Chances are that Arlo Guthrie’s royalty checks for the month of November are always significantly higher that than they are for the other months each year. For while there is a seemingly infinite number of Christmas songs in the pop music idiom, Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is one of the few songs set during Thanksgiving.
Not that the holiday has all that much to do with the song. “Alice’s Restaurant” is living proof that truth is stranger than fiction. The first part of the story, a tale of small-town law enforcement run amok against the 60’s counterculture, actually happened to Guthrie, even though he added some exaggerated comic touches for effect. He was indeed arrested in Massachusetts for illegally dumping garbage for friends who lived in a former church, was brought before a blind judge, and had to pay a small fine.
Guthrie pretty much made up the second half of the song, a surreal visit to a U.S. Draft inspection station in New York, but the spirit of the story, that he was ineligible to serve in Vietnam because of his littering offense, was true. That bit of topicality meant that this shaggy-dog story hit home for a lot of folks even as Guthrie’s dry humor had them in hysterics.
In a 2005 interview with NPR to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the incident behind the song (which wasn’t released until 1967), Guthrie was asked why he thought “Alice’s Restaurant” was so resonant. “Well, you know, I wasn’t sure at first, but I thought it’s probably just a story of a little guy against a big world,” he said. “It’s just a funny tale, and I had–I still have–and I cherish the letters and the postcards and the pictures I got from the guys over in Vietnam, you know, who had little Alice’s Restaurant signs outside these tents in the mud and who would be quoting the song, you know, to their superiors or to each other when their superiors had no idea what they were talking about.”
Guthrie also benefited from the fact that the late ’60s were a time when the rules for pop music had loosened to the point that “Alice’s Restaurant”, essentially an 18-minute monologue bookended by refrains that turn out to be non sequiturs, could gain great popularity. “I was adding to it, and if it was funny and it was true, I kept it,” Guthrie said of the song’s evolution. “And if it wasn’t funny and people didn’t respond to it, I dropped it. And so it was really–you know, it was performance art that I just memorized the best parts of.”
Here we are nearly 50 years after Arlo Guthrie found himself an unlikely prisoner, and “Alice’s Restaurant” is still enthralling. Sing along to that deceptively inviting chorus this Thanksgiving and you’ll get to enjoy a little vicarious defiance with your turkey.
View the lyrics below.