Over fifty years ago, as war protests, growing social and racial unrest and a general disillusionment with the status quo divided our nation. Singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie had a story to tell, so he decided to do what he did what he did best… he wrote a song. That song told the tale of a good deed gone wrong, and how it ended up being the smartest stupid thing Guthrie would ever do. That song became more than just a piece of music history, it became a Thanksgiving ritual for a generation. That song was “Alice’s Restaurant”.
For Guthrie, writing populist songs that wryly speak to higher truths is something of a family tradition. As his name might suggest, he is the son of a true American poet, the late Woody Guthrie. The elder Guthrie had earned acclaim writing tunes that questioned authority, having seen how easily power could lead to abuse. Woody Guthrie’s father was a failed politician showed his son the darker side of America on the campaign trail, including bringing him to a lynching. Those scenes, and the Great Depression that gripped the country, crystallized Woody Guthrie’s outlook and shaped a message that made him a voice of a generation.
[Video: Andrew Colunga]
Though Arlo’s parents divorced soon after his birth and custody being granted to his mother, his father remained a presence in his life, giving him his first guitar at the age of six. The adage “Like Father, Like Son’ has rarely been more applicable, as the younger Guthrie followed his fathers footsteps to the stage at age thirteen. His father’s friends, particularly Pete Seeger, took an active interest in Guthrie’s career. He was descended from folk royalty, and expectations of him were high. Luckily, he was up to the challenge before him.
The folk scene was in full resurgence in the late fifties and early sixties. By the mid-sixties in New York, with the counter culture revolution was in full swing across the nation and a generation was asking questions louder and louder. One echoed more than most…”Why are we at war?” The Vietnam War officially raged for twenty years, but with the Korean War just before it, all falling on the shoulders of a world battered by a truly horrific global conflict. With the world’s dual super powers Russia and the United States playing a game of nuclear brinkmanship the people were tired of being afraid.
Many chose to follow the advice of LSD-guru Timothy Leary, and “Tune in, Turn On And Drop Out,” embracing off the grid, communal lifestyles and trying to live a simple, loving life. One such person was Alice Brock, a former librarian at Arlo’s boarding school. Alice took a small loan and purchased an abandoned church in Great Barrington, MA, where she and her husband resided. Their home was open to all their friends as a crash pad and a place to come and regroup. For Guthrie, it would also become the subject of his best-known song.
“Alice’s Restaurant” tells the tale far better than any summation could, but in brief, Arlo was visiting Alice and her husband Ray for the Thanksgiving holiday in the fall of 1965. To thank the couple for their hospitality, Guthrie and his friend Richard Robbins volunteered to help clean up the church by taking out the considerable amount of trash that had piled up. Unfortunately, they had failed to take into account the possibility that the dump would be closed for the holiday. After being stymied at the town dump, the pair happened upon a smaller pile of trash at the bottom of a hill, and decided that that was as good a place as any to drop their load, there on the side of the road.
Markings on the trash led local authorities to the church, and Guthrie and his friend eventually surrendered to police. After their arrest, a comical trial and a fine, the pair was forced to clean up the garbage. Sometime later, Arlo Guthrie got the letter that had served as a death sentence to so many of his contemporaries. He had been ordered to report to his draft board. The resulting fear, his conviction in Massachusetts and the government’s own policies resulted in a comedy of errors that became a twenty-minute song still played across the nation every Thanksgiving.
After playing the 20-minute tune at a workshop for “Topical Songs” at the Newport Folk Festival went so well he was brought onstage to play it for the entire festival. Guthrie recorded a version of it, far too long for any standard single, and released it on an album, all it’s own. The song had to be split on two sides, and was easily the longest hit to ever hit the charts. As legend goes, a demo of the song was sent to his ailing father Woody on his deathbed, and was the last thing the senior Guthrie ever heard. The youth of the nation was in love with the song. It’s farcical portrayal of the army induction process struck a particular chord among listeners who were, themselves, deathly afraid of opening the mail box and seeing the invitation to war.
The song quickly became a juggernaut, though due to it’s lack of release as a single thanks to it’s length, it never saw it’s numbers reflected in the charts. Stations would play it over and over again, to appease requests received at all hours of the day. Even Hollywood got in on the act, bringing in Arlo to star in a fictionalized recreation of the song, with added scenes and a full soundtrack. The film was a modest success, and a beloved classic of many a late night theater screenings.
A scene from the 1969 “Alice’s Restaurant” film:
Guthrie scored a few other hits in his career, including a rendition of “City Of New Orleans,” and “The Motorcycle Song,” which he famously played at Woodstock. He has continued to play and is still, in fact, on the road today. He has filled his life with numerous creative challenges, acting from time to time, working on songs with numerous collaborators and lending help to a variety of social causes. Though he has yet to write another song that has had the impact of “Alice’s Restaurant, he showed no bitterness or ire towards the tune that made him a house hold name once upon a time.
“Flying Into Los Angeles,” as performed at Woodstock:
When asked for comment on his signature hit, Guthrie replied:
“I never saw it (“Alice’s Restaurant”) as an anti-war song. It’s not an anti-war song…though I can understand why most people would think it is. Honestly, it’s an anti-stupidity song. That is to say, I think war is stupid. I think it’s stupid to padlock a landfill. It’s stupid to send people around the world to kill people. I just wanted to point out to folks that there was more than one way of looking at things. I was pretty disappointed to be arrested for littering. I was pretty overjoyed to not have to kill or be killed because of that arrest though. Makes me wish more people had been litterers!”
Over the fifty years since the song’s release, the church where these events began has been transformed into a non-denominational gathering place. Each year they hold a Thanksgiving celebration, and even have a tour of the area, including stops at the landfill and the site of the illegal dumping. Across the nation, once again, survivors of the sixties will smile as the song comes on the radio, sharing its message with their children and grand children.
One such person, artist Andrew Calunga, was inspired by the song enough to do a series of black and white drawings to accompany the song, effectively illustrating the entire tune. The work gained him hundreds of thousands of views, and, though it was done as a personal, artistic exercise, he is proud to have become a small part on the tale of Alice, her restaurant, and the peace movement. A veteran himself, Calunga knows well the perils of war.
Without further ado, here’s the song itself, along with the hundreds of drawings by Calunga. We hope that you enjoy this ode to absurdity, this plea for peace and that, sometime in the future, when you get hungry you remember…”You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.” “Cepting Alice, of course.
Happy Thanksgiving from our families to yours. May you enjoy a day of peace, and may the world someday know the same.