Guthrie is a consummate story teller. I think it runs in his blood. The son of Woody Guthrie, he grew up surrounded by the folk music scene. Who is Woody Guthrie, you ask? Whoo boy. I barely know where to start. Woody Guthrie was a major influence for Bruce Springsteen and Nobel Laureate (I love saying that!) Bob Dylanto name just two in a very, very long list. Possibly his most well-known song is “This Land Is Your Land,” which he wrote because he was sick of hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” on the radio.
Anyway, that was Arlo’s dad. Arlo was himself also very influential in the folk music, counter-culture scene of the 1960s. He was just 18 when the story that became Alice’s Restaurant Massacree began.
Behind the Song
Normally, I would give you the lyrics of the song in the course of this blog. Today, I won’t. The song runs a whopping 18 minutes and 34 seconds. Guthrie likes to say that this is the same length of the missing Watergate tapes. Coincidence?
Apparently, the word Massacree that Arlo uses in the title, is a word used in the Ozark mountains. It describes "an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe." It is a corruption of the word massacre (itself of French origin, possibly from the now nearly extinct Missouri French dialect) but carries a much lighter and more sarcastic connotation, never being used to describe anything involving actual death.
Anyway, while some things have been embellished for dramatic effect, the story that he tells is true. It begins on Thanksgiving Day in 1965. Arlo and a friend, Richard, were having dinner with Alice and Ray. Alice owned a restaurant, although it was not open that day. They were living in an old church and had a lot of garbage around. Arlo and Richard volunteered to clean it up and take the load to the dump. Unfortunately, the dump was not open on Thanksgiving. So, they found a place nearby and dumped the stuff. Also, unfortunately, it was private property. The gentleman called the local police who then had to go through everything to try and discover whose trash it was. They found an envelope with Ray’s name on it. Not long after, Arlo was arrested for littering.
A court date was set, and the arresting officer had a set of carefully detailed pictures showing the scene of the crime. When the judge came in with a seeing-eye dog, the officer knew that all the work that had gone into the pictures had been a colossal waste of time. Arlo was tasked with cleaning up the mess.
Time passes. How much? No idea. The Vietnam War is in full swing, and Arlo is called up by the draft. He goes to the draft board hungover, hoping that would make him look too sickly to go. No help. He goes to the appointed psychiatrist and tells them how much he wants to kill people. They tell him that he is just the type of person that they are looking for and pass him along to the next office.
This is where things come to a screeching halt: his criminal record is discovered. It had never occurred to him that an arrest for littering could prevent him from going to Vietnam. But this apparently proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was too immoral to go and fight in the war.
Does the song really have anything to do with Alice’s Restaurant? Nope. Does Alice really have that much to do with the song? Nope. But the chorus makes for nice bumpers to the anti-stupidity story that he tells. Originally, the opening line of the chorus was “You can hide from Obenhein at Alice’s Restaurant.” Obenhein was the Officer Obie in the story—the arresting officer.
A few years after the song came out, there was a movie of the same name. I’ve seen it. It is not terribly memorable. But I do remember seeing it, which puts it ahead of a lot of movies that I’ve seen but do not remember. (Often someone will mention a movie, and I’ll say that we should see it as my husband shakes his head and tells me that we already have.)
Arlo and the Song Now
As the years have passed, Arlo has come out with new versions of the song for different occasions. Since this is more a story than a song, he can put almost anything in there, so long as he keeps the chorus the same. He stopped performing it live first in the 1970s. Then he began performing it on anniversary years. In 2015, he toured performing the song for it’s 50thanniversary. At the moment, he has no plans for a 60thanniversary tour—not sure he’ll still be around or able to play come 2025.
I’ll be posting some versions of this song every day on my Minnich Music Facebook page, so visit there to hear them! If you have any stories about “Alice’s Restaurant,” or favorite versions, let me know in the comments section, I’d love to hear from you.
I’ll be posting roughly once a week with a new song. I’m trying to make the songs seasonal, but I can make exceptions. So, if there’s a song that you’d like some background on, or questions about what it means, let me know.
Thanks for reading! Until next time!