November 16, 1998 interview by Dave Read
Arlo Guthrie first came to the Berkshires in the late ’50s to attend the former Indian Hill camp in Strockbridge, where his mother was the dance teacher. His Berkshire roots were further established while he was a student at The Stockbridge School and he became involved with the Berkshire Folk Music Society, then headed by the late Hank Grover, David’s father.
Guthrie recently bought the Kresge Building on North St. in Pittsfield. Besides moving Rising Son Records there, he is looking into the possibility of developing an entertainment center. We visited with Arlo on November 16, 1998 at The Guthrie Center, in the former Episcopal church that his friend Alice Brock used to live in, and where much of Alice’s Restaurant was filmed.
“I’ve been trying to get something going in downtown Pittsfield for 25 years. I was interested in the old Palace Theater, or even the Capitol before they turned it into the Senior Center. None of that ever panned out because nobody had a clue as to the value of live entertainment.”
Relating the results of a recent study, commissioned by the city of Pittsfield, that stresses how important providing live entertainment is to the revitalization of downtown, Guthrie continued,
“We want to see if we can be a part of that process. We bought the building and we’re hoping that we can make a go of it. I want to develop a nightclub facility, maybe with a little food, but not a big-time restaurant. What I really know is not the restaurant business, it’s the nightclub/theater business.”
After talking about the various “cultural centers” and “tourist destinations” of Berkshires, Arlo continued,
“I see no reason why Pittsfield can’t become a part of all that, even add something to it and tie together all the different crowds. This is a beautiful part of the world, every part of it. We’ve been let down by the major industries. The only big industry that keeps growing is our cultural industry, so I’m anxious to see if we can all benefit from that.”
The legacy of The Music Inn figures prominently in Guthrie’s motivation to extend his commitment to the Berkshires. His father Woody played the very first show there and Arlo played the last, exactly 25 years to the day later.
“The thing we do in Pittsfield will be the closest that we can get to re-doing the kind of music that we had at The Music Inn. It’ll be a big enough club to bring in some of the same kinds of people – maybe the same people. With the help of the City of Pittsfield, I think we can make that happen. We also want a place for young people to go; we’re thinking of establishing a kind of folklore center there.”
“It’s not something I have to do business-wise; I’ve got enough going on to keep me busy for a long time. However, one of the things I’d like to do is spend less time on the road. I’m on the road ten months a year, and I miss the Berkshires. I love it here and I think that we have an obligation to try and retain the best part of who we are for future generations.”
Where did the name “Arlo” come from?
“When my mom was growing up, there was a series of children’s books, called “Arlo Books”, about a little Swiss kid named ‘Arlo’. They were in all the primary schools on the East coast, and she drew a picture for a class project of this kid. And my mom was one of these packrats who saved everything – every ticket stub of every place she had ever been to. She was incredibly organized.
“While she was pregnant with me, walking down the beach one day with my dad, she suddenly realized that the picture she had drawn of this kid ‘Arlo’, in the fifth or sixth grade, looked exactly like my father. He was wearing the same clothes, the same kind of striped shirt, walking on the same kind of beach. And so she went back and found this old picture, and sure enough, she had drawn my dad.
“So they decided that that was an auspicious sign, and that they were going to name me after the kid. But they didn’t know if I would go for a name as awkward as that, so they gave me the middle name ‘Davy’. So I was named after Davy Crockett. She figured he was a popular figure, sort of a rugged, mountain guy, and if I didn’t like the name ‘Arlo’ – which, she wasn’t sure what that was gonna do to me – that I could always call myself ‘Davy’. So I was named ‘Arlo Davy Guthrie.’
Mama Frasca’s Dream Away Lodge
“I had been going to the Dream Away for years, I knew Mama Frasca real well – she was a terriffic, wonderful, crazy, wild woman. I really loved her and used to bring the kids up to her place every weekend. I actually did some recording with her at the old Shaggy Dog studio in Stockbridge. We did a great record there – all these great songs with this old gal. She made a single, and one song was called something like, “God and Mama”.
“So after we did the Rolling Thunder Revue in Springfield (November 6, 1975), I tought it would be fun to take everybody up there. We came up with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Bobby Neuwirth and Ramblin Jack Elliott. They just loved it there; we were fooling around with Mama Frasca, and it became a part of the film, “Renaldo And Clara”. (For details of the party: Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue party at Mama Frasca’s Dream Away Lodge.)