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Arlo Guthrie tour brings out old, new songs for patriarch centennial

Nearly 20 members Guthrie family including Arlo Guthrie (foreground) are touring across U.S. Canadhonor centennial late Woody Guthrie. | PHOTO

Nearly 20 members of the Guthrie family, including Arlo Guthrie (foreground) are touring across the U.S. and Canada in honor of the centennial of the late Woody Guthrie. | PHOTO BY ARLO GUTHRIE

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♦ 7:30 p.m. Aug. 19

♦ Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park

♦ Tickets, $22-$55

♦ (847) 266-5100;

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Arlo Guthrie and his family has been on the road together before, but this time around the tour is something special: Nearly 20 members of the clan are traveling across the country and Canada celebrating the centennial of their patriarch, the iconic folk singer Woody Guthrie.

Woody’s music inspired artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer and John Mellencamp. But his true legacy comes from passing down his love of music and songwriting to ongoing generations of the Guthrie family.

“My dad wrote of a dream he and my mom shared of having a lot of kids and traveling around the country doing shows,” Arlo Guthrie said from a tour stop in Grants Pass, Ore. “They never got to realize it, but with these tours we are living Woody’s dream. People try to pigeonhole him with a political agenda and, while that is true, the family part of it also was dear to his heart.”

Joining in the current tour are Arlo Guthrie’s children Sarah Lee, Abe, Cathy and Annie; eight grandchildren and various in-laws. And yes, everyone in the Guthrie clan is musical in one way or the other.

“It was the path of least resistance,” Guthrie says, laughing. But he added, “there’s no pressure to be professional, but there is an expectation that music will be a part of life and to have fun with it.”

The tour isn’t simply a “greatest hits” package of Woody’s classic songs although those will be on the set list, which changes at each concert. Fans also can expect obscure tunes, as well as songs featuring Woody’s lyrics with melodies added by such artists as Wilco, Billy Bragg, Janis Ian and Jonatha Brooke. There also will be songs written by other family members.

“I like the idea of seeing Woody’s philosophy and insight move down through the generations,” Guthrie said. “A lot of my dad’s songs are familiar to anyone over 50, but I’m also seeing interest from people in their 20s and 30s. That’s proof that the songs still ring true.”

Probably the best know of Arlo’s children is Sarah Lee Guthrie, who, along with her husband/musical partner Johnny Irion, have forged their own style of country-rock. She never knew her grandfather, who died of Huntington’s disease in 1967, but she has felt the weight of his legacy.

“This tour feels like we’re going up in the attic and pulling out boxes of pictures and poems and getting to know our grandfather a little more,” she said. “This has been a real journey back into where we all came from and who we really are.”

Sarah Lee agrees that she and her siblings weren’t pushed into music: “We never sat around the house and played music like people expected us to.” Her dad was always on the road; her mother played records of all kinds at home. The stage was always a sacred place.

“Dad was careful not to allow us to hop up there in front of the mike,” Sarah Lee recalls. “It was always something special, something that we could maybe aspire to. We all came around in our own time, and when we stepped into the spotlight, we knew the responsibility that came with being there.”

Sarah Lee and her husband are currently working on a new album, with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy producing. Her siblings are equally involved in music. Abe, formerly of the folk-rock band Xavier, now is a member of his father’s band. Annie writes songs and performs. And Cathy plays ukulele in Folk Uke, a group she formed with Amy Nelson, daughter of Willie Nelson.

As she performs her grandfather’s songs, along with other family members, Sarah Lee says she sees how times really haven’t changed since the days the songs were written. She sees the America today reflected in songs such as “Pastures of Plenty,” “Deportee,” “Union Maid” and “I Ain’t Got No Home.”

“The times have gotten better in some ways but maybe worse in others,” Sarah Lee said. “It’s amazing that Woody wrote songs that still ring true. It shows that we still have much work to do in this land.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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