I was thinking back to one summer I spent in New England, and these thoughts popped into my head… My friend Billy, from Kentucky, has the most fabulous gift of being able to tell stories… and I don’t really mean just tell; he brings them to life. Billy maintains that his Dad was even better. The way that many Americans do this has always struck me, be it through narration, song or film (scroll to the bottom for more examples). And this song here is a perfect example, from my youth.
I remember when there was always a map showing Phnom Penh on the news. It sounded exotic and interesting. People seemed to be getting their knickers in a twist about the place. Maybe this was one of the early seeds of my travel bug. I was quite young: the Vietnem War was in full swing. And then, when I found my own musical tastes some eight or nine years later, I got into the Woodstock Album. This was my introduction to Arlo Guthrie and I shortly afterwards discovered this tune: it was the most fantastic storytelling-song I had ever heard, and to this day never have I heard a better one. It blew me away.
Arlo Guthrie was the son of the folk singer Woody Guthrie, who hobo-ed around the dust bowl writing songs about the results, or rather victims, of the “American Dream” he came across. He suffered from the terrible Huntingdon’s disease. Sadly, this is hereditary. After Woody’s death, a suitcase of unsung lyrics was found in the attic and the niece, I think, or maybe his widow, I can’t remember, but whoever was the surviving heir, had to decide what to do with them. Woody by this time had become a virtual patron saint of folk song, patriotism (“This Land is Your Land”) and generally standing up for the working people of the good ol’ US of A. He counted Bob Dylan amongst his followers. In the end the heir decided that the living musician most in harmony with Woody’s worldview was … Billy Bragg, another songster in tune with the plight of the working people (although patently not American). He was over-awed by the compliment and called in some American musicians (Wilko) to help put some tunes to the long-lost lyrics. Finally, the Americans and Billy Bragg fell out, after making a cracking album together, largely because they could not countenance a Brit being given rights to part of their musical folk history. That is where Arlo’s pedigree comes from. From the very roots of American folk, from the depths of the dust bowl at the time when Scott-Fitzgerald was gathering material for “The Great Gatsby” and Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” was being played out for real in Texas and the surrounding states. Arlo came along in the next generation: hippies and flower power. These were the heirs of Woody Guthrie’s times. But Arlo in many ways honoured and maintained his father’s legacy, bringing with him the tradition of storytelling to observe life as it was in the USA at the time. And what a compellingly-told, laugh-out-loud-funny story it is in “Alice’s Restaurant”. So close your eyes, follow the tale and listen.
|“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”|
|Song by Arlo Guthrie|
|from the album Alice’s Restaurant|
|Genre||Talking blues, folk music|
“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (self-identified multiple times in the lyrics of the song itself as “Alice’s Restaurant“) is a song by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, released as the title track to his 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. It is notable as a satirical, first-person account of 1960s counterculture, in addition to being a hit song in its own right and an inspiration for the 1969 film also named Alice’s Restaurant. The song is Guthrie’s most prominent work, based on a true incident from his life that began on Thanksgiving Day1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime. The ironic punch line of the story is that, in the words of Guthrie, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army—burn women, kids, houses and villages—after bein’ a litterbug.” The final part of the song is an encouragement for the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war.
The song consists of a protracted spoken monologue, with a constantly repeated fingerstyle ragtime guitar (Piedmont style) backing and light brush-on-snare drum percussion (the drummer on the record is uncredited), bookended by a short chorus about the titular diner; Guthrie has used the short “Alice’s Restaurant” bookends and guitar backings for other monologues bearing the Alice’s Restaurantname. The track lasts 18 minutes and 34 seconds, occupying the entire A-side of the Alice’s Restaurant album. The work has become Guthrie’s signature song and he has periodically re-released it with updated lyrics.
If you like songs that tell stories check out: Top of the World by the Dixie Chicks; Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty; or Steve Earle’s Home to Houston; Me and the Eagle and Copperhead Road. There are many more fabulous examples of the genre but these are some of my favourites.