Guthrie Center continues to support community
By Jane Keller Gordon, Assistant Editor
Great Barrington- For those who came of age in the 1960s, Arlo Guthrie’s long, lyrical song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” is iconic. Written by Guthrie in 1965, when he was 18, it describes events that took place during a Thanksgiving he spent with his former high school teachers, Alice May Brock and her husband Ray Brock, at their home, an old deconsecrated church in Great Barrington.
The song tells the story of Guthrie’s arrest for dumping Alice and Ray’s mound of trash, his encounter with a blind judge, and his subsequent rejection from the New York City draft board during the Vietnam War due to his “criminal record.” The word “massacree,” in the song’s title, means an event that is so bizarre it is unbelievable. It truly was; but grew into Guthrie’s plea to others to resist the draft.
In 1991, the old church became The Guthrie Center, home to the Guthrie Foundation. This past Thanksgiving, like every year since its founding, the center welcomed about 150 people for a free holiday meal. Many radio stations still play the song on Thanksgiving.
George Laye, a long-time friend of Guthrie’s, has been the artistic director and general manager of the center for the past 15 years.
“We welcome people in need and people new to town. We never turn anyone away. It’s just lovely, like any other Thanksgiving dinner, but we don’t get into politics with our relatives,” he said.
Much of what takes place at the Guthrie Foundation honors Arlo’s philosophy, and that of his parents, Marjorie Mazia-Guthrie and Woody Guthrie, the iconic American folksinger- songwriter. Woody Guthrie passed away in 1967 of Huntington’s disease.
The Guthrie Center’s mission, “Take Care. Give Care.” is reflected in the many interfaith services and spiritual events held at the center, Laye said.
The church’s former sanctuary is now split into an entry way, with the kitchen on the left, and offices on the right. In the back is the performance space, which holds 100 people. The bones of the church are still there, as is a recently refurbished stained-glass window. Concert posters cover the walls, memorabilia fills the space, and now original oil paintings of a Guthrie clan from Scotland hang in the performance hall.
Every Thursday night, except for Thanksgiving, the center holds a “hootenanny,” which is an open mic. On the weekends, Laye schedules well known and up-and-coming acts.
“I’m always looking for new talent, especially young talent. I called it my Youth Spotlight Program. A while ago a group called Harpeth Rising came to me. I heard them, and thought, ‘Gee-whiz, they are wonderful.’ Now they sell out every year,” said Laye.
Many “Toms” have played at the Guthrie: Paxton, Chapin, and Rush. Laye is working on the schedule for next year for the Troubadour series. Tickets range in price from $15 to $75, with the lower cost for members. Food is served.
“Our veggie chili and cornbread is amazing,” Laye said.
In addition to music, the Guthrie Foundation holds a free lunch every Wednesday, during which free legal aid is also given. The food is donated by several businesses in the area.
Laye also described a tutoring service that the center operates, matching volunteers with children and adults. In the summer, there are free yoga classes.
Every spring, the Guthrie holds a “garbage walk” to raise funds for Huntington’s disease.
“There’s no set date. It’s a couple of weeks before Memorial Day. We gather a fleet of VW Microbuses, like the one Arlo used to transport the trash, and shuttle people to the police station in Stockbridge, and stop at Alice’s former restaurant there. Last year we raised about $15,000 and it all went to research,” said Laye.
Laye is now collecting musical instruments so he can lend them to those in need.
“If there’s young musician starting out, I will give them a guitar or some other instrument,” he noted.
Thanks to all the good work at the center, Laye said, “I sleep well at night.”
To learn more and support the center, visit www.guthriecenter.org. It is located at 2 Van Deusenville in Great Barrington, Mass.