by Whitney Phaneuf
Arlo Guthrie has compared his now-classic Thanksgiving Day song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”—which hilariously recounts his arrest for littering and subsequent problems with the draft board—to something out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. Though the real-life events that inspired the song happened 50 years ago, Guthrie tells AG in the August 2015 issue that it’s endured, in part, because the story is as relevant today as it was in 1965.
“Anyone who lived through the ’60s will find these days somewhat familiar,” writes Guthrie, who was in college in 1965 and shocked when his arrest for illegally dumping his friend’s garbage left him ineligible for the Vietnam War-era draft. “Young people are discovering that they have a voice, not just individually but as a herd. The adversarial nature of young people is a great energy, and builds with every passing event that struggles to hold back the inevitable need to evolve. It’s not simply a matter of authority versus natural progression. It’s a very sophisticated manipulation from very powerful multinational corporations, governments, and authority figures such as religious, cultural, and political leaders. If anyone is waiting for a majority of people to agree on ways to make the world better for everyone, they will be long dead and still waiting.”
The original 18 ½-minute talking blues, released in 1967, was recorded on a Martin D-18, “which was somewhat modified by the luthier Porfirio Delgado,” Guthrie adds. The song’s repetitive fingerpicking progression was inspired by Piedmont blues’ musicians and written to serve Guthrie’s stream-of-consciousness storytelling.
“I spent all of about two seconds to come up with a tune that we could make up silly lyrics to while sitting around a dinner table at the Church,” Guthrie notes, referring to the Great Barrington, Massachusetts, house where he spent that fateful Thanksgiving with his friend Alice Brock and her husband. “It took a little longer to refine it, and years to know it so well that I could scuba-dive and still be playing that tune at the same time. The idea was to play something that would allow me to tell a long tall tale without it becoming distracting—or in other words, play something familiar. The actual fingerpicking is instantly recognizable now—I just have to begin that little run up the beginning and everyone already knows what it is. But, when I first began, nobody knew what to expect.”