Just after Thanksgiving, 1965 — almost 50 years ago — Arlo Guthrie, son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, was busted for illegal dumping in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. His arrest and conviction — which made him ineligible to be drafted for the Vietnam War — inspired a story song called “Alice’s Restaurant” that occupied the whole first side of his 1967 debut record. The song, played in its entirety, became a Thanksgiving staple on radio stations across the country, which was (and still is) pretty unusual for a pop tune whose running time stretches beyond the 18-minute mark. The song became a film directed by Arthur Penn in 1969.
To celebrate a half-century of “Alice,” Guthrie’s touring and performing his signature rag (something that’s happened with less frequency over the decades). The current show also includes the backstory behind another Guthrie classic “City of New Orleans” and the tale behind his appearance at Woodstock, when Arlo uttered that famous line, “The New York State Thruway is CLOSED, man!”
NUVO interviewed Arlo via email in advance of his show at the Egyptian Room at Old National on May 1.
NUVO: I know I’m not alone when I say this: “Alice’s Restaurant” was a Thanksgiving Day tradition in my home as a kid. My dad would put on the vinyl and we’d listen right after dinner. (For a time, I really remember that hearing that song meant Santa would be coming soon, of all things. But I was four when the song was released, so there’s that.) Did it surprise you that an anti-war ditty became part of mainstream culture — moreover, mainstream holiday culture? Why do you think it stuck?
Arlo Guthrie: No one has been more surprised than me to see the song become associated with the Thanksgiving holiday. Originally, when radio still used vinyl, I figured it got played so DJs could get a 20 minute break. But radio doesn’t use records anymore so I have to believe it’s something in the nature of story telling that people still enjoy, especially on holidays.
NUVO: You had a story, you had a chorus, you had a guitar rag — I’m interested in the creative process, the spark that inspired you to mash these things together.
Guthrie: First I had the time to sit around the kitchen table with friends. After dinner we got to joke about the day's events and I began turning them into a little song — making up silly words to a guitar riff. Then over a period of about a year I added other more absurd events as they unfolded until finally it became a piece.
NUVO: Did you get any push-back from the label for including an 18-plus-minute song on your first album? Or was the song what got you the record?
Guthrie: I was a kid — 18 years old when I began writing “Alice’s Restaurant.” I was playing in small coffee houses and clubs after graduating from high school earlier that spring . My memory may be a little off, but I went to the Newport Folk Festival during the summer of 1967 (I just went as another kid with a guitar, not a performer). But, sometime during the three-day festival the organizers heard me play it on a small “free stage” out in the middle of a field. Judging by the reaction of the crowd that afternoon they added me to the main stage and had me close the event. It was immediately after that I was signed to Warner Brothers Records.
NUVO: I can close my eyes and remember the liner notes — the Newport Festival review, lifted right from a newspaper. When did you know the thing was going to be as big as it became?
Guthrie: I never saw it coming.
NUVO: I know it was a vastly different time, but: how do feel when you hear yourself using the word “faggots” on record in “Alice?”
Guthrie: I think most people cut me some slack on that even today. Words mean something and I was too young to know what it was like to be walking in someone else’s shoes. I chalk it up to one more thing, out of hundreds, I had to learn in order to be more compassionate, aware and kind.
NUVO: I seem to remember you playing “Alice” on the Car Talk show with Click and Clack (Tom and Ray) on NPR. It seemed speeded up — I imagine that happens when you perform the same tune so many times. Do you have something of a love-hate relationship with your signature work? (Many artists find it a little much to sing the same song over and over — especially when it’s almost 20 minutes long.)
Guthrie: I loved working with those guys. Interestingly enough, even though I only perform it now on tours once every decade, it’s clocking in within a few seconds of the original recording. But there are other songs that have changed from repetition, like City of New Orleans. I first heard it from Steve Goodman (who wrote it), and my recording of it was much slower in tempo than the way he did it. Now, 45 years later it ends up the way Goodman originally performed it.
NUVO: How strange was it to shoot the Arthur Penn film? I’d imagine it was especially difficult re-living Woody’s later days as you do in the movie.
Guthrie: The problem with making the movie for me was simple: The song was just under 20 minutes long. Movies have to be an hour and a half. So Arthur Penn essentially had to make up 80 minutes of stuff. Even my own kids had a hard time knowing the difference between what was ‘real’ and what was fiction. I told them “Don’t believe the stuff in the movie. Only the song is true.”
NUVO: How did Woody feel about your work, specifically your signature song? Was he cognizant of your success as his disease progressed?
Guthrie: My father’s friend and manager, Harold Leventhal took the test pressing of the record to the hospital and played it for him. When I asked Harold what his reaction was he simply said, ‘He laughed.’ My dad passed away a couple of weeks later, before the record was released.
NUVO: How would you describe your personal political leanings today?
NUVO: Finally, I’m wondering how Woody would’ve reacted to the current political climate. I imagine he’d feel just as relevant today. I know it’s wild speculation, but what do you think he’d say or sing to us here in 2015?
Guthrie: There’s no guessing on my part. His stance on things was not generally tied to political climates but to human conditions. Are people still struggling for equal rights, fair pay and a living wage, the right to organize and a place to raise a family without fear? His spirit will endure for as long as it takes to fix what’s wrong and make it better. He didn’t look for problems but he’d refuse to look the other way when they were in plain sight. Likewise, I have not backed off when confronted by conditions I think could be made better, more fair, just and right. I am not looking for trouble, but I’m not going out of my way to avoid it either. This is a good family to be a part of these days.
Ed Wenck has been writing for NUVO (as well as several other Indiana publications) for nearly 20 years while moonlighting as a radio host. He became Managing Editor of NUVO in 2013. He's authored four books and also reports for WISH-TV's Boomer TV program.