Arlo Guthrie Looks Back on 50 Years of 'Alice's Restaurant'

Guthrie tells the real story behind his hilarious Thanksgiving Day classic – and how Bill Cosby inspired it

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Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie performing in Madison, Wisconsin on May 9th, 2013. Dan Harr

On Thanksgiving 1965, Arlo Guthrie visited friend Alice Brock and her husband at their home, a church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and did them a favor by taking out their garbage. The dump was closed that day, so Guthrie and a friend dropped the garbage off a cliff where other locals had previously dropped trash. Guthrie was arrested the following day, and the mark on his record miraculously kept him out of Vietnam by making him ineligible for the draft.

Guthrie recalled the incident in hilarious detail in 1967's "Alice's Restaurant," which became his most beloved song and the subject of a 1969 movie. (The Old Trinity Church, where Alice lived, is now the Guthrie Center). It's also become a Thanksgiving tradition, played nationwide on public radio every year. "To have what happened to me actually happen and not be a work of fiction still remains amazing," Guthrie says. "It's an amazing set of crazy circumstances that reminds me of an old Charlie Chaplin movie. It's slapstick." Guthrie, who very rarely plays the song live, kicks off an 18-month tour celebrating the event that inspired the song on January 21st in Daytona Beach, Florida. Here, Guthrie reflects on his unlikely classic.

Did you ever think "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" would be your most beloved song?
Well, you have to remember that back in '65, all the way into the early Seventies, nobody in their right mind would have written an 18-minute monologue. I mean if it was 2:31, stations wouldn't play it. So I never expected it to even be on a record, let alone get airplay, let alone have it made into a movie. I mean, that was all like a whirlwind of events that were way beyond my control.

The song was kind of a novelty song when you started it, right?
I did take the war in Vietnam seriously, and I was in college. I began college in Billings, Montana, in September of 1965. I was gonna study forestry. And I came home for Thanksgiving vacation and stayed with my friends in this old church they had purchased. So when I first started writing about it, it was just repeating or telling my audience what had happened to me. Because I thought it was funny.

To have what happened to me actually happen and not be a work of fiction still remains amazing. It's an amazing set of crazy circumstances that reminds me of an old Charlie Chaplin movie. It's slapstick. I mean, who gets arrested for littering? And who goes to court and finds themselves before a blind judge with pictures as evidence? I mean, that's crazy! And then to be rejected from the military because I had a littering record? I mean, those events were real and not only that, those people played themselves in the movie! The cop in the movie is the real Officer Obie and the judge in the movie, the blind judge is the real Judge Hannon. And these are real people! And they consented to play themselves because they think they, like me, observed the absurdity of the circumstance.

What made you think an 18-minute song was even possible?
One was a guy named Lord Buckley, whose stories I loved. And interestingly enough, one of the first people that I heard tell stories of that length was Bill Cosby. I remember seeing him at the Gaslight and hearing him tell these old tales. I remember wanting him to tell the same story every night I went. I learned what it was like from an audience point of view to want to hear the same stuff, even if I didn't want to repeat myself.

I love the fingerpicking progression and melody – did anyone in particular inspire that?
Well, there were a few heroes of mine that played that style in folk music circles, [called] Piedmont. I first heard that from a guy named Mississippi John Hurt who was playing at the Gaslight on MacDougal Street in New York and I loved it. Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Elizabeth Cotton, Doc Watson, there were a few people from different walks of music life who played that style and it's really an African style. In its infancy, that's an African style approach to a six-string guitar and I have always loved it. I think what works is that it's familiar to somebody who's never heard it before. To me, that's not something you can learn. One of the masters of that was my old buddy Pete Seeger. And whatever you thought of him politically or musically or any other way, one of his geniuses was making songs from other places sound familiar to us in our own style.

