In many homes, Arlo Guthrie’s “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” has become a Thanksgiving staple just as important as turkey, stuffing and pie, but, if you ask the song’s author himself, the iconic story-song is really just “an anti-stupid song.” Guthrie, the son of Oklahoma folk icon Woody Guthrie, wrote “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” as a comedic protest song after he was arrested—and thus disqualified from the draft—for littering in the Berkshire County town of Stockbridge, Mass just after Thanksgiving on November 28, 1965 at the age of 20. He workshopped the song’s distinctive tent-revival narration through countless live performances, added a wicked ragtime guitar part and released the song as the 18-minute opening title-track on his debut album, Alice’s Restaurant. “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” was a leftfield hit, and along with “The Motorcycle Song,” it helped Arlo secure his place as the missing link between the his folk-singer forefathers and the then-current counterculture movement.
To the surprise of many, Arlo retired “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” in the 1970s, but he never really stepped off the road and continues to tour throughout the year with both his own band and a revue-style cast of friends and family members. He has revived “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” on select anniversaries and special occasions, and, in the early 1990s, he purchased the church where Alice and Ray Brock live and the story’s classic first scene took place. The Trinity Church now serves as both an interfaith chapel and the home of The Guthrie Center, a non-profit dedicated to bringing individuals together for cultural, educational and spiritual exchange.
“I dread playing ‘Alice’s Restaurant’” for people who are familiar with it,” Arlo told Relix/Jambands.com in 2005. “I remember the day I started doing it for a whole world that had never heard it before—the reaction of the crowd created the song.”
Arlo revived and buffed up the retired “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” for its golden anniversary earlier this year and has performed the song as the centerpiece of the Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour. This weekend, Arlo will return to New York’s Carnegie Hall for his annual Thanksgiving Weekend show, a tradition he shared with his old friend and mentor Pete Seeger for decades. As in years past, the shows will feature Arlo’s son and keyboardist Abe as well as his daughter Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband Johnny Irion, who have helped introduce folk music to fans raised on The Black Crowes, Wilco and Deer Tick.
“My dad always said you can only about what you know,” Arlo says. “There are a lot of people writing about what they read or what they believe. But, if someone writes about what they know, they don’t need to be a great songwriter. When you hear the truth, it rings in you and becomes great.”
As he prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of the events that inspired “Alice’s,” Guthrie spoke about the song’s cultural significance, living in his famous father’s shadow and how he lives by the Hindu practice of embracing all religions.
“The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is your signature song, yet you only play the entire suite on special occasions like this big anniversary. Why did you originally drop the song from your setlists?
Originally the song was a commentary on the ridiculous situation we were engaged in in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t an anti-war song—although I was certainly against the adventurism in Vietnam—it was an anti-stupid song. When the war was over, the draft had ended and our boys began coming home, so the song didn’t have the impact it’d had formerly. In addition, it was just too long to do every night. So I took it off the setlist except for the occasional anniversaries like the one we’re doing now.
Every time we [revive the song], the focus is a little different, and I’ve tried to update it with things that are going on these days, while still keeping the original intact. But the new elements are my favorite
Though known for its narrative story, “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” has a very distinctive melody and guitar line. Can you talk a bit about the song’s musical inspirations?
Ragtime was my first love, musically, and I was very comfortable playing that style on the guitar. That turned out to be very helpful as it was uniquely American and didn’t distract from the story.
You mentioned that “Alice’s Restaurant” is an “anti-stupid song,” not anti-war, and most of the song avoids talking specifically about Vietnam. Yet “Alice’s Restaurant” remains a definitive account of Vietnam-era hypocrisy. At what point do you think the song became a true protest song?
“Alice’s Restaurant” was especially popular with the guys stuck in Vietnam, because they’d been through the process I described in the song. [In the song, Arlo describes a real life situation where he avoids being drafted because he was once arrested for littering.] It was also popular with young people being forced to serve in an unpopular war. Everyone on almost all sides of the political divisions we had in those days could relate to some parts of it. I think that’s what makes a good song, even these days.
Earlier this week you performed at the Trinity Church, Alice’s former home and the backdrop for much of the “Alice’s Restaurant” song. The church is now home to The Guthrie Center and The Guthrie Foundation, and it also functions as an interfaith chapel. How did you come to purchase the church and turn it into a non-profit center?
I was doing a “What Ever Happened To Him” TV episode, and we were filming outside the old church when the people who owned it came out and told me they wanted to sell the building and move to Chicago. Up to that point, I had never even imagined I could do something with the church. But I raised enough money to put down a down payment, and we began two not-for-profit organizations that would work out of there. Now we’re engaged in another fund-raiser to fix the roof and do some other maintenance that will keep it going for another 50 years.