It’s four decades later and renowned folk activist Arlo Guthrie is still humming the same tune. In conjunction with his concert performance later that evening in Campbell Hall, Guthrie took some time out Tuesday afternoon for a succinct yet memorable panel discussion with professor-turned-moderator Dick Flacks and former Toad the Wet Sprocket front man Glen Phillips in the College of Creative Studies’ Old Little Theater. Currently touring on behalf of the 40th birthday of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” Guthrie spent the hour chatting with laid-back gusto on issues ranging from corporate conglomeration to current foreign policy. Both Flacks and Guthrie provided a world-weary viewpoint expected of those who have been politically vocal (in song or lecture) since the ’60s, but neither spoke with disdain or reproach. Instead, Guthrie sang the praises of activism and passionate protest as he drilled home the belief that, “[something amazing will] happen, [we] just gotta be patient.”
Before delving into their whirlwind discussion of all things political, Flacks pointed out to his largely middle-aged crowd that Phillips was invited along, “just to get some kind of generational bridge in the conversation.” And a bridge they received as Phillips sought to focus his comments less on Vietnam nostalgia and more on current international affairs.
“This is prime political song writing territory we’re in right now,” he said. “It’s bizarre-o world.” Flacks described both artists as, “caring people in their work in a time when that is normally not the case;” a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many in the audience as Guthrie recounted tales of political and social upheaval that defined the era in which Alice’s Restaurant was penned.
“My contribution was to document the insane situations, the absurd situations that I found myself in,” Guthrie asserted.
He described the track (which he refused to label a “protest song”) as therapeutic in a time of distrust and difficulty in our country.
“What gave the people the idea that they could speak out was that other people were speaking out anyway,” he said. “It wasn’t just one thing we were trying to change… it wasn’t just the war.” And it was with this recollection of widespread, issue-crossing activism that the conversation quickly switched gears to address the problematic nature of media globalization and its looming impact on the today’s musicians.
“I’m on a label right now owned by Vivendi Universal, [who I think] owns the water supply of Ecuador [or] Nicaragua,” Phillips half-joked.
In between swapping stories about the many ways they had each been financially screwed by their labels, the two musicians looked back fondly on a time before corporate mergers and umbrella companies.
“When I was young the record companies were owned by people who loved music and knew how to make it,” Guthrie recalled. “Now they’re owned by people who love money and know how to make it.” Yet, despite the seemingly glum state of affairs in the current musical landscape, both Guthrie and Phillips agreed on the importance of remaining optimistic.
“There has to be a combination of the right events; there’s Green Day and American Idiot, which has done a lot on a commercial level, but it’s so rare … people are hungry for music that makes them feel something,” Phillips asserted.
Looking to the past for inspiration, Guthrie argued a similar point, urging people to engage themselves in one issue or another. “We will lose too much over time if we don’t involve ourselves in each others’ worlds,” he said.
Together, the men spoke for and to a generation that, at least to them, appears lost in its own thoughts. Overwhelmed by the divergent viewpoints and relative cultural lethargy that surrounds them, Guthrie and Phillips sought to draw attention to current events and motivate audience members towards some form of activism.
Guthrie summarized his outlook on today’s political strife with the same everyman frankness that has made Alice’s Restaurant such a cultural staple. “It doesn’t matter who the president is,” he argued. “There’s only one president. There’s lots of us.”