WXTJ Writes! by Caroline Young: “Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree””
Just before the Thanksgiving break, my friend Chloe and I tried to host a Thanksgiving themed WXTJ show, and as we searched for suitable content, I noticed quickly that there are very few explicitly “Thanksgiving” themed songs. The holiday doesn’t even compare to Halloween and its classics like “The Monster Mash” or “Werewolves of London,” and we ended up playing lots of songs loosely connected to food and cooking. In my search, however, I stumbled upon perhaps the most epic Thanksgiving song, Arlo Guthrie’s eighteen minute long “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” released on his 1967 album “Alice’s Restaurant.” As the song is a musical marathon, we didn’t actually play it on the air, but I learned so much about the song and its history that I instead decided to write an article about it.
In “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie (folk icon Woody Guthrie’s son) tells the mostly true story of when he and a friend got arrested for incorrectly disposing of trash from Alice’s Restaurant. After entertaining several tangents, the song eventually morphs into a protest against the Vietnam War before ending with a catchy and lovely pseudo-chorus about Alice and her restaurant. I thought the song emerged as funny, charming, and folksy, and Guthrie sustains an anti-authoritarian message throughout, a message his young audience appreciated. “Alice’s Restaurant” began circulating in the mid 1960s in coffee houses and night clubs in and around Boston and New York City, and Guthrie’s big break came with his performance at the at WNYC Radio Station’s “American Music Festival” held at Carnegie Hall in February of 1967. Following the performance, Guthrie was hired as a regular performer at a Greenwich Village nightclub where he played “Alice’s Restaurant” several times a week, allowing him to perfect the lyrics and tune. The song grew even more popular with Guthrie’s live performances on New York City’s WBAI radio station, and unofficial recordings began to circulate. Finally, after a July 1967 performance at the Newport Folk Festival, Guthrie released the song in October of the same year on his album by the same name.
Ever since, “Alice’s Restaurant” has been a Thanksgiving classic on independent radio stations, and the song even inspired a 1969 movie starring Guthrie and several of the song’s characters as themselves. Some of the stations that played “Alice’s Restaurant” this past Thanksgiving include WNCW in Spindale, NC, KINK in Portland, OR and the Wyoming Public Radio station, KUWL, among many others. Guthrie’s song has even been added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, which is somewhat ironic as the song criticizes American bureaucracy and government. There are several theories and reasons as to why “Alice’s Restaurant” has stuck throughout the past few decades, but I found the talking blues style, laughter and conversation in the background of the recording, folksy history, and catchy tune to be both comforting and pleasant.
Anyways, for anyone else searching for music to accompany the Thanksgiving Holiday, set aside eighteen minutes and look no further than Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.”
By Caroline Young, a co host of “Sunday Brunch” on Sundays from 6 – 8 pm
WXTJ Writes! is brought to you by a team of 25 wonderful writers. Our mission is to make our website come alive by diving even deeper into some of our favorite music — so get ready to talk music, media, entertainment, the arts, and read special stories told by radio-loving students every week here on wxtj.fm/articles.