For those who need to read up on who Arlo Guthrie is check the links at the end, or better still check my other entries on him in this blog.
For those who can't be bothered I will say he is an American Americana styled folkie who started recording in the late 1960s and is still recording today.
This album came at the end of a turbulent decade.
The 1970s had seen many folkies, scarred, cynical, or worse, dead.
Bob Dylan had turned to God (and had turned out some still under appreciated music), Phil Ochs had killed himself, others were the victims of life on the road (Jim Croce, Harry Chapin) or drugs (Tim Hardin).
Guthrie was still a young man (32) but had been around long enough and had been exposed to enough to have picked up a much older view of the world. The music he listened to, the music of his father (folksinger Woody), his fathers friends, the people he surrounded himself with, maybe not all the time but enough of the time, perhaps gave him that perspective.
His music always lent itself to a slightly world weary, melancholy view of the world.
That is only exacerbated when times are tough and the optimism of the 60s was dead, the drugs of the 70s had worn off, and America was in (arguable) decline …
Arlo's personal world had collided with the external world (as they always do). The worry for one's family and their future. He was a family man with a long time wife and three kids and a fourth on the way or newly born (future singer Sarah Lee Guthrie).
Importantly, he was also approaching the age where he would discover whether or not he would be struck with Huntington's chorea, the hereditary nerve disease that killed his father.
You'd think that would inform your song writing wouldn't you?
Apparently Guthrie had met, on an airplane, a Catholic Franciscan monk that belonged to a small order of monks that practiced street evangelism and had kept in touch with him.
Some time later ( I assume in the late 70s) he had an Jesus epiphany, and this is for a kid who was brought up in Jewish household: "I was standing on my porch, and one of those things happened that I never imagined would happen to me. I don't know how to explain it, and I don't want to make a big deal out of it, but God showed up in the person of Jesus Christ. He was sort of right in front of me. I knew who he was even though nobody said anything. And not only that, but I knew that he knew everything about me. For about ten minutes – actually, I have no idea how long it was – I felt a love that I knew existed but that I never thought I would be in the midst of. And it penetrated every atom of my being."
So, he went down to the Catholic Church where his Franciscan friends hung out, and eventually became a third-order Franciscan monk, started doing charitable works and also put out this record.
Arlo says that he always had a spiritual side, “I was a person who always loved God, but that was without knowing who God was. Still, it had always been an interest of mine. I even wrote songs on Alice’s Restaurant that I think of as being vehicles for me to communicate with this nebulous God that I knew was there but that I’d certainly never met face-to-face.”
As Dylan turned to a fundamentalist Protestant Christianity, Guthrie turned to a mystical (yet progressive) Catholicism (though he remained Jewish apparently …don't ask me to explain that …and I think he had moved on to or incorporated Eastern religions in there now).
The music is Americana with an ear to 70s rock (70s roots rock). Comparisons are often made between Arlo and Dylan and they will be here again. After all, this religious album (if it is that) came out at the same time as Dylan's religious albums (if they are that). Dylan's religious albums (Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981)) are a mixed bag. His best religious album ("Shot of Love") is akin to the best music on this album in that he manages to reflect on God, love, and death in a substantial and meaningful way without giving the listener the idea they are being preached at. Both Dylan and this album though have the sledge hammer religious songs which are all electric guitars and religious imagery and quite apocalyptic, literally, as if the second coming is around the corner. Arlo's are better. They sound better as songs and seem more thoughtful. Or perhaps that's the difference between Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism?
In any event the those types of songs tend to preach but I don't have a problem with that. I can think for myself and I can figure out when I'm being preached at and can take or leave the same.
Inevitably when one refers to albums with any religion in them there is a need to downplay or evaluated the "peachiness" of the record.
Somehow that doesn't apply to metal or punk music … they are all equally preach. They are all songs with messages telling you how to lead your life?
Anyway, this is not a Christian blog that is just an observation.
But, like Dylan's "religious" albums of the time the rock is heavy and in you face.
This is Arlo's second album with Shenandoah who are his touring band and he likes them enough to give them billing title.
If you hadn't read this blog you might not pick up the overt religious references on the album but they are there. Arlo was never as strident again though all of his albums do have that spiritual side to them, if you choose to listen hard enough or without prejudice.
All songs by Arlo unless otherwise indicated. Produced by John Pilla.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Prologue – despite the slick production and electric guitar the lyrics are great. A very personal song, with some cynical jabs at the world and religious overtones.
- Which Side – an electric update of the 30s mining song by Florence Reece, "Which Side Are You On", which asked on which side do you stand, the workers or the bosses? Here, the same question is asked ("But just one question still remains") though the workers are the followers of Jesus and the bosses are those who chase material wealth.
- Wedding Song – Adam and Eve, Joseph and Mary, Me and You … a wedding, or rather marriage, song. Quite nice and quite a smart way to weave a love song into a religious song.
- World Away From Me – a bouncy love tune.
- Epilogue – a personal rumination.
- Telephone – a humorous song about the prevalence, intrusiveness and annoyance of telephones. And this was before mobiles!!
- Sailing Down This Golden River – (Pete Seeger) – from Pete's 1971 ecological album "My Rainbow Race". A beautiful song.
- Carry Me Over – a tuck carrying the narrator to the promised land?
- Underground – the narrator (with an acapella choir) looks at his own mortality
- Drowning Man – a wonderful song. A plea to a (dear) companion for help.
- Evangelina – (Hoyt Axton, Kenneth Higginbotham) – a popular Hoyt Axton song which first came out on his "Fearless" album from 1975. Nice
Very, Very Good … I'm keeping it.
Sailing Down This Golden River
- Members of Shenandoah were in Boogity Shoe. Both bands were from Berkshire County, Massachusetts.
- Shenandoah are: Steve Ide – guitar, trombone, vocals / David Grover – banjo, guitar, string arrangements, vocals / Dan Velika – bass, guitar, vocals/ Carol Ide – guitar, percussion, vocals / Terry A La Berry – drums, marimba, vocals