For at least the past 15 years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I always go to Carnegie Hall for one of the most communal annual folk gatherings in New York City. The people performing on stage and the audience are actual friends and family, and many of the older audience members have come there for most of 50 years.
What is now the Arlo Guthrie family concert was once Arlo and Pete Seeger. And before that it was Pete’s formerly blacklisted group, The Weavers. This year my mailing address for the good seats got lost. I emailed and got a great seat handled directly by Arlo’s two daughters, Cathy and Annie. How’s that for a family business?
Before he died in 2005, I used to get tickets each year from Harold Leventhal, the old school manager who managed The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Leventhal was a class act, in many ways. He knew his fans on a first name basis.
When Sarah Lee Guthrie did her debut appearance in a small Greenwich Village club, he invited me. Many in the audience, there to see the debut of Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, were folk music legends themselves.
The history of these Carnegie Hall concerts is substantial. While working on the doomed 1948 presidential campaign of the progressive Henry Wallace, Leventhal met Seeger, and soon became the manager of The Weavers. Blacklisted as communists, the group had such difficulty finding a place to perform that they disbanded in 1952.
But Leventhal persisted, and in 1955 he organized a Weavers reunion concert on Christmas Eve at Carnegie Hall, persuading the members to take part by convincing each one that the others had already agreed.
That concert ignited the folk music boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which in turn led to Leventhal recognizing the talent of a 19-year-old Bob Dylan, and promoting his first concert, at the Town Hall in New York City in April, 1963.
In 2003, a special tribute concert was held for Leventhal. It brought back the Weavers for a reunion. Their singing was still remarkable. A film of that show, Isn't This a Time, was released in 2004. Oscar Brand, who sat in front of me that night, kept saying “We’re seeing history here tonight.” He was so right.
Leventhal produced many big shows through his years. A birthday benefit concert for Martin Luther King, Jr. at Carnegie Hall in 1961 helped King appeal to the white general public. He also produced fundraising tribute concerts for Phil Ochs, Paul Robeson and many others.
After Guthrie's death in 1967, Leventhal virtually adopted Woody's son, Arlo, who worked in his office before making his hit record, Alice's Restaurant. He helped produce the film based on that song, and later co-produced the Oscar-winning Bound for Glory starring David Carradine as Woody Guthrie.
Last night, as Arlo and family members performed with The University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and the Burns Sisters, memories flooded over me. Carnegie Hall felt like home, but it becomes so, especially when Arlo, family and audience ends the show with Woody's This Land is Your Land. That songs defines a sense of community like no other.