So, it turns out that Arlo Guthrie isn’t dead.
This might not come as a surprise to you, but it certainly came as a surprise to me when a few months ago a colleague invited me to go to the taping of a special for PBS that commemorates the 50th anniversary of Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.” The very first words out of my mouth were “I thought that he was dead.”
The next words out of my mouth were “What’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’?” We were not off to a good start.
Clearly my folk music game needs a little work, since it turns out that the song “Alice’s Restaurant” is a very big deal to a large segment of the population. I was secretly hoping that the tune has something to do with the 70s TV show Alice, but sadly it did not. That would have been amazing.
My co-workers explained it a little bit to me, but mostly all I got out of those conversations was that the song was played every year at Thanksgiving. I started reading the Wikipedia entry for the song, but that started to make it sound too complicated. I wasn’t sure why a song about littering connected with so many people. But despite my ignorance, I decided to go to the taping to expand my horizons and because it would have been kind of rude of me to say no. Everyone else was so excited about this that I had to swallow my ambivalence about the whole thing and just go along for the ride. At least the tickets were free and other people offered to drive, so I wasn’t giving up much more than a free night to go. Perhaps I’d learn something in the process. People who were in the know about such things seemed to think that this was a pretty big deal, as the taping was taking place in the Berkshires where the incident that inspired the song occurred. So if I was going to learn about this piece of pop culture that I somehow missed out on, this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.
When we rolled up to the theater, it became clear pretty quickly that I was going to be one of the youngest people there by at least a few decades. That’s not necessarily a new phenomenon for me; I’m routinely either the youngest or the oldest person at a show. Our seats weren’t together, so I was not sitting with my co-workers. I was seated next to a lovely older woman who took one look at me and said “Honey, do you even know who Arlo Guthrie is?” So clearly I was not blending in. As the taping began, they kicked off the show with a trippy video for a song that had something to do with a pickle and a motorcycle:
I didn’t know that dropping some acid was a prerequisite to this event. After watching that, I was a little concerned that I wasn’t going to get very much out of this concert.
Thankfully, it was a lot less weird after Arlo took the stage. While I don’t know a ton about folk music in general, I really enjoyed the tunes that he played. I may not be familiar with “Alice’s Restaurant,” but I did recognize “The City of New Orleans” and some of his covers of his father Woody Gutherie’s songs. I pretty sure everyone was forced at some point in elementary school to sing “This Land is Your Land.” Arlo is a natural storyteller and he gave the background on a lot of the songs that he sang or spun some yarn related to what he was about to play. Since I was such a novice, I found this all very interesting and informative. Folk music in general is relaxing to me, and paired with his stories it was a pretty soothing evening.
The moment of truth was finally upon us and I was going to hear “Alice Restaurant” for the first time. Arlo spent a lot of time giving the background of this song and the movie that was made about the song, though for the life of me I still don’t understand why this story resonated with so many people. Like, you dumped a bunch of litter where you weren’t supposed to; of course you got in trouble. I’m not sure why this was such an act of civil disobedience or why this freaking thing necessitated an 16 minute (!) song about it.
Clips from the Alice’s Restaurant movie played behind Arlo as he sang the song and if I didn’t understand how this was a song, I certainly didn’t understand how they made a whole movie about this foolishness. The song was OK, I guess, but I guess its fandom was just kind of lost on me. It didn’t necessarily help that Arlo lost his place halfway through the song and had to take it again from the top so it would be right for the special. 27 minutes of “Alice’s Restaurant” was more than enough. Plus, the song isn’t even about a restaurant; I kept waiting for the part where we heard about this titular restaurant and it never came. If they threw in some lyrics about waffles or something, I might have been won over.
The irony of the evening was that though this was a special focused on “Alice’s Restaurant,” that was easily my least favorite part of the evening. The song was fine I guess – too long – but the hoopla around it escapes me. It made so little of an impression on me that I subconsciously mash it up with Billy Joel’s “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant.” Still, even if I didn’t dig the song all that much, I at least know what it is now. It’s a pop culture blind spot that I didn’t even know that I had. I may even eventually be curious enough to watch the Alice’s Restaurant movie (available on YouTube) just to see how they managed to turn a 16 minute song into a nearly two hour movie. That’s either some real creative license or a lot of padding. But the fact that so many of the actual real life participants are part of the film has at least minimally piqued my interest. Something to keep in my back pocket until I have some time to kill. I did download more of Arlo Guthrie’s music after the show, so something else good came out of it. My knowledge of folk music has slightly increased.
The “Alice’s Restaurant” 50th anniversary concert with Arlo Guthrie will air on Thanksgiving Day and throughout December on PBS. Check your local listings for times.