What’s the story with ‘Alice’s Restaurant?
“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant–” goes the old, familiar chorus sung in homes on Thanksgiving every year. Folk singer Arlo Guthrie released ‘Alice’s Restaurant Massacree’ in 1967, and it has become a staple of Thanksgiving for many blues fans ever since— but how did this epic song, spanning 18 minutes in length, become the iconic Thanksgiving tune it is today?
The song’s monological lyrics tell a story based on a real incident in Guthrie’s life. Although the events took place during Thanksgiving, the song itself is not about the holiday, nor Alice’s Restaurant. The song was originally an anti-war song.
The song tells the story of a young Guthrie and his friend, Rick Robbins, as they visit Alice and her husband at their home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for Thanksgiving dinner. After the meal, Guthrie decides to do Alice a favor by taking the trash from her home to the municipal dump, which was closed for Thanksgiving. Guthrie instead decides to dump the trash by the side of the road, where other people had dumped garbage already. Guthrie and Robbins were later arrested for illegal dumping, and had to go through absurd hurdles in court to resolve their charges. Years later, when Guthrie was selected by the draft, the military deemed him morally unfit for service because of his littering charge.
More than a lengthy and well-loved ode to garbage and bureaucratic absurdity, the song is an outspoken anti-war anthem. Guthrie pointed out both the irony of needing moral clearance to serve in the military, and the fact that he was denied, singing, “you want to know if I’m moral enough [to] join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages…after being a litterbug.” He also used some self-irony about the song itself to encourage people to speak up to end war: “If you want to end war and stuff, you got to sing loud. Could put a lot—I’ve been singing this song now for twenty five minutes. I could sing it for another twenty five minutes.”
So why is Alice’s Restaurant, a song about the Vietnam War, celebrated today as a Thanksgiving tune? Much like any cherished holiday song or movie, Alice’s Restaurant ties timeless themes to a seasonal setting. In a 2017 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Guthrie attributed the song’s longstanding holiday connotation to the underlying theme of questioning authority– something that continues to resonate with younger people throughout generations.
“I’ve remained distrustful of authority for my entire life,” Guthrie said. “I believe it’s one of the great strengths of a democracy, that we take seriously our role as the ultimate authorities by our interest and our votes. Younger people have always had a rebellious streak. It goes with the territory of growing up.”
Guthrie’s commentary on the absurdity of bureaucracy also remains a timeless take. The ridiculousness of his arrest and trial in court continues to resonate with young listeners, facing similar frustrations in their own lives. Guthrie’s silly anti-war song, in its ability to stay down-to-earth and relatable, continues to captivate listeners every year.
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