Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie Serve Up Thanksgiving Folk Feast

Two American heroes remind holiday audience that music is supposed to be of, by and for the people.

NEW YORK -- As Arlo Guthrie sang "Rising Son" to a full house at the famed Carnegie Hall here Friday night, the crowd was so rapt you could hear Guthrie's foot tapping as he accompanied himself on his six-string guitar.

It was a stellar moment in a three-hour refresher course from two of the folk genre's legends, who illustrated just what that classic style of music is all about.

Guthrie, the 51-year-old son of immortal American songsmith and populist hero Woody Guthrie, hosted 79-year-old Pete Seeger, a contemporary of his father and a frequent collaborator, in two traditionally American folk concerts held fittingly Thanksgiving weekend at the elegant, midtown Manhattan venue.

In the program notes, Guthrie wrote of Seeger's philosophy of music: "It's really only during the last few decades that singing has become another marketable item along with almost everything else. Gone are the days and the generations who knew that making music was a community effort and not an entertainment service provided by giant corporations and overly serious individuals."

It almost sounds like something Ani DiFranco, John Lydon or any number of other indie-alt-punk darlings would be proud to have said, if they had had the benefit of Seeger's decades of perspective.

Guthrie's wire-rimmed glasses, black suit jacket and long white hair almost gave him the bearing of an English barrister as he collaborated with Seeger throughout the evening, with each taking a turn in the spotlight.

But any air of gravity from Guthrie was quickly dispelled when, in his characteristic nasal voice, he dipped into his trove of wry and often self-effacing anecdotes. For his part, Seeger seems to be aging remarkably well. Dressed in jeans and a violet shirt, he looked fit as a fiddle, spry and without an ounce of flab.

His enthusiasm beamed out as he stood at the microphone; he kept exhorting the crowd to sing along, as he indicated, through gestures, the proper pitch to the four tiers of balconies rising high above the floor.

Like the performers, the crowd spanned generations. Some appeared likely to be veterans of some of the social and environmental campaigns Seeger has championed over the decades. Others might have had their first brush with Guthrie at this summer's Furthur Festival, which he hosted. A number of kids there probably were too young to be expected to remember the show.

The two artists opened with a couple of chestnuts from the folk canon: "Midnight Special" and "Wabash Cannonball." Seeger, who apologized for his vocal problems -- "I don't know where it's gone," he said -- encouraged the audience to bail him out as he fed them the words and snapped off between-line fills on his banjo and 12-string guitar.

As Seeger and his grandson, singer/percussionist Tao Rodriguez, took a seat, Guthrie finger-picked his way through his own "Chilling of the Evening," and told the story of the Philadelphia bust that inspired "Ring Around the Rosey Rag," both from Alice's Restaurant, his 1967 debut.

Seeger, asking the crowd to work some harmonies into its singing, answered with the classic folk-rock anthem "Turn Turn Turn," made popular by the Byrds in the '60s.

Guthrie, describing his upcoming album, 32 Cents, recorded with veteran folk-group the Dillards, said the LP's name refers to his father's recent depiction on a U.S. postage stamp. "For a guy who spent his life trying not to be respectable," Guthrie mused before doing his father's "Ruben James," "it comes as a final and stunning defeat."

Guthrie alternated between six- and 12-string guitars, with a few detours to the piano and harmonica solos thrown in along the way. Playing softly behind him were his son, Abe, 27, and daughter, Sarah, 19, on a pair of electric pianos.

As he introduced them, Sarah -- until then a quiet, smiling presence behind the keyboard -- came forward.

At least a few in the audience gasped as the winsome brunette, wearing a long navy dress and jacket, took her father's guitar and, in the most robust voice heard so far that evening, sang folk-country songstress Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl." "What a song," Seeger said before he rounded out the set with reminiscences of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade's fight against Francisco Franco's insurgency in Spain in the late '30s and the closing number, Jose Marti's "Guantanamera" (RealAudio excerpt), during which he whistled a solo.

It's been a long time since "Little Arlo" (the title of a Woody Guthrie song) first made a name for himself with "Alice's Restaurant" -- his humorous, 18-minute dissection of the police, justice and military systems -- which reverberated through the youth movement of the '60s. The song, a traditional Thanksgiving Day tune because the events depicted take place on that annual holiday, helped set tone of the evening.

Jerry Giello, 47, of Stamford, Conn., marveled at how Guthrie's appearance had changed since he last saw the singer 30 years ago at the historic Woodstock rock festival in upstate New York.

"It brings back memories," said Giello, who was accompanied by his 9-year-old daughter Jessica. "I can't believe how much he's changed. ... But the voice is the same."

Seeger saw a successful career as a member of the Weavers interrupted when the politically outspoken trio came under fire in the McCarthy era of the early '50s. Seeger held fast to his convictions and saw a generation of kids in the '60s embrace folk music and some of his brand of social activism.

While neither Guthrie nor Seeger has enjoyed mainstream success in recent years, their following is sufficient to allow them to work for a variety of causes.

The second set featured more storytelling, both humorous and poignant. Guthrie described visits to AIDS wards and commented on the Clinton scandal: "Not the only story, but a good story."

Their collaborations included more folk chestnuts ("Satisfied Mind" by Seeger, Guthrie doing "House of the Rising Sun" and Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies") and some lovely playing, such as on Guthrie's biggest single, Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans."

Between standing ovations, they closed with the classic folk spiritual "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

Despite all Seeger's exhortations to sing, the crowd made its presence felt mostly by its cheering and clapping.

And, occasionally, by its rapt, silent attention.