Last Thursday, millions of people in our area celebrated Thanksgiving Day with a host of traditions: eating too much, drinking too much, arguing about politics, crying in the bathroom and ignoring racist uncles. If there’s one Turkey Day custom in our city that people actually enjoy, it’s the airing of the classic 1967 Arlo Guthrie yarn “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” on WMMR 93.3.
For decades, Pierre Robert—MMR’s long-running, ultra-mellow and much-beloved disc jockey—has spent every Thanksgiving morning and afternoon playing the song in its more-than-18-minute entirety, not just once, but several times throughout the day. Thousands of Philly’s “good citizens,” as Robert would say, tune to 93.3 to hear Guthrie’s hilarious and (mostly) true story about his holiday run-in with the law. Whether preparing dinner, driving to a relative’s house or simply relaxing with their families, the annual “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” broadcasts have now become a ritual for young and old. (It’s not just Philly, either. Several other U.S. cities have similar events, but like a lot of things, we’re better at it than they are.)
So, what’s the big fuss? Why does a modern radio station clear time out of its schedule to air a goofy, old rag at an unheard-of-for-radio length?
For the uninitiated, here’s a plot summary: Over jovial acoustic lines and a light shuffle, our shaggy dog tale begins with Guthrie giving a brief backstory of Alice, her restaurant, and the church where she and her husband live in the small town of Stockbridge, Mass. On Thanksgiving Day 1965, Guthrie and a friend attempt to get rid of a pile of Alice’s garbage as a friendly gesture to the couple. After finding out that the dump is closed because of the holiday, the two pals instead throw the trash onto the side of a road. The next day, Guthrie is implemented in Stockbridge’s “biggest crime of the last 50 years” and sent to prison before being bailed out by Alice. After his trial, presided over by a blind judge, he’s forced to pay a $50 fine and clean up the mess.
“But that’s not what I came to tell you about,” Guthrie alerts the audience eight minutes in. “Came to talk about the draft.” It’s here that the song truly comes together, when two years after the littering incident, Guthrie finds himself in New York City getting his physical exam for military service. Not wanting to be sent to Vietnam, Guthrie attempts to be turned away by telling the psychiatrist about his (faked) violent and homicidal tendencies. Unfortunately, the plan backfires: “The sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said, ‘You’re our boy.’” Guthrie is then asked by the officials if he’s ever been arrested, and after telling them the story about his trash arrest, he’s sent to the dreaded “Group W” bench with the other ex-cons. (“Mother-rapers ... father-stabbers ... father-rapers!”)
In a twist of dumb luck, Guthrie’s previous arrest actually saves him when he’s turned away from the service, or as he explains in the tale’s perfect satirical punchline, not “moral enough to join the Army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.” The song wraps up with Guthrie telling the listeners to sing the tune’s pseudo-chorus during their draft exams, then to walk out, effectively creating the “Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement.”
Even before the song was released on Alice’s Restaurant, Guthrie’s 1967 debut LP, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” was an immediate hit, with live bootlegs of the song being passed around amongst the young counterculture. It became so popular, in fact, that by 1969, it had spawned a movie (starring Guthrie, himself) and a cookbook by the song’s real life inspiration, Alice Brock.
Part of the song’s appeal, and one of the many reasons its popularity continues to live on, is the gleeful lilt in Guthrie’s voice. For a mostly vocal-based song to keep your attention for more than 18 minutes—and sometimes up to 40 minutes in live performances—is no small feat. It’s a skill that harkens back to the “talking blues” of old, perfected by storytellers like Guthrie’s father, American music icon Woody Guthrie. Folk artists and protest singers, such as the elder Guthrie, knew that music was a great way to get your message across, with the same to be said about humor. The way Woody’s son combined the two is the song’s greatest strength: It’s never preachy or heavy-handed, but by the end, what it says is perfectly clear.
Although he later achieved much success, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” will always remain Guthrie’s signature song. And while he likely won’t perform the tune on his current tour—instead, celebrating his father’s 100th birthday—if you missed it last week, there’s always next Thanksgiving. n
Fri., Nov. 30, 8pm. $29-$45. Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood, N.J. collingswood.com
PW's Music Issue 2014