Thanksgiving Eve Tradition - Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant"

According to his biographer Joe Klein, “one of the last things that Woody Guthrie did before he died was to listen to a recording of his son Arlo singing a long, convoluted talking blues about how he’d been arrested for littering in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and how he’d parlayed that ‘criminal record’ into a means of dodging the draft and avoiding the war in Vietnam.” Whether Woody could actually comprehend the story or even knew it was Arlo singing and story telling will never be known. He was in the final stages of the neurologically debilitating Huntington’s disease, and would succumb to it within a few short weeks.

Because of Arlo's recording however, fame came to the oldest son of Woody Guthrie much earlier in life than it came to his father. Arlo Guthrie was raised in Howard Beach in Queens, New York. He had just graduated from the Stockbridge School in Stockbridge Massachusetts where he had met Alice & Ray Brock who both taught there. They lived in an old church and served large meals for friends and family. On Thanksgiving Day in 1965, 18-year-old Arlo and his classmate Rick Robbins were arrested in Stockbridge by police officer William Obanheim for dumping trash left over from Thanksgiving dinner at the Brocks. The two had originally planned on dumping it at the town landfill, but it was closed for the holiday. In court a few days later, they pled guilty.

The judge, the Hon. James E. Hannon was actually blind. And as Arlo points out, “in a typical case of American blind justice” he found them both guilty, fined them $50, and made them collect their garbage. Guthrie and Robbins hit the road as performers immediately afterward. According to Robbins, “we followed the footprints of Woody and Cisco.” The original song “Alice’s Restaurant” was a faux advertising jingle that Arlo had composed for the Brocks. He began to include it in his stage repertoire and during performances he started telling the story of their arrest and conviction, and its effect on his Viet Nam era draft status: "you want to know if I'm moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses, and villages.... after being a litterbug?"

But it wasn’t until 1967 that the song and story reached a larger audience. That year, he performed it at the Newport Folk Festival and then during a WBAI radio broadcast. WBAI is the New York City Pacifica station; a non-profit community station. Arlo’s performance was hugely popular and often requested by the station’s listeners, but WBAI only played the tape during fund-raising pledge drives. Its popularity in New York served to get Arlo a record contract and the song was released in 1967 on a long-playing album (at 18 minutes long, the song and monologue couldn’t fit onto a 45 rpm single). The album reached #17 on the pop charts.

Officer Obie
In 1969, United Artists and director Arthur Penn released a film version of the story that featured Hollywood actors as well as Stockbridge locals including Officer Obanheim. Said Officer Obie: “If anyone is going to make me look like a fool, it will be me."

As Arlo performed “Alice’s Restaurant” throughout his career he would periodically change the monologue to reflect current social concerns and political situations. A few of these other versions have been released on CD. "Alice: Before Time Began" was first recorded in 1969. Its satirical account of cockroach armies took on the military. A version recorded in 1990 at the Kerrville Folk Festival addressed policies of the first President Bush.

In 1997 Arlo re-recorded his entire debut album for CD: This recording, "Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited" includes an updated narrative that refers back to Nixon era political tricks. This version is being broadcast this Thanksgiving Eve. One version or another of “Alice’s Restaurant” has been featured on American Pastimes every Thanksgiving Eve since KZFR has been on the air.

In 1991 Arlo purchased the old Trinity Church in Stockbridge. The church, formerly owned by the Brocks and site of the infamous 1965 turkey dinner, has been developed into The Guthrie Center, a non-profit interfaith church foundation dedicated to providing a wide range of local and international services.

Alice Brock went on to open a variety of restaurants and has written a number of cookbooks. Officer Obie  was forced into retirement after over 30 years as a Stockbridge police officer. He evidently used physical force to make a point with another peace officer.

Rick Robbins, Arlo’s friend and co-conspirator in garbage dumping, continued to sing and tour into the late 1970’s, when he settled down and became an architect and house builder. In the mid 1990’s he began to perform again, recording a number of CD’s with musical support from Rory Block, Eric Weisberg, John Sebastian, Garth Hudson, and others. In recent years he has toured extensively with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

Also on American Pastimes: “Rick Robbins with Rory Block - Don’t Deny My Name” (Seeds of Man Records).

6:43pm, 11-21-2012
Another great show from Tom - Happy Thanksgiving!
You must be signed in to post comments.