Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day.
The sprawling, miandering storytelling style of this song allows it to be uniquely positioned as a protest song that doesn’t quite come off as one at first. This song isn’t a furious diatribe against the military industrial complex so much as it is like a court jester’s tale that shines a light on a nation’s insanity in the most humourous terms. There is no rage here. But, the protest couldn’t be more obvious. That’s what the word “massacree” means, as used in the Ozarks; a true story so otherwise unbelievable in its absurdity that it can’t be fully accounted for in rational terms.
In this song, Guthrie casts his mind to a memory; a 1965 arrest for littering at age 18 after dumping a pile of trash as a favour for titular friend Alice on Thanksgiving. In the end, that minor offence saved him from serving in the war in Vietnam. The army wouldn’t take recruits with criminal records, even though many war crimes against civilians would be committed by US forces overseas in a bid to win the ideologically-driven war against the Viet Cong. Had Guthrie not been a litterbug, he may have been forced to kill civilians in a mandate to beat an enemy who was difficult to find, or he might have ended up in a body bag himself; utter absurdity.
Dressed up as it is in folksy language and laid-back delivery, Guthrie’s song manages to lay the establishment behind that mandate bare, managing to reveal its cartoonish hypocrisy, double standards, and sanctimony. In the process, this story does more damage to ideologically-driven policies than fiery rage can ever do; it makes us laugh at it when its true nature is revealed. Even today, we see that satire and laughter are effective tools against brutish ideology and blind allegiance to it. We only have to look to The Daily Show, The Onion, The Syrup Trap here in Canada, Newshump in the UK, and the myriad of other satirical news publications and television shows that have proliferated in the twenty-first century to know that.
Yet, wars rage on today inspite of our greater awareness of world events. At the time of this writing, air strikes in Syria by Great Britain, France, and the United States in particular are the latest action against the nebulous forces of terrorism in the region. This is despite the ineffectual nature of that strategy as a deterent for those responsible for the occupation of the territory, with civilian loss of life inspiring still more terrorists who have even less to lose once their families and friends are killed by foreign missiles. Meanwhile in the press, in houses of parliament and of congress, critics of the air strikes strategy are branded as “terrorist sympathizers”. The absurdity continues, and on a global scale.
Arlo Guthrie is an active singer-songwriter and performer today. In recent years, he has purchased the old deconsecrated church in which Alice and her husband lived as described in this song, and has turned it into an interfaith centre, and home to the Guthrie Foundation. You can learn more about the foundation, and about Alice and her former husband Ray right here.
For more music and news, visit www.arlo.net.