Single Stories: Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

Monday, July 16, 2018

It's probably the most famous song associated with the Thanksgiving holiday (with all due respect to Adam Sandler): Arlo Guthrie's timeless "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," better known as simply "Alice's Restaurant."

The origins of the song, which lasts for a still-startling 18 minutes, started – appropriately enough – when Guthrie was 18 years old and spent Thanksgiving Day at a deconsecrated church which had been transformed into a home by Arlo’s friends Alice and Ray. Yes, Alice did own a restaurant, but nothing that happened in the song actually happened in her restaurant. On the other hand, however, it was after Thanksgiving dinner at the house / church that Arlo and another friend offered to take the trash down to the dump, and after they discovered that the church was closed, they ended up dumping it over a cliff, which ultimately led to them Arlo and his friend being arrested for littering. The story about the Vietnam-era draft board and its bureaucracy? That was more or less real, and it really did happen to Guthrie.

Guthrie first played “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” – the unique spelling of “massacre” having been borrowed from the Ozarks – on the WBAI radio show “Radio Unnameable,” and it was so popular that he ended up appearing on the show several additional times to play it, which led to the station playing a live version of the song. Its popularity increased to the point where, when he played the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967, he was asked to play it live. Given this remarkable word of mouth popularity, it’s no surprise that the song was not only given the status of title track of Guthrie’s debut album, it was also released as a single.

No, the song wasn’t a #1 hit. In fact, despite the title of this feature, it wasn’t technically released a single, because – just in case you kids didn’t realize this – you generally can’t fit 18 minutes worth of music on one side of a 7” single. But this isn’t exactly a cheat to include it, either, because Warner Brothers decided to try and reap at least a little bit of pop airplay out of the track by releasing “Alice’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Restaurant,” a pumped-up version of the song that was less than five minutes long. Nice try though it was, the version only hit #97.

That’s okay, though. 18 minutes long or not, it’s the original version of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” that ended up winning out in the end. Generations of FM radio DJs concur.

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