Popular music has spawned its own history and a corresponding collection of tall tales and legends.

Arlo Guthrie says there's truth in at least one of those famous fables, one involving him and Bob Dylan. The story goes like this: Shortly after arriving in New York in 1961, the teenage Dylan made a pilgrimage to the Guthrie home in Queens looking for Arlo's famed father, Woody.

He was greeted at the door by a baby sitter who, not knowing what to make of the scruffy kid, called Arlo's mom at work.

"Don't let him in," Mrs. Guthrie said. "Tell him to come back when I'll be home."

The baby sitter hung up the phone only to find Dylan showing Arlo a new way to play harmonica.

"That happened," Guthrie said in an interview from Taos, N.M. "Bob's not like a really good friend, (though) he's obviously somebody whose work I greatly admire. I talk to him every couple of years.

"Dylan, he had really succeeded in doing something that had never been done: making our music serious. Before he was a generation's hero, he was a folksingers' hero."

Guthrie himself could lay claim to those two titles. As a singer and songwriter, he's spent more than 20 years combining sincerity, acerbic wit and social consciousness reminiscent of, but independent from, Woody Guthrie.

Both father and son have been back in the spotlight lately thanks to "Folkways: A Vision Shared." The album, a Dylan-instigated tribute to Woody and Leadbelly, features performances of their work by U2, Bruce Springsteen, John Mel-lencamp and, of course, Arlo. Some royalties will benefit the Guthrie estate.

"I'm walking that tightrope from being just another person involved in the project and a recipient of it," he said. "I don't want to be pumping something too much that I will eventually benefit from."

Another cause Guthrie doesn't want to pump - for different reasons _ is the fight against Huntington's disease, the hereditary ailment that killed his father and could claim him, too. He has refused pleas from Huntington's groups to use his face, name and music to raise money.

"I don't want to focus on a particular disease or disease in general," he said. "I want to put my focus on what it means to be alive, not what it means to be sick.

"I have a fundamental disagreement with using pictures and words that describe a tormented death to solicit funds from people who are healthy. I think it's degrading to people. In other words, I don't want to be the Jerry Lewis of Huntington's disease."

Within the past two years, a test has been developed that can determine whether someone at risk will develop the disease. Some experts say it will ease the fears that have caused many potential Huntington's victims to put off marriage or forgo childbearing.

Guthrie, who lives on a 250-acre farm in western Massachusetts with his wife Jackie and their four children, has not taken the test. He's already living life to the fullest, he says, and knowing whether he'll get sick won't make a difference.

"Living a life makes it valuable, no matter how long it's for or under what circumstances. What's the point of telling a young child that, for example, he's going to die at some point. There will be time enough for him to be made aware of that.

"I think everybody in this world has a genetic disorder that ends in death, so there's no real difference. Life is terminal."

And, in another way, so are record contracts. Guthrie spent 15 years with Warner Bros. but left the label after his "Power of Love" album in 1981. The problem, Guthrie said, was largely demographic.

"The thing we've learned over the past few years is that the major contribution of big record companies is that they can sell lots of records to people ages 12 to 18. And that's not my market. The record companies didn't know how to target my material."

Now, however, Warner Bros. Records has given Arlo's Rising Son Records the rights to seven out-of-print Guthrie albums and another seven discs still in its catalog.

Among those recordings is "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," the 20-minute story-song about the military draft that launched Guthrie's career in 1967. It appeared regularly in his concerts until 1972, was brought back when Jimmy Carter revived selective service registration and does, in many ways, overshadow everything Guthrie has done since his hit recording of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans."

Is he reticent to talk about his signature tune?

"It doesn't bother me at all," Guthrie said. "I still love it. After I'm long gone, people will start determining the relation of `Alice's Restaurant' to the body of work."