Culture

Arlo Guthrie Returns to 'Alice's Restaurant' 50 Years Later

11_25_Alice_01
Singer Arlo Guthrie's 18-minute-long song "Alice's Restaurant" reaches its 50th anniversary this year. Reuters

Fifty years later, Arlo Guthrie returned to the scene of the crime—to reprise the 18-minute masterpiece that has since become a Thanksgiving tradition on radio stations nationwide. On Monday and Tuesday nights, Guthrie, 68, performed “Alice’s Restaurant” before a throng of 100 or so fans who were seated inside the same old abandoned church in western Massachusetts where the song is first set.

“Fifty years ago,” Guthrie, the son of folk singing legend Woody Guthrie, mused. “I never thought I’d live this long.”

On Thanksgiving Day 1965, Guthrie and a friend supped at the home of his friend Alice Brock, who lived inside what had once been the Trinity Church in Great Barrington, Mass. After dinner, Guthrie volunteered to take out the trash, inadvertently setting into motion a chain of events that would lead him to release, two years later, an unforgettable song lampooning the Vietnam War draft that clocked in at 18 minutes and 34 seconds.

Guthrie recorded the song in 1967, the same year that his father died, and placed it on a debut album of the same name. In the intervening decades he has released nearly two dozen albums, but “Alice’s Restaurant” remains his signature tune. An eponymous film was released just one week after Woodstock in 1969 (where Guthrie performed but omitted the song from his setlist), with Guthrie and the police officer who arrested him both in real life and in the song, William “Obie” Obanhein, playing themselves.

According to Derek Gentile of the Berkshire Eagle, who attended Tuesday night’s performance, Guthrie and Obie overcame their initial encounter, which involved an arrest for littering and a $50 fine, to become good friends. “I hadn't seen Obie since everything happened three years before," Guthrie told the audience about the day of filming. "We got to the set and we didn't say much to each other, just read the lines in the script. But one day, he said to me, 'Well, if you hippies can get up at 4 a.m. to do this movie, you can't be all bad.'”

The acoustic monologue has since become as much of a Turkey Day staple as pumpkin pie, airing each year on countless radio stations—both despite and due to its 18:34 running time—as Guthrie’s shoes-off storytelling and disarming wit draws in both first-time and recidivist listeners.

As fans of the song know, Guthrie volunteers to haul the trash to the city dump, only to find it closed on Thanksgiving. So he and his friend toss it off a cliff, but they are later arrested. When Guthrie eventually goes before the draft board, he is rejected because he has a criminal record. “I mean I'm sittin’ here on the Group W bench,” Guthrie sings, “'cause you want to know if I'm moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein' a litterbug?”

Guthrie has been touring, and playing this song ("It's a set-eater," says Gentile), for more than a year. When he was in San Francisco last year, he ran into fellow hippie holdout Wavy Gravy, who told him that a promoter had been attempting to book a 45th-year reunion of Woodstock acts. "Why 45?" Guthrie asked. "Why not 50 years?"

"The promoter was afraid there wouldn't be enough of us left," Gravy told him.

The former old Trinity Church, which then became the home of Alice Brock and the setting for the 1965 Thanksgiving meal, which then earlier this week became the location for Guthrie’s two sold-out performances, is now known as the Guthrie Center. Guthrie has owned the structure, originally built in 1829, for decades. In 1991, he founded an interfaith church and cultural exchange center there. This week’s shows, which lasted two-plus hours and cost $75 per ticket, were benefits for the Guthrie Center.

You can no longer get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant—Brock long ago beat an exodus to Cape Cod—but you can still have yourself “a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat” where Guthrie first enjoyed his. “The Guthrie Center hosts a large community dinner on Thursday that’s open to everyone,” says Gentile. “It’s jammed.”

And, yes, there are now trash cans around the back.

If you cannot make it there, Guthrie will perform this Saturday night in New York City at Carnegie Hall.

Editor's Pick