The Semicentennial of Alice's Restaurant Massacree

By Sophie Richardson '21

  “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” was released on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. (Newseum collection)

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacre” was released on Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. (Newseum collection)

Massacree: a colloquial that describes a sequence of events so absurd, complicated and uncommon as to be unbelievable

Well folks, it’s that time of year again. The turkeys are stuffed, the whole family’s in town, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is soon to be in full swing. It’s almost hard to believe that there isn’t a song to capture this beautiful day, during which human grievances are disregarded and replaced with cordiality towards our fellow man, or so we’d like to believe.

Now I can’t say in total honesty that a Thanksgiving carol of this sort exists, but one comes fairly close to the mark, a tune that every baby boomer can hum and many can still sing along to to this day.

To anyone who hasn’t heard of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” I urge you to call your parents, text them, ask them what that whole fuss was about. You’ll make their day, guaranteed. Maybe they’ll even share with you some of their own memories associated with the song, one of the cadre of hits that fueled the anti-war movement and led to a cultural shift in the way we view the established order.

I remember the first time I listened to it, 18 minutes and 34 second through. My dad and I had just finished cleaning out the backyard and had a hunk of junk in the back of a pickup truck we had rented earlier that day. We thought the cleanup would be the hardest part of the ordeal, but it turned out that finding a dump in the city of Los Angeles is damn near impossible. We ended up driving an hour out of our way, in the middle of who knows where, to get rid of all of the planks, springs, god knows what else. And on the ride, my father equated the experience with a song from his youth, and asked me, the designated DJ of the trip, to play it off my phone. In short, I had no idea what to think of it.

Here’s a brief rundown of the track. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” was written in 1965 and released in 1967 by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, who is considered to be to American Folk what Bob Marley was to Reggae. Like his father, Guthrie’s political and social views took a leftist approach. The song was composed as a satirical protest to the Vietnam War, which featured a first person account of how Guthrie was able to escape the draft. It is a spoken monologue accompanied with a repeated finger style guitar backing. Since its release fifty years ago, it has assumed the role as the unofficial anthem to the Thanksgiving holiday.

Radio host John Schaefer calls the song a “comedy of errors” and added that “[Guthrie] was the guy who made a joke out of protest singing, I mean, ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ is an 18-and-a-half-minute punch line.”

The song was first played over the airwaves in 1966 on Radio Unnameable and first performed live at the Newport Folk Festival on July 17, 1967. Soon after the song was made public, it quickly rose to number 17 on the Billboard Charts. Later on, it was even adapted into a major motion picture.

But as America moved into the mid-seventies, it was a very different time to the one of the previous decade. The draft had ended, the war was winding down, so Guthrie slowly but surely decided to leave the song off his set list when he played in public due to it’s length and irrelevancy. However, in the more recent present, it has become very evident that the song has still retained its undying spirit and humor among those old enough to remember when it first came out as well as among a new generation of listeners, who have recently taken up the task of scouring through all of the records and CDs that parent generations decided to keep around for good times sake.

Radio hosts alike also adore the song in all its silliness and folly and regularly play it around the clock throughout the Thanksgiving season. This might be attributed to the fact that the track’s sheer length gave hosts enough time to smoke a cigarette, catch up on a little light reading, or give themselves a nice twenty minute break.

Guthrie himself has since revisited the song in many public performances, even letting his own adult children take part in the recital, which has made audiences lucