Christmas has many songs and carols that begin playing earlier every year it seems, but Thanksgiving has hardly any musical offerings. One of the very few Thanksgiving songs is Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Massacree. And by Guthrie’s own admission, it isn’t really about Thanksgiving at all. It’s a long diatribe against absurdity, stupidity, with a passing swipe at the draft and the Vietnam War. The events described in the song (cold, hard facts, actually) really happened but the timing of some of the events were during the Thanksgiving holidays, setting the stage for the song’s association with Turkey day.
Son of singer Woody Guthrie, Arlo grew up surrounded by music. Besides his father playing and singing constantly, folk musicians such as Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were frequent guests in the Guthrie home. Arlo remembered his father telling him, “Music will always be your friend. Learn to play the guitar, and music will be your best friend.” He took that to heart and though he tried going to college to study forestry, fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, so he eventually resigned himself to becoming a professional musician.
Church from where the Massacree began – now the nonprofit Guthrie Center at the old Trinity Church, Great Barrington, Mass.
In 1965, while still in school, he came back from Montana for the Thanksgiving holidays, and together with his musician friend Rick Robbins, went to visit a couple of friends who lived in the small town of Great Barrington, Mass. Alice and her husband Ray had bought a deconsecrated Episcopal church and converted the building into their home and gathering space for like-minded friends. Alice, already an accomplished cook, provided community dinners in the former church and eventually opened a restaurant in Great Barrington.
The couple worked for a private Stockbridge school, she as a librarian, he as a shop teacher where they had come to know Guthrie, when he was a student there. Their unconventional home attracted all sorts of bohemian types who marched to a different drummer. And that is where Arlo and Rick enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner, with the Brocks and assorted guests.
To show their gratitude for the great meal, Guthrie and Robbins loaded up their VW van with some old furniture, bottles, papers, and other junk and headed to the local dump. Finding it closed, they drove around till they found another dump, albeit an illegal one, and added their trash to the existing pile. A scrap of paper with Ray Brock’s name on it led local law enforcement to the perpetrators, and much to their surprise, their subsequent arrest.
The local paper describes the event thusly: “Saturday, Richard J Robbins and Arlo Guthrie, each paid a fine of $25 in Lee District Court after pleading guilty of illegally disposing of rubbish. Special Justice James E. Hannon ordered the youths to remove all the rubbish. They did so Saturday afternoon, following a heavy rain. Police Chief William J. Obanhein (Officer Obie in the song) said later the youths found dragging the junk up the hillside much harder than throwing it down. He said he hoped their case would be an example to others who are careless about disposal of rubbish.”
Several twists in the plot struck Guthrie, and started him with putting his real-life adventure into song without the need for much embellishment. Arlo had this to say in a 2014 interview in Rolling Stone magazine, “To have what happened to me actually happen and not be a work of fiction still remains amazing. It’s an amazing set of crazy circumstances that reminds me of an old Charlie Chaplin movie. It’s slapstick. I mean, who gets arrested for littering? And who goes to court and finds themselves before a blind judge with pictures as evidence? I mean, that’s crazy! And then to be rejected from the military because I had a littering record? I mean, those events were real.”
Guthrie a bit later added his experiences of reporting for his physical examination for his draft registration as required by the Vietnam War happening at the time. Having been convicted of a crime, he ended up on the “Group W” bench with other miscreants to file for a moral waiver. His sarcastic reply to the officer seemed to touch a nerve, and resulted in his fingerprints being sent to Washington. He was never drafted. Spoiler alert, it was because his lottery number was too high for selection, not his infamy as a litterbug.
He performed his lengthy song live to positive audience responses but, conventional radio format of the day was for short two and a half minute zingers. Guthrie never imagined it would be possible to have his 18-minute long rambling story played on the radio. That changed when he was invited to play live on WBAI, a noncommercial radio station in New York City. The song proved so popular to that audience that the station began using it as a fundraiser, only playing it when a certain amount of donations were pledged.
He performed Alice’s Restaurant at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, also to rave reviews. This led him to record the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree live before a studio audience and it became side one of his same-named debut album. The album was released in October of 1967 and spent 16 weeks on the top 200 charts, peaking at #27.
