Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant is a timeless recording that celebrates Thanksgiving and everything great about America, including warfare, littering, jail and a whole lot of mean, ugly things we often take for granted. And if you don’t know what I mean, just click on the picture below and play the song…
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is a musical monologue by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, released on his 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. It is notable as a satirical, first-person account of 1960s counterculture, in addition to being a hit song in its own right and an inspiration for a 1969 movie of the same name.
The song is one of Guthrie’s most prominent works, based on a true incident from his life that began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime.
In November 1965, when Guthrie was 18 years old near the end of his brief stint at Rocky Mountain College, he spent the Thanksgiving Day holiday in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at a deconsecrated church being used as a home for two of his friends, Alice and Ray.
Alice owned a restaurant at the time, but other than being the subject of the chorus, none of the events of the song involve the restaurant.
As a favor to Alice and Ray, Guthrie and Richard Robbins, a friend not named in the song, but identified in contemporary news reports, volunteered to take the church’s large stockpile of trash to the local dump, not realizing until they arrived at the dump site that it was closed for the holiday.
He proceeded to an illegal dump site in the nearby town of Stockbridge and deposited the trash there; the next day, Stockbridge chief of police William Obanhein arrested Guthrie and Robbins for littering.
The song describes to ironic effect Obanhein’s frustration at the ensuing “typical case of American blind justice,” in which the officer was prepared to present at trial “twenty-seven 8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us,” only to have the judge enter the courtroom accompanied by a seeing-eye dog.
Guthrie and Robbins both plead guilty, were fined $50, and picked up the garbage that afternoon.
The song goes on to describe Guthrie’s subsequent experience before the Vietnam-era draft board, and the surreal bureaucracy at the New York City induction center at 39 Whitehall Street. When asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime, Guthrie mentioned the littering conviction and learned that since the incident was bureaucratically indistinguishable from a violent felony, he was ineligible for induction unless the military decided to issue him a moral waiver.
The punch line of the story is that, in the words of Guthrie, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army—burn women, kids, houses and villages—after bein’ a litterbug.”
The final part of the song is an encouragement for the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war.
Apart from the chorus which begins and ends it, the “song” is in fact a spoken monologue, with ragtime guitar backing. It lasts 18 minutes and 34 seconds, occupying the entire A-side of the Alice’s Restaurant album.
The work has become Guthrie’s signature song and he has periodically re-released it with updated lyrics but he refused to perform the tune during a live appearance at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, saying, “That’s why we made it a record album.”
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