A Musical Family Tree Grows in Brooklyn
2012 marks the centennial of the birth of legendary American icon Woody Guthrie, who lived for some time in Coney Island. It just so happens that Brooklyn Roads’ publisher Howard B. Leibowitz went to school with Woody’s children right here in Brooklyn, so we take an extra special interest in paying homage.
The Guthrie family saga is one of the strangest and most wonderful of Brooklyn’s musical odysseys. Woody Guthrie is certainly one of the most iconic folk singers of the 20th century, having influenced Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and scores of other musicians. He was born and raised in Oklahoma where he lived in the shared experience of cowboys, farmers, coal miners, and railroad and oil workers and communities of blacks and Creek Indians nearby. His many and storied travels ultimately led him in 1946 to Coney Island where he lived off and on over the last 20 years of life, most famously on Mermaid Avenue.
Several years ago that street gave title to two CD collections of Woody’s previously unpublished lyrics, set to music by Billy Bragg and Wilco, thanks to the devotion and diligence of Woody's daughter Nora, who oversees the Woody Guthrie Foundation–the keeper of the flame, as it were.More recently, singer-songwriter Jonatha Brooke dipped into the archives and put Woody’s words to music for an album called simply The Works. And in 2012, in honor of Woody's 100th birthday, Nora invited Jay Farrar (Son Volt), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) to dig into this treasure trove of lyrics, 12 of which they turned into the album New Multitudes.
Nora is, of course, the kid sister to Arlo (more on him later) and Joady.
Joady Guthrie, named after the character Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath, tells us the family moved to Massachusetts when he was quite young. Though he says he remembers little from Brooklyn (“I only spent my first few years in Coney, so I can’t say I really felt any musical impression,” he says), we detected a distinct "Brooklyn attitude"–that's a positive in our book–in some of what he revealed to Brooklyn Roads.
He met the likes of Bob Dylan and others when they were visiting Woody in the hospital, but he brushes aside the popular notion of his having grown up among “folk royalty,” while noting that, “The radio and my family's record collection were a huge influence on my musical tastes. The radio music years of early rock ‘n’ roll, 1958-1969, were fun and moving emotionally. I liked most of what the radio stations had to offer.” He sees those same influences in many Brooklyn singers and songwriters.
While he says he I doesn’t listen to recorded music much these days, he appreciates the importance of the Billy Bragg/Wilco Mermaid Avenue albums, adding that, “Of course I am proud of Woody, and of Nora's work over the years.”
Those recordings are a tribute not only to Woody Guthrie but also to the folk genre in general. He tells Brooklyn Roads that he believes “old timey” music like blue grass and folk has staying power, “because it informs and connects them to past history, the Union and Civil Rights movements, the Vietnam era, the psychedelic era, and so much more. Of course folk music is conveniently low-tech too, needing simple acoustic instruments.” Joady’s one and only album, 1985’s Spys on Wall Street, produced by Country Joe McDonald, was re-released on CD in July 2012 and is also available as a download.
Arlo Guthrie: All Roads Lead to Mermaid Avenue
Woody’s other son, Arlo Guthrie grew up more in the mold of his iconic father. Being the son of a bona fide folk hero can be daunting to say the least, but Coney Island-born-and-raised Arlo Guthrie channeled his DNA to become a music legend in his own right. He leaped into the national spotlight with his first release, Alice’s Restaurant, at the tender age of 20, later turned songwriter Steve Goodman’s City of New Orleans into an Americana anthem, and forged a lifelong association with his dad’s most famous disciple, Pete Seeger.
A consummate live performer who still tours tirelessly at 64, Arlo was gracious enough to take time from his hectic schedule to offer Brooklyn Roads some insights into his Brooklyn roots and how his career grew and branched out from them. With characteristic wit and humor, he began with some his earliest impressions of his birthplace.
“I was born under the boardwalk with a guitar in one hand and a harmonica in the other,” he quips. “I rode the Cyclone as I was taking my first breath and swallower’d a Nathan's hot dog and an order of fries before I could crawl. I gazed at the bearded ladies, the muscle men, women and all kinds of unusual entertainers scattered between the rows and rows of hawkers and barkers all yellin' to crowds of wandering visitors from the normal world. I was at home in Coney Island.”
As far as growing up among “folk royalty” is concerned, he tell Brooklyn Roads, “We were pretty poor for being so royal, but so was everybody else. It didn't seem like we lacked for anything. Everybody had some kind of a job they were doing, even if it was just guarding the street corner looking out for each other. We knew everyone by name and my world did not expand outward from there until over a decade later when I began to live beyond my own neighborhood.”
He did, however, relish the royal treatment he received in 2001 when he was crowned “King of Brooklyn” at the annual Welcome Back to Brooklyn Festival. “It didn't last long enough! But, as Mel Brooks said. ‘It's good to be the king.’"
While his earliest musical influence may have been the carousel at Coney Island–“I rode 15 different animals…while learning the oompah tunes glaring from the horns”–it was the sounds of ‘50s radio that truly caught his ear. “Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Elvis were always on the radio, but my favorite singers were the Everly Brothers. Theirs was the first record I ever bought. In those days there were actual record stores. There were even actual records!
