Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ Thanksgiving’s Go-To Song
New Year's has 'Auld Lang Syne.'
Christmas has -- well, Christmas has lots of songs.
But when it comes to Thanksgiving, there's only one song that will do, trotted out annually like that enormous turkey platter that your grandmother loves so much:
"You can get anything you want / At Alice's Restaurant ..."
The funny thing? It's not really a song, and it isn't about Thanksgiving.
'Alice's Restaurant,' or more accurately, 'Alice's Restaurant Massacree,' is a 1967 monologue by then 20-year-old Arlo Guthrie, son of folk legend Woody Guthrie. Accompanying Guthrie's long-winded tale is a pretty little Piedmont blues riff repeated for 18 minutes and 34 seconds. What would serve as the chorus in a conventional song -- the "You can get anything you want" refrain -- bookends the story.
And what a story it is. In 1965, Guthrie paid a Thanksgiving visit to his friends, Alice and Ray Brock, at their home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Brocks lived in an old church, and Alice ran a little restaurant nearby. The restaurant is still there, but Alice no longer owns it. She's still around, though.
The church is still around, too, but since 1991 it's been the Guthrie Center, "an environment where individuals can come together to cultivate a deeper awareness of culture, humanity and the environment of which we are all a part."
Anyway, while visiting the Brocks, Guthrie and another friend volunteered to do a garbage run. Unfortunately, the town dump was closed for Thanksgiving, so the two opted for the very un-hippie-like alternative of illegally chucking the garbage at a spot used by many locals.
The boys were caught by a police officer named William Obanhein, or Obie as he is known in the song. Obanhein arrested Guthrie and his friend and photographed the crime scene. Obie's photos proved fairly useless in court, though, as the judge was blind. The two young men were fined 50 bucks and told to go clean up their mess.
During the mid-'60s, the draft was on, and kids Guthrie's age were being shipped to Vietnam as quickly as the induction centers could process them. Draftees had to pass a battery of tests, both physical and psychological, and when Guthrie's number was called he sailed through without any problems.
But there was another criterion: morality. At that time, the armed services didn't want any recruits who had been convicted of a crime. That's right: Arlo Guthrie escaped the draft because he littered.
These episodes -- both the original arrest and the absurdity of his later draft experience -- inspired Guthrie to write 'Alice's Restaurant,' part true story, part tall tale. Regarding the length of the piece, the singer recently told Rolling Stone that Bill Cosby inspired him:
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.
Back in 2005, Guthrie told NPR's 'All Things Considered' that he began working on the story/song the night after the arrest, and that it took him a year to finish. The finished product lent its title to his 1967 debut album. At 18:34, 'Alice's Restaurant' takes up a complete side of the LP.
Upon its release, 'Alice' was embraced by the counterculture. Guthrie's humorous tale of being hassled by The (incompetent) Man struck a chord with the hippies, as did the absurdity of a convicted litterbug being too immoral to kill the North Vietnamese. Its creator doesn't see it as an anti-war story, though. In the same NPR interview, Guthrie called his most famous work "a celebration of idiocy."
So the story/song became a crowd favorite, but at nearly 20 minutes long it could not fit onto a 45 RPM single. That meant no jukeboxes, no airplay, no Billboard Hot 100 -- so in 1969 Guthrie, released a more conventional song that retained some of the story's hallmarks, but is really very much its own thing:
That's not the only alternate version, either. 'Alice: Before Time Began' is an entirely separate story set to the same happy Piedmont riff:
The story/song was such a phenomenon that it was made into a movie starring Guthrie in 1969. The real life Obie, Alice, and judge make appearances, too. A soundtrack was released that included a slightly different version of 'Alice's Restaurant' along with several other Guthrie songs.
Over the nearly 50 years since its initial release, Guthrie has updated the story a few times to reflect current events. None surpass the joy and energy of the original, though. And that's the true tale of the true tale that has become a Thanksgiving tradition -- even if it doesn't really have anything to do with Thanksgiving.