The Story Behind “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie’s Song That’s Now a Thanksgiving Tradition

Around the coun­try today, along with a food-coma induc­ing serv­ing of turkey, ham, stuff­ing and all the trim­mings, a great many of you will be fol­low­ing anoth­er tra­di­tion: lis­ten­ing to Arlo Guthrie’s 1968 song “Alice’s Restau­rant.” Accord­ing to one YouTu­ber, when her kids were young, she’d “sit them down togeth­er and play this/torture them with it from begin­ning to end.” The replies sug­gest she’s not alone. Some­where a child has now grown up and is pass­ing the song down to a younger gen­er­a­tion.

“Alice’s Restau­rant” is about Thanks­giv­ing in the same way that it’s about a restau­rant owned by Alice–very lit­tle. Instead, it’s a long shag­gy but true tale about Guthrie and his friend Rick Rob­bins help­ing their friends out after a Thanks­giv­ing din­ner that “couldn’t be beat”. With trash fill­ing up the gut­ted for­mer small-town Mass­a­chu­setts church where Alice and her hus­band were liv­ing, the two fill up their VW van with the refuse and ille­gal­ly dump it in the back woods. Guthrie gets arrest­ed, tak­en to court, and fined for lit­ter­ing, only to have his new crim­i­nal record lat­er dis­qual­i­fy him for the draft.

That’s the des­ti­na­tion, but it’s the jour­ney that makes the song, an 18-plus minute “talk­ing blues” that Guthrie would have learned from his dad, folk leg­end Woody Guthrie. Woody in turn learned it from a 1920s coun­try and Blues musi­cian called Chris Bouch­illon, who talked his way through songs because his singing voice wasn’t all that good. And the sim­ple pick­ing style Guthrie traces from Mis­sis­sip­pi John Hurt to Pete Seeger and Ram­blin’ Jack Elliot all the way back to the moth­er­land: “In its infan­cy, that’s an African style approach to a six-string gui­tar and I have always loved it,” he told Rolling Stone.

Guthrie start­ed writ­ing the song, titling it “Alice’s Restau­rant Mas­sacree,” an eso­teric word mean­ing a series of absurd events. He work­shopped it in cof­fee hous­es and live venues, adding to it, tak­ing bits out that weren’t work­ing, play­ing with the time, from 18 min­utes all the way up to 35. In Feb­ru­ary of 1967 Guthrie was invit­ed to play live on New York City’s WBAI-FM. The record­ing became a hit, and helped the non-prof­it sta­tion fund-raise, broad­cast­ing the song when a total dol­lar amount was hit. When the song got too much air­play, they also fund-raised to stop play­ing the song.

Then came the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val, where the day­time crowd of 3,500 loved it so much that Guthrie returned for the evening set to play it to 9,500, joined on stage with a who’s‑who of folk leg­ends includ­ing Pete Seeger and Oscar Brand. This was a big deal for an 18-year-old musi­cian. The album came in Octo­ber of that year, where the song took up a whole side. A movie adap­ta­tion appeared two years lat­er, with the actu­al peo­ple from the song–including police chief William Oban­hein (Offi­cer Obie in the song) and the blind Judge James Hannon–playing them­selves in the movie.

The song might not have its stay­ing pow­er if it wasn’t for its themes of resist­ing author­i­ty and bureau­cra­cy, pos­si­bly even more than the anti-war mes­sage at its end.

“I’ve remained dis­trust­ful of author­i­ty for my entire life,” Guthrie told Smith­son­ian Mag­a­zine, “I believe it’s one of the great strengths of a democ­ra­cy, that we take seri­ous­ly our role as the ulti­mate author­i­ties by our inter­est and our votes. Younger peo­ple have always had a rebel­lious streak. It goes with the ter­ri­to­ry of grow­ing up.”

Guthrie retired from tour­ing, and had retired the song even ear­li­er than that. But it lives on every Thanks­giv­ing in many house­holds. As he told Rolling Stone, that’s a fine lega­cy:

“Hey if they’re gonna play one song of yours on the radio one day a year, it might as well be the longest one you wrote!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Two Leg­ends, Lead Bel­ly & Woody Guthrie, Per­form­ing on the Same Radio Show (1940)

William S. Bur­roughs Reads His Sar­cas­tic “Thanks­giv­ing Prayer” in a 1988 Film By Gus Van Sant

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 13 Tips for What to Do with Your Left­over Thanks­giv­ing Turkey

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (4)
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  • Mary,. says:

    Yes there is a movie based on this song but the prob­lem is that it should be re-released on DVD,so far, it’s been released on Blue Ray but it’s not added to the on demand pay per view sched­ule for November…I tried a failed putting it in the search engine on my cable TV’s on demand ser­vice and to my sur­prise.. it’s not list­ed, or did it turn the let’s all peti­tion to get it aired on cable TV or on pub­lic TV..or added to the cable and sat­telite on demand pay per view services…or if it’s on Netflix..good luck find­ing it!

  • Peter Acri says:

    I say let’s get Alice’s restau­rant on the air

  • Penny Daugherty says:

    There are so few clas­sics that have been cher­ished
    Alice is SO one that lives on
    So let’s enjoy it
    Always 🌻

  • Robert says:

    You can down­load the movie on youtube.

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