How Brooklyn Breeds Creativity
Many artists have given Brooklyn Roads their take on why our borough has given birth to or nurtured so many diverse and talented singers and songwriters, and Arlo’s view is certainly one of the more insightful ones.
“When you come from Brooklyn you know from birth that no matter how strange you may be, there is always someone a little stranger,” he tells us. “You can feel like you're normal compared to just about everyone else. They may be thinking the same thing, but it doesn't matter. It taught me that hierarchy is circular, not triangular. There is no one at the top–there is no top. The people you look up to in turn look up to other people and eventually it comes around to where someone looks up to you. With that kind of knowledge you can attempt to discover who you are without concern. That act of attempting is creativity.”
One of those he looks up to is fellow Brooklynite Richie Havens. “Richie and I go way back together. I love the guy. We've done many shows together over the years.” But who would he most like to collaborate with? “Beethoven. I think Alice's Restaurant could have used some help, musically speaking.” Regarding cover versions of his songs, he says it would be “cool” to hear what the Greek legend Orpheus “would do with The Motorcycle Song.”
On a more serious note about collaborations, he is thrilled with the spate of projects that are bringing so many of his father’s unpublished lyrics to life.
“My sister, Nora is responsible for getting all these great artists the Woody Guthrie material they've worked with, creating the melodies and music that turn his lyrics into songs. I love that younger musicians are into it. To hear the favorite flavor of the moment you'd have to come to one of my shows. Favorites change all the time.”
The Staying Power of Folk
Arlo has clear and strong opinions as to why, despite ebbs and flows over time, the folk genre has such staying power. In the first place, he says, “Folk music is not a genre. It's the way everyone learns to play almost anything that's not classical music.
“Folk music is not a bunch of latte drinkers sitting around singing in the key of me. Every garage band, punk, rap, rage, mellow, hip-hop, country, blues, rock and jazz musician learns in the folk tradition–the school of learning by ear from other people, recordings, or trial and error. It's another way music is handed down from generation to generation. (Oh geez, I just spilled my latte!)”
He continues, “About 10 years ago, almost 50 years after I left Coney Island, I went back to have a look around the old neighborhood. I was walking past the old merry-go-round, which was still there. As I approached, the tunes were still blaring from the speakers. Parents were still enjoying the kids circling around and around. I stood there, a half century later, while the mechanical oompah band blasted out a version of This Land Is Your Land from the speakers.”
Arlo adds, poignantly, “I looked up not far from where my father's ashes were scattered in the familiar waves of the Atlantic Ocean. More than the books, the records, the awards, the praise and acknowledgement of others, more than he ever could have imagined, in ways beyond his wildest dreams, he had become a part of the Coney Island he loved. ‘Daddy,’ I asked, ‘does it get much better than this?’"
When it comes to Brooklyn’s musical legacies, it certainly doesn’t get much better than the Guthrie family. Along the way, Arlo and his late wife Jackie watched son Abe and daughters Annie, Sarah Lee and Cathy all grow up to be musical performers as well.
ARTISTS ON THE HORIZON
Xenia Rubinos: Making Musical “Magic” in Greenpoint
Avant-garde indie artist Xenia Rubinos came to New York, knowing that music was her life mission. She began making choices to move farther along that path, starting with her apartment in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, feeling it was the right place to nurture her art. Ms. Rubinos tells Brooklyn Roads that she had “fallen in love with Brooklyn,” even before she moved here.
The apartment became a part-time music café, as she hosted a concert series right in her living room. That afforded her the opportunity to “meet a lot of local Brooklyn artists and creative people working in all kinds of different mediums, from chefs to dancers to musicians to visual artists” and gave her a great way to explore their inspirations. She says, “Gowanus has so much history and a kind of mystique. It’s been a great place to cultivate my art and to write music.”
Eventually she left Gowanus for Greenpoint, and while she again found herself living near another body of polluted water (Newton Creek), her creativity never stopped flowing. Her new neighborhood has a markedly different ambiance, but she tells us that she feels fortunate to live in a space where she has a basement studio, where she recorded her debut album, “Magic Trix,” last summer. Ms. Rubinos says that the space “was a really big part of the recording process of this album and came through the creation of the music – where I wrote it, where I was working on it, with my co-producer and drummer, Marco Buccelli. Being able to record it there made all the difference, because we just had the freedom to relax and take our time, as opposed to going to a more sterile studio space, so that definitely played into the sound of the record.”
Ms. Rubinos was drawn toward music from an early age and was encouraged by her parents, who supported her musical inclinations. Her father bought her a piano when she was four years old. “I don’t come from a musical family, but I consider them to be musical,” she tells Brooklyn Roads. “Even though they don’t play instruments, they’re very creative people. My father is Cuban, raised in a pretty conservative family, and had a lot of inspiration from opera and classical music. My mother is Puerto Rican and she is also very passionate about music – more salsa and Hispanic dance and chorus music.”
Xenia Rubinos has created a unique sound that bears traces of indie rock, Spanish folk, R&B and punk that are evident not only on her debut album, but also in her live shows . She has performed at South by Southwest, The Latin Alternative Music Conference and Deli Magazine’s Best Emerging Artist Fest, as well as at a number of Brooklyn venues, including BAM Café Live, Public Assembly, Glasslands, Union Pool, Cameo and the The Rock Shop.