Arlo Guthrie Looks Back on 50 Years of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’
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.
See Becky G Perform ‘America the Beautiful’ at WWE WrestleMania 39
- WrestleMania Back in Cali
One Dead After Storm Collapses Roof at Morbid Angel Show in Illinois
- 'Absolute Chaos'