50 years on, Guthrie brings ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ back
In the realm of unlikely hits, Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant” deserves a mention.
Guthrie, son of folk singer/progressive icon Woody Guthrie, wrote the song about the events of Thanksgiving Day 1965, when, on break from college, he was visiting his friend, Alice, and her husband in the former church where they lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
After a sumptuous dinner, Guthrie and a friend decided to help out by taking the garbage and tossing it off a cliff into what he believed to be the town dump. Town officials tracked the two down and ticketed and arrested them for littering, and they ended up being “seen” by a blind judge, and — well, it’s quite a narrative.
Guthrie’s arrest on the littering charge did keep him out of Vietnam, which is also in the song, and was an unexpected benefit. But despite that, he says it isn’t an antiwar song so much as “a song about stupidity.”
The record came out in 1967, and Guthrie performed it for years before taking it out of his live show. Now he brings it back for special 10 year anniversaries. And so the 50th anniversary of the Thanksgiving Day “masacree” brings Guthrie and his son, Abe, to the Berman Center for the Performing Arts at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield.
Are you doing the original lyrics to “Alice’s Restaurant” as recorded in 1967, or will you update it at all? Does it take forever to memorize?
I’m doing it these days mostly close to the original, but it changes. I began working on the 50th Tour a few weeks before we hit the road, it wasn’t only ‘Alice’ but many of the songs I haven’t done in some time.
Is it true Richard Nixon owned a copy of the record?
As far as I know, the president had the record somewhere in the White House.
Is it hard to get into the mindset to sing the song again?
The description of the tour says you’ll be doing songs from each of your albums, will you do any of your father, Woody Guthrie’s songs, as well?
There’s no way to actually do something from every album and keep the show to an evening. But, I did go through all the recordings to put together a set list. And of course, I’ve always included some songs written by my father.
“Alice” gets a lot of ink, but your version of “City of New Orleans,” another long song, was huge in the early ’70s.
Luckily, not all my popular songs were a half hour long. “City Of New Orleans” was long for its day, as far as radio was concerned, but these days, five minutes is nothing. I love singing the songs that people feel good about because they are a small part of the soundtrack to their lives. That’s one of those songs for many people.
A couple of years ago, you said you were a registered Republican — are you still? Are you surprised that it surprises people?
I still get a kick out of that, too. To approximately quote Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name, is still a rose.” I am a real believer that in general, the more diversified government is, the better. I am not a fan of centralized anything — agriculture, markets, schools, religious institutions etc., etc. I like local. I’m a union guy, not only because the U.S.A. is a Union, but working people should have a bigger share in the things they produce than they do now. If things change, I may change, too. I don’t care if someone is a Republican, a Democrat, a Socialist or belongs to the Purple Party. I like individual people who say what’s on their minds from any party. I’m one of those.
The Alice’s Restaurant 50th anniversary tour
7:30 p.m. Thursday
Berman Center for the Performing Arts, Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple, West Bloomfield