In 1969, the song Alice’s Restaurant was turned into a film by Arthur Penn who co-wrote and directed it. He had been living in Stockbridge when he first heard the song and immediately decided to make it into a movie. Although it is based on the original true events, many fictitious scenes were added to fill out the plot. He cast Arlo, as himself, but found other actors for the Brocks. In the same Rolling Stone interview Guthrie comments on the film, “The cop in the movie is the real Officer Obie and the judge in the movie, the blind judge is the real Judge Hannon. And these are real people! And they consented to play themselves because they think they, like me, observed the absurdity of the circumstance.” The film came out one week after Arlo’s seven-song set at the Woodstock Festival in 1969, the film causing a brief resurgence in the album’s sales.
The song’s popularity on college and album-oriented radio stations was in part due to its theme of opposing the draft and the Vietnam War. After this conflict ended, the song lost some of its relevance, but continued to be played at Thanksgiving time. This tradition gradually bled over into the more commercial radio stations making it hard to avoid hearing it on Thanksgiving these days.
Guthrie himself grew tired of demands to play it at shows and tried to make some different versions of it to make it more interesting for himself. He finally decided to perform Alice’s Restaurant only on its 10-year anniversaries. When he toured for its 50th-year anniversary in 2015 he said he was surprised to have lived so long. He retired from live performing after suffering a stroke in 2019.
What got me going on Alice’s Restaurant, besides it being one of my personal Thanksgiving traditions (although I cheat and use YouTube instead of waiting for it to come over the radio), was reading a post that showed where someone had dumped a bunch of trash in the woods here locally. Included in the mess were numerous pieces of mail, including a jury summons and other official mail. It reminded me of the origins of this song so I figured it would be nice to share some of the history behind it. We also need Officer Obie, aka Chief Obanhein, to get these inconsiderate folks to pick up their trash!
With Thanksgiving behind us, it is time to think ahead. It is also a good time to think of others. There will be several ways to be able to extend a helping hand to folks who through Covid, catastrophic fires, or just bad luck find themselves in need this year.
One way is to contribute your time. Most all of us have some time that we could offer to others. Community Sharing Program has its usual assistance programs and it could use some help in its food pantry and in general. Many of its regular volunteers are elderly and due to the extra risk of Covid exposure have had to decline to serve. So the organization could use the help. Community Sharing has stepped up again this year to operate the Community Warming Center that offers shelter on nights when the temperature falls below 32 degrees.
To offer your services or to make a financial donation to its holiday food box program, call at 541-942-2176. Another way to see what is happening at Community Sharing or to donate is online at communitysharing.org.
Rural Organizing Project is also working to make the holidays better for those in need. To donate, volunteer, or see what is needed, check out rop.org.
Two actions happening to make the holidays better for those in need are the “Tree of Joy” and the aforementioned Holiday Food Box Program. The applications for those programs are closed but the need for volunteers to make it happen is still there. Especially on Dec. 19-20. If you can be available to help assemble, deliver, and/or distribute the gifts and food boxes, please contact either organization above.
The Jingle Rush, a 5k Walk/Run, a Grove tradition to kick off the holidays for over a decade, is back to in-person this year. A great way to blow off extra turkey day calories or some Covid stress, this is a true family event. The kids run starts at 8:30 a.m. with a choice of one or two laps around the CGHS track. At 9 a.m. the 5k run, which starts and finishes at the high school and weaves its way through neighborhoods and quiet streets. The event will benefit the Tree of Giving and the CGHS Key Club. The registration is modestly priced at $5 and $10 and goes to aforementioned organizations. To register visit: cgjinglerush 2021.eventbrite.com, or call 541-968-2392 with your questions. Be sure to wear your festive running gear and to help the Tree of Joy and the Key Club!
Another way to help out Tree of Joy is to make cash donations through Community Sharing (be sure to specify it for that program) or pick a wish card from the “Giving Trees” at Bi-Mart or Walmart and shop for the desired item(s). To help with the wrapping and organizing of the gifts, call or text Joyce Settlemeyer at 541-942-3291. For Creswell Tree of Joy call 541-279-2979.
Soup’s On has been soldiering through the pandemic and providing to-go meals out of The Rural Organizing Project’s Main Street location. But the shoestring organization could use a little bit of green energy. If you can help, please send it via this website:
As you make plans for the holiday season, do think of what you can do for others, and shop local – buy local!
Email: [email protected]