Arlo Guthrie is a rock.
For decades, he has been a touchstone of the politically literate Americana folk music world, ably carrying on the legacy of his father, Woody. And at home in the Berkshires, he is a cornerstone of his community through the Guthrie Center, providing free community meals and headlining fundraisers to boost research and advocacy in the fight against diseases like HIV/AIDS and Huntington’s.
But, even rocks erode with time, and our rock is no exception. Mr. Guthrie recently announced his decision to retire from touring and live performances, for health reasons, after more than half a century of hitting the road to share his musical talents with the world.
It marked a sad day for the world of music, but his note to friends and followers was not unlike his magnum opus “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” — loquacious, witty and testament to his rare storytelling acumen.
In an 1,100-word post to his Facebook page, Mr. Guthrie wrote of suffering complications from stroke and the “difficult decision that touring and stage shows are no longer possible.”
He also reveals that this is a battle he has fought for quite some time. He recalls suffering what he later realized was a mini-stroke on April 1, 2016, in the parking lot outside his hotel — and then playing his regularly scheduled show later that night.
He suffered a similar episode in 2019, a scary incident he nevertheless relayed with characteristic wit:
“I was on my way to … The Guthrie Center to help out with our annual Thanksgiving Dinner that we hold every year. I had pulled over to fuel up and realized I couldn’t continue to drive safely, as everything was spinning around, sort of like the old days, but without the help of illegal substances.”
Afterward, he was hospitalized and under evaluation — that is, until he “broke out,” as he put it. He had a scheduled gig at Carnegie Hall that he had played for years, and he wasn’t about to let this setback get in the way of that tradition.
“The end of an annual series I’d been doing for decades and it was sold out. I had to be there,” he wrote. “It was imperative.”
“Imperative.” That’s the word that speaks to Mr. Guthrie’s legacy.
Most songs aren’t 18 minutes long. But, in Mr. Guthrie’s seminal anti-war epic — which has been preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress — he had something to say, and he wasn’t going to let anything, time constraints or otherwise, get in the way of saying it. It was imperative.
Having a family history of Huntington’s disease, which claimed Mr. Guthrie’s father and two of his sisters, can be a harrowing ordeal for those left to wonder whether the genetic ailment will claim them as well. It is enough to deal with in one’s own life, but Mr. Guthrie decided to use his relatively fortunate position to be a tireless advocate and fundraiser not just for Huntington’s research, but for support of other families dealing with Huntington’s. He didn’t have to ease others’ burdens while weathering his own, but to him, it was imperative.
Between his time at the Guthrie Center in Great Barrington and his farm in Washington, Mr. Guthrie is a widely celebrated member of the Berkshires family. He doesn’t have to use his privilege to make sure his neighbors in need are fed and clothed and have a place to go on Thanksgiving. But, for Mr. Guthrie, a famed figure content to be a man of the people in his home community, it was imperative.
Reflecting on his decision to retire from touring, he wrote: “A folksinger’s shelf life may be a lot longer than a dancer or an athlete, but at some point, unless you’re incredibly fortunate or just plain whacko (either one or both) it’s time to hang up the ‘Gone Fishing’ sign.” It’s safe to say that Mr. Guthrie can hang that sign on a lofty legacy built not just on the roadwork of a renowned troubadour, but on the service and homegrown grit he has dedicated to our Berkshire community and beyond.
Thanks, Arlo, and happy retirement.