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The Sound

“Alice’s Restaurant” at 50

10/28/2015

Woody Guthrie was a legendary voice in American folk music, and he passed on many of those values to his son, Arlo, who has since become one of the most recognizable voices of American protest.

He has released 20 studio albums since 1967 but is best known for his debut album and its lone A-side song, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” The 18-minute, 20-second song quickly became wildly popular on college campuses around the country and was one of the more recognizable anthems against the perceived insanity of the Vietnam War.

Arlo Guthrie performs at Hoyt Sherman Place on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 p.m.

Arlo Guthrie performs at Hoyt Sherman Place on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7:30 p.m.

In previous interviews, Guthrie has described “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” as a song that is “more anti-stupidity than anti-war.” However, the song has remained one of the most enduring pieces of the American protest movement for five decades now. And it is a true story.

On Thanksgiving, 1965, Guthrie, then an 18-year-old college student, visited Alice Brock, who lived with her husband in an old church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In the familial spirit of the holiday, Guthrie and a friend did the Brocks a favor by taking out their garbage. The local dump was closed that day, so Guthrie dropped the garbage off a cliff. The next day, he was arrested for littering. After a brief trial, he was found guilty and made to pick up the trash. A short time later, that guilty verdict actually wound up keeping Guthrie out of the Vietnam War.

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“To have what happened to me actually happen and not be a work of fiction still remains amazing,” he said in a “Rolling Stone” interview. “It’s an amazing set of crazy circumstances that reminds me of an old Charlie Chaplin movie. It’s slapstick!”

The song became an instant classic, and the following year was made into a film by the same name, also starring Guthrie.

“I mean, those events were real and not only that, those people played themselves in the movie,” he said, still amazed. “The cop in the movie is the real Officer Obie, and the judge in the movie, the blind judge is the real Judge Hannon. And these are real people! And they consented to play themselves because they think they, like me, observed the absurdity of the circumstance.”

Though the song has remained a classic through the years, it became less and less of a fixture in Guthrie’s live shows. Eventually he stopped playing it altogether, except to trot it out on 10-year anniversaries. Like 2015.

“I actually remember the day I realized I was never gonna sing it before a virgin audience again,” he recalled. “It’s one of the pivotal moments in my life. I didn’t want the nostalgia perversion to replace the joy I had delivering that for the first time. I did it for another few years. But times began to change, so I just quit. And there were a lot of people who were very upset. They said, ‘Look, I paid to hear that,’ and I’d give them their money back and say, ‘Don’t come back.’ But there’s only so much that you can do. I would call it a ‘Ricky Nelson Syndrome.’ What do you do with people who are coming to hear you for what you were and are no longer?”

Still, Guthrie acknowledges the draw the song has on his fans. And even though Guthrie admits that he would not perform the song anymore if it were completely up to him, he remains true to his personal promise.

“I made a commitment decades ago that I would do it on these anniversaries,” he said. “So whether there’s 50,000 people that show up or 50, I’m gonna do it anyhow, because I said I would.” CV

 

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