NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome back to the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and this may be the first episode that isn’t as long as the song it’s about.
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This week’s episode is about Arlo Guthrie and his song called Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, but to tell this story, we need to start somewhere else.
[PRETTY BOY FLOYD]
Now, a lot of people know who Woody Guthrie is, but I make no assumptions on your part, Dear Listener. Woody Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter who was a seminal figure in the folk music genre, and his compositions have been covered by dozens of musicians, including Bob Dylan,Harry Chapin, Tom Paxton, Bruce Springsteen, and Johnny Cash, and all of them have cited Guthrie as a major influence on their own style. Woody is also responsible for the 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, which most music publications list as one of their 100 most influential albums ever. In fact, most people consider Dust Bowl Ballads to be the very first concept album, in the sense of a collection of songs bound together by a common theme.
Woody Guthrie was also well-known for protest songs; in fact there are many photographs of him performing with a guitar that has the slogan “This machine kills Fascists” printed on it. He was considered a Communist sympathizer, although it doesn’t appear that he belonged to any Communist groups, and he wrote what’s probably his most famous song,
[THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND]
“This Land is Your Land”, in response to his belief that the song “God Bless America” was getting played too often on the radio. And that kind of makes sense, since “This Land is Your Land” does have a whiff of Communism in the chorus…
And Woody Guthrie was married three times, and had eight children before he died in 1967 of complications from Huntington’s Disease. His second wife was Marjorie Mazia, who was a dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. And it was in 1947 that they had one of their babies, who Marjorie named after a character in a series of children’s stories. That boy’s name was Arlo.
Remember Arlo? The show’s about Arlo. And his song.
At any rate, Woody and Marjorie were a little worried that Arlo might get some hassles with having a bit of an odd name, so they gave him a more conventional middle name that he might choose to use. And thus, their son was named Arlo Davy Guthrie, the “Davy” coming from Davy Crockett. So far as I know, only Arlo and his sister Nora were involved in any way with the music business. Nora is a record producer and the president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and she maintains her father’s musical legacy. And, of course, Arlo is a popular performer.
Arlo was only 13 when he did his first public performance in 1961, which is when the folk scene really started heating up. And it was in 1965, when Arlo was 17 years old, that he and his friend Rick Robbins drove up from New York City to the town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to have Thanksgiving dinner with some of his friends. Until the events of this particular weekend, Stockbridge was probably best known for being the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum and the historic Red Lion Inn. But history was about to take a turn.
Rick and Arlo were going to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with their friends Alice and Ray Brock. Alice and Ray lived in a deconsecrated church in Stockbridge, and their hospitality was well-known. And because Arlo and Rick were very close friends, they practically counted as family.
So on Thanksgiving morning, Rick and Arlo cleaned up the church, which was a genuine mess, and they put the trash into the back of a Volkswagen microbus, and they brought it to the dump, which was closed. So they drove around with the trash until Arlo remembered a side road near a camp he’d attended that was close by, and they drove up there and dumped the garbage,which, let’s face it, wasn’t the best idea in the first place.
A little later, Ray got a call from the Stockbridge Chief of Police, William Obanhein. Obanhein had found the trash, and while looking through it discovered an envelope with Ray Noble’s name on it. Eventually the truth came out, and the three of them—Ray, Rick and Arlo—found themselves taking a ride in a police car back to the site, where photos were taken and later marked “PROSPECT HILL RUBBISH DUMPING FILE UNDER GUTHRIE AND ROBBINS 11/26/65”, and Rick and Arlo were taken to jail. They went before a judge,pleaded guilty and fined $25 each and ordered to pick up the garbage, at which point they all returned to the church and started to write the song together. As Alice Brock recalled once, “We were sitting around after dinner and wrote half the song. And the other half, the draft part, Arlo wrote.”
And that’s one of the other fun attractions of this song, the fact that there are two vastly different stories in this song which have an odd connection to one another and a similar overarching theme.
The second part of the song tells a story of Arlo being called up for the Vietnam War draft and initially being accepted but ultimately rejected because his arrest and conviction for littering made him too immoral to join the army to kill people. Folks, I’m here to break some bad news to you:while the story of the littering and arrest is mostly true—including the part about the judge being blind—the second half of the song is almost entirely fictional. Guthrie was, in fact, eligible for the draft, but his number never came up so he never had to go to Whitehall Street.
Arlo Guthrie first performed the song publicly about a year later, on public radio station WBAI in New York City. Now, at the time WBAI had a reputation for being what one person described as an Anarchist Circus. The song appeared on an overnight program called “Radio Unnameable”, hosted by Bob Fass. Guthrie played the song a few times on that station over the next couple of years, and Fass got a recording of one of Guthrie’s live performances and he’d play that repeatedly on his show. The song proved popular enough to listeners that the station was able to hold it out as a reward for receiving pledges from listeners. Guthrie once said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine that they’d play it only when they got enough pledges, then he joked that “Eventually they were playing it so often, they took pledges to stop playing it, and…raised even more money.”
