Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ Is Not What You Think It Is

By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)

Long an annual Thanksgiving tradition on the radio, Arlo Guthrie’s 18-minute folk classic “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (more popularly known as “Alice’s Restaurant”) stuffs the airwaves every time we sit down with our families to eat and give thanks.

Guthrie famously tells the story of a littering incident between him and a police officer, and its effect on his status when trying to enter the Vietnam War through the draft. The incident happened on Thanksgiving Day, according to Guthrie, and part of the song involves his Thanksgiving dinner with Alice and his friends.

But is the song about Thanksgiving? Not really. The littering incident in question just happened to take place on that particular day. Guthrie mentions Thanksgiving several times early in the song, but that’s the extent of the relation the song truly has to Thanksgiving.

In this image provided by Warner Bros. Records/Reprise, Arlo Guthrie in September 1978. Location unknown. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Records/Reprise) In this image provided by Warner Bros. Records/Reprise, Arlo Guthrie in September 1978. Location unknown. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Records/Reprise)

So that means it’s really an anti-war protest song, right? It came out in the heart of the Vietnam War and during the time of the U.S. military draft. Guthrie really wanted to be a part of the war at the time so he tried to enlist, but eventually got denied because of his prior incident with the littering.

Despite that whole situation and its hilarious absurdity, Guthrie himself has said that the song is not really about that, either. So…what exactly is the point of “Alice’s Restaurant”, really?

In 2007, Guthrie joined NPR for an interview to celebrate “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”‘s 40th anniversary. In that interview he went into greater detail about the same “Alice” in the song, as well as other details like the police officer who caught him illegally dumping garbage.

What is ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ about? Stupidity. It’s purely a celebration of idiocy. And when you really think about everything that happens in the song, it’s pretty stupid isn’t it? Arresting someone for dumping garbage at a town dump, then using that arrest against the guy to disallow him from entering the military…How did these people get into positions of authority anyway?

“Thank God, that the people that run this world are not smart enough to keep running it forever!” he quipped as part of his explanation. He said that ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ didn’t really begin as a “Thanksgiving ballad”, but through its enduring popularity just sort of became one.

Courtesy Reprise Records Courtesy Reprise Records

What if the littering incident happened on Christmas, Memorial Day or some other holiday? Would the song and its stories, themes and humor change at all? Not really. It would just lose that Thanksgiving aura that it’s garnered over time.

What would you say ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ is really about? Share your thoughts in the comments and tune in to 100.7 WZLX at noon and 4PM on Thanksgiving to hear the song in its entirety.


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