It’s 1965. You’re the son of the famous balladeer Woody Guthrie and you want to travel far, far away from your home in New York. So you choose a small liberal arts college in Montana — Rocky Mountain College.
Arlo Guthrie arrived in Billings fresh out of high school in the fall of 1965 to study forestry. Guthrie said in a recent interview with The Gazette that he made many friends in Billings, “unlike the movie version which was total fiction – bad fiction at that.”
Of course, he’s referring to the film, “Alice’s Restaurant,” but I’m jumping ahead.
Guthrie said he went home for Thanksgiving break in 1965 and never returned to Billings.
“I realized that college, no matter how great, was not where I needed to be,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie, 66, has made his own mark in the music world with songs like “Coming into Los Angeles,” which he performed at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, and “The Motorcycle Song.” He also turned Steve Goodman’s tune, “City of New Orleans,” into a hit single.
Guthrie returned to Rocky on at least one occasion over the years, playing an outdoor concert on the lawn of the college in 1993. On Tuesday, May 6, Guthrie returns to Billings to perform at 7:30 p.m. at the Alberta Bair Theater. The show is the final leg of the “Here Come the Kids” tour that began last October in celebration of Woody Guthrie’s centennial.
Guthrie has stayed in touch with some friends he met through Rocky, including Linda DeRosier, the widow of longtime president of the college Arthur DeRosier, and former Rocky chaplain Bob Holmes, whose brother Tim was one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Logging and Ballet Company.
“I consider my time at RMC a pivotal point in time, where there was a fork in the road and I picked it up and ran with it,” Guthrie said.
When he left Rocky in 1965, Guthrie went to visit friends who were living in an old church in Massachusetts. Sound familiar? Like a line in a 20-minute song from the ‘60s?
“As they prepared for Thanksgiving, a friend and I decided to take some trash to the town dump. The tale of that Thanksgiving became a song, the song became a record, the record became a movie and I became myself. I’ve been being me for just about 50 years now,” Guthrie said.
“Alice’s Restaurant” was released in 1967 and the film, starring a young, long-haired Guthrie, came out two years later. He won’t be performing that song on this tour, but he will play other hits.
“I haven’t done it for years at this point, but I’m learning it again for the 50th Anniversary tour,” Guthrie said of “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Part of the fun of seeing Guthrie live is hearing his often long but always amusing stories.
This tour is a musical tribute to the life and work of Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 last July. Woody is celebrated as a social activist and folk balladeer who influenced Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. His most well-known song, “This Land Is Your Land,” recorded in the 1940s, criticized social inequity, a fight Woody waged throughout his life. The younger Guthrie continues that fight.
“It seems like all three branches of government have been bought and are in the pockets of those that have great wealth and power and are seeking to get more. Naturally, I could be mistaken, but that’s the way it looks from here. I remember Will Rogers once said, ‘We have the best Congress money can buy.’ ”
When I asked Guthrie how he identifies with the next generation of musicians who are social activists, he said it doesn’t take much to be called an activist these days. He said even farmers and ranchers who are unhappy about foreign countries and multinational corporations “digging their way through your place, threatening your livelihood and ignoring your rights” are branded as activists these days.
“This becomes a group of people with different points of view all working together toward the same goal. I think we call that, the American way,” Guthrie said.