“Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie’s beloved musical ode to garbage, small town policing, and military conscription, celebrates many anniversaries and has become a Thanksgiving anthem.
The song – its full name is “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – has its conception on Thanksgiving Day, 1965, when Guthrie, then 18, and friend Rick Robbins, 19, were clearing out the Stockbridge, Massachusetts, home of Alice and Ray Brock.
The Coney-Island-born Guthrie, son of folk icon Woody Guthrie (who named him Arlo because it seemed “a good name for a professional”), attended the private coed boarding school where Alice was a librarian; Ray taught carpentry.
Drawn to the Brocks’s laissez-faire lifestyle, Guthrie and other students spent much of their free time at their home, a former church. Eventually, Alice, a Brooklyn native like Guthrie himself, opened a small restaurant just off Stockbridge’s main street.
Fittingly, it was a Thanksgiving feast prepared by Alice that started the events memorialized in Guthrie’s song–a work that capsulized a young generation’s disaffection with bureaucratic stupidity, resonated as an anti-war anthem and still captivates audiences with its simple melody, gentle narrative and infectious chorus.
On that fateful holiday, a dozen or so young guests overnighted in sleeping bags on the church’s first floor sanctuary—the Brocks occupied the bell tower. Appreciating the hospitality, Arlo, on Thanksgiving break from his first (and last) semester as a Montana college forestry major, decided the least he could do was help clean up.
“The junk” the guests cleared out, according to a contemporaneous article in the Berkshire Eagle, “included a divan plus nearly enough bottles, garbage, paper and boxes to fill their Volkswagen bus.” With the city dump closed for the holiday, Arlo and a friend added the trash to a pre-existing heap they saw on the side of the road. On November 29, four days later, the two malefactors pled guilty to “illegally disposing of rubbish” and each paid a $25 fine. Ordered to remove the rubbish from residential property along Stockbridge’s Prospect Street, “they did so…following a heavy rain.”
Guthrie began composing a song about his malfeasance immediately afterward, though he didn’t think to put it to paper until informed he needed a copyright. “I didn’t write a manifesto, I just wrote a song!”
“I wasn’t really commenting at all,” Guthrie explained. “I was just relating what happened to me. So in that sense it certainly wasn’t an anti-war song as much as an anti-stupid song.”
“I simply put my real-life events into context, from my perspective,” said Guthrie.
He called it “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” the last word meaning, colloquially, a series of absurd events.
Guthrie continued to nurture ‘Alice’ in coffee house and concert venues at home and abroad where its performance length ranged from 18 to 35 minutes.
Guthrie expressed support for the George Floyd protests in June 2020, stating that it would be good if politicians “embraced it rather than resist the evolving nature of what it means to be an American”.