I saw you live once, and you didn't play "Alice's Restaurant."
I remember playing it in the Sixties into the early Seventies. And I actually remember the day I realized I was never gonna sing it before a virgin audience again, that everybody I was about to play it for had already heard it and were coming back to hear it for the second time. It's one of the pivotal moments in my life. And I thought, should I keep doing it or not? I didn't want the nostalgia perversion to replace the joy I had delivering that for the first time. I did it for another few years. But then the war ended. And times began to change, so I just quit. And there were a lot of people who were very upset. They said, "Look, I paid to hear that," and I'd give them their money back and say, "Don't come back," but there's only so much that you can do. I would call it a Ricky Nelson syndrome, what do you do with people who are coming to hear you for what you were and are no longer? It's a difficult choice that every artist I think has to deal with. So I decided I would do it on the occasional 10-year anniversaries. So I did a 30th  anniversary tour and then I'd quit doing it. And then I did a 40th anniversary tour and then I quit doing it. I didn't actually think I would live long enough to have to do the 50th anniversary tour. 

Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie sits with a woman in a still from the film 'Alice's Restaurant.' UA/Getty

Does the song come back to you easily?
No. I have to learn the whole thing again It's not like it just stays in there. It's not like riding a bike. I'm gonna have to spend most of December trying to get that back, because it's not just the words. I can remember the story, but the timing of the music and the delivery of the words is important. I'll get in front of an audience and the first few nights will be a little off but it's a year and a half long tour so for the bulk of the tour, it will be great.

What will the tour be like? I heard there will be some video screens and multimedia elements.
I've never done anything like that before. I've preferred to keep not just my life, but my shows, fairly simple. I'm a simple guy. I'm not very complicated. But my son Abe, who's been working with me for decades now, is a real good media guy. And so he'll help me and we're gonna try to make it so that it's fun and a little bit nostalgic. We'll get some all photos and try to make sense of the last 50 years. I've never done it before I've never had a designated light crew. This ain't rock & roll. This is still a guy with a guitar. It'll be confusing to me 'cause I'm fairly old school, but you gotta change a little bit with the times. I don't know, we'll see what happens.

Have you written anything new sections of the song for the 50th anniversary?
I have not even thought about it yet. I mean I'm starting to create like what I think will be a set list because the lighting guys need to come up with a plan.

The song is a big part of Thanksgiving for my family. You must hear stories like that all the time.
Yeah, of course. I don't know where that comes from. That was certainly not by my design. I think it's just one of those funny, crazy coincidences that you have an event that takes place on Thanksgiving; therefore it becomes associated with the holiday. If I go back and look at the hits to the website for example, they will spike one day a year. I always thought, "Hey if they're gonna play one song of yours on the radio one day a year, it might as well be the longest one you wrote!"

In an NPR story from 10 years ago you said it wasn't an anti-war song, but it was a song about stupidity.
Well, I never thought of it as being particularly anti-war, because there may be times when the war is appropriate. I can't think of many times, but there are times. And so I'm not an idealist in that sense. There are times when you have to do stuff even if it cuts against the grain of who you are. So I never thought of "Alice's Restaurant" as being an anti-war song, but you can't run a war being that stupid. You won't succeed in the war and you won't succeed in other things either. And I think that's some of the lessons we still have yet to learn, you know? [Laughs].

When you last toured "Alice's Restaurant" in 2005, the song had a particular resonance due to the Iraq War. Are there reasons people need to hear the song today?
I don't know if they do or not, I can tell you that that wouldn't be a decision I would make, but the shows are doing very well.

So you wouldn't play it if you didn't have to?
I made a commitment decades ago that I would do it on these anniversaries, so whether there's 50,000 people that show up or 50 people show up, I'm gonna do it anyhow because I said I would.

Do you listen when it's on the radio on Thanksgiving?
No. And no one in my family does either. There are better things to do for us and I've got grandkids now. My granddaughter Serena just did her first solo show a couple of nights ago, and then she joined us on stage and blew the house down. And she's 17, plays guitar and sings. I love that all my kids play and sing. I don't care if they do it professionally or not. My father told me once when I was very young, "Music will be your best friend. Learn to play the guitar music will be your best friend." And he was absolutely right. It had nothing to do if it was professional or back porch picking. It had nothing to do with the genre of music. It had to do with speaking a language that anyone could understand around the world. And I believe that, and so I'm happy to see my kids and grandkids participate in that.

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