About half a mile away there was a guy fixing the telephone lines for two years. There was only one line and it worked fine, but he sat there in his truck. We used to call him up. I knew he couldn’t talk back to us, but we’d say, “We got some coffee.” I felt bad for the guy.
You didn’t participate in the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention, but you were called as a witness during the Chicago Seven trial in 1970. How did you get dragged into that?
I’m not exactly sure. It seemed as if there was [an anti-war] groundswell that came from the bottom up. And that didn’t suit the business people or the politicians. They were looking to find out who was responsible for this. Who’s responsible for all these protesters? So they invented leaders so that they could target the demonstrators.
We knew what Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were doing, but they weren’t really important until the media made them important and made them the face of the problem. And they made a good face of the problem, because of their natural personalities and stuff. But they weren’t people we knew or had heard of. They weren’t writers or thinkers or philosophers. But they were activists and they really believed in what they were doing.
So how did you end up on the witness stand as part of their defense strategy?
I met with Rubin and Hoffman and they asked me if I could go to Chicago [for the Festival of Life during the convention] and I said no! I said, “You want to have a demonstration? Great. You gotta permit? No? Then forget it!” There are times when you don’t need to show up with a permit, but this wasn’t one of them. So I made that choice and stuck to it.
But I decided to show up and help make the point that I was sympathetic to [the defendants], even though I disagreed with how they were going about it. The trial was trying to show that these guys were the bad guys, and that didn’t make any sense to me.
On your day in court, you wore a pinstriped Edwardian suit with what was described as “an orange, red and white paisley shirt.”
I still have that suit. Even my daughter, who is the youngest and skinniest in the family, can’t get into it. I must have been very thin.
The transcript of your testimony is very strange, especially when you’re asked to describe the plot of “Alice’s Restaurant” for the jury.
I remember [the Chicago Seven’s] lawyer, William Kunstler, asked me to perform “Alice’s Restaurant.” And I remember the judge, [Julius] Hoffman, who until that point was viewed by my friends as a bad guy, a tough guy. And I didn’t find him to be that bad or tough. I found him to be very nice. I started to do “Alice’s Restaurant” and the beginning of the monologue and he looked at me and said, “Mr. Guthrie, there will be no singing in my courtroom.” I looked back at him and said, “Your honor, that won’t be a problem.” And he laughed. He was reasonable.
But the whole thing was odd. And it became a circus, which I thought was unnecessary. We have gone through tremendous evolution — in my mind, anyway — over the last 50 years. We’ve made incredible strides toward a global civilization. For the most part of human existence, even in the world we’re living in, it’s been troubling. There have been wars and famines and floods and disasters and earthquakes. They’re always with us, but we have mitigated them better over the last 50 years than ever before in the history of the world. So that’s where it’s going. It’s gonna get better.