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Arlo’s Folks

Behind a great folk singer is his Yiddish poet mother-in-law

Marylee Raymond Diamond
December 01, 2004

As a faithful fan of Arlo Guthrie’s annual Thanksgiving concert at Carnegie Hall, I went expecting familiar tunes and oft-told stories from his standard repertoire, which used to include all of Alice’s Restaurant. But the profusion of yarmulkes I saw as I walked into the hall signaled that this night would be different. Arlo walked on stage, introduced his sister Nora, their yearlong project, Holy Ground, and then the Klezmatics. They launched into three Woody Guthrie Hanukkah songs. The audience clapped along, and many of us in the balcony joined in the choruses.

In the program, Arlo explained that his father wrote these songs for family celebrations in Coney Island inspired by his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet and songwriter Aliza Greenblatt. “I owe more to her than to anyone else in this world,” Arlo said of his grandmother, whom I’ve never heard him mention before. “She was my true mentor.” This tribute to family, folk roots, and his Jewish ancestry, was in keeping with his defining hallmarks that bring so many of us back to Carnegie Hall year after year: a deeply felt spirituality and a commitment to peace and social justice.

Arlo interrupts his songs with personal anecdotes, and we applaud his musings as much as his songs. Toward the end, he stopped after the first verse of “This Land is Your Land” to share his thoughts on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Only Arlo would call him Joe, “the guy with the coat.”