Guthrie performed the song in 1967 at a breakout workshop for the Newport Folk Festival, and it proved so popular that he was compelled to perform it again for the entire festival audience of close to 10,000, by far the largest audience he’d ever faced. In that Smithsonian interview, he noted that there were a lot of big names on the stage with him, and they were put there specifically to support him because he was young and inexperienced. It was this success that finally led him to record the song in front of an audience and release it as the entire A side of an album. That audience was already familiar with the song, so some of their laughter is anticipatory in nature, and it gave Guthrie a little bit of a tough time because, as he put it, it didn’t have the sparkle of performing for a group that hadn’t heard it before.
The song is, of course, the title track of the album,although I should note here that while the album is called Alice’s Restaurant, the proper title of the song is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. “Massacree” is, in fact, a real word that derives from the Ozarks. It’s a corruption of the word “massacre” but doesn’t have as dark of a meaning behind it. A “massacree” is defined by the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture as “an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe”.
Now, while the song is identified mostly as an anti-war song, and perhaps specifically an anti-Vietnam War song,it’s really more of a call to question authority in general. Or, as Guthrie once put it, it’s an “anti-stupidity” song. But I think this is part of the song’s timeless appeal. We’ve all had to deal with people who were so locked into a specific path of action that what they do winds up having a certain level of irony to it, and both of the first two parts of the song have a pretty tasty dose of irony to them, from the police officer taking things way too seriously, to the idea that having a littering conviction makes you unfit for military service, not to mention a pariah among hardened criminals.
Which leads us into the third part of the song, where Guthrie suggests that if you, or someone you know, finds themselves facing the draft, they should just march into the military psychiatrist’s office, sing the first part of the chorus and walk out again.And if enough people do that, it’ll become known as “the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement”. Because once again, if a big enough group is doing something, then it’s gotta be the right thing to do.
We don’t know for sure what Woody Guthrie thought of the song, but Arlo says he sent a demo of the recording to his father shortly before it was released. Woody was on his deathbed at that point, and the family joke is that it was the last thing Woody heard before he died.
For whatever reason, radio stations nationwide have chosen to play this song exclusively on Thanksgiving. In fact, the website Radio Survivor dot com usually publishes an annual list of radio stations where the song is being played, but I strongly suspect that it’s not a comprehensive list. So why is the song so popular on Thanksgiving Day?
I have a couple of guesses, and I think they’re pretty good guesses at that. The first is that we here in America don’t have a lot of songs that center on Thanksgiving Day the way other holidays do. Christmas, of course, has a million songs, and Easter gets “Easter Parade,” and Independence Day has all kinds of John Philip Sousa songs, and even Halloween has the “Monster Mash”, but there isn’t really a popular song dedicated to Thanksgiving. When I was a kid, “Over the River and Through The Wood” was framed as a Thanksgiving song, and in fact the original title of the poem that spawned the song was “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day”, but that one seems to have fallen out of favor. So the only song we have that even mentions Thanksgiving is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. The other reason is that radio stations usually have a skeleton crew going on during the holidays, and sometimes the on-air staff want to relax a little bit, so they’ll play a lot of long songs. And at eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds, this one qualifies as a long song. Guthrie once joked that eighteen minutes and thirty-four seconds is exactly the same amount of time of the audio gap in the Watergate Scandal tapes, and that “Alice’s Restaurant” is what was deleted.
So what’s the real story of Alice and the Restaurant?
As I noted earlier, Alice Brock was a real person, and she and Ray Brock did own a restaurant, called “The Back Room,”but it was after the events of the song, and only for a couple of years. She and Ray divorced in 1968 and she did go on to open a couple of more establishments in the 70s, but left that business by the end of that decade.Until a couple of years ago, she owned an art studio and gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. After the divorce, Ray Brock moved back to his home state of Virginia and died in 1979.
The Back Room later became known as “Theresa’s Stockbridge Café”, and the sign out front also read “Formerly Alice’s Restaurant”. The café closed a couple of years ago, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to learn what’s in that space now.
The microbus that was used to transport all that garbage is no more. According to Guthrie in a 2015 interview with the Boston Globe, it’s been relegated to history.
The former church changed hands several times over the years until Arlo Guthrie himself bought the property. It’snow the home of the Guthrie Center, a nondenominational, interfaith meeting place, and it’s also used as a performance space.
Of course, Arlo Guthrie is still performing and recording, although he only plays this song on special occasions, and he says he has to re-learn the song every time, saying, “it’s not like riding a bicycle.” He’s also updated some of the lyrics to fit with modern-day events and changes to acceptable language. So in the spot near the end where he uses the line “they’ll think you’re faggots,” he’ll change it to something less offensive and more topical, such as “they’ll think they’re trying to get married in some parts of Kentucky,” or “they’ll think they’re gay; not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
And if you’re interested, the song was also turned into a feature film in 1969. It was directed by Arthur Penn,who coincidentally was living in Stockbridge when he heard the song for the first time, and decided he needed to make a film about it, although there are a lot of fictional scenes added. Guthrie plays himself in the film and you can also see Officer Obie and Judge James Hannon playing themselves.
And Alice herself has a cameo in the film, though not as herself. The Alice character is played by Pat Quinn, opposite James Broderick playing Ray…
And, that’s it for this edition of How Good It Is.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is to add another brick to The Wall.
Thank you so much for listening, and I will talk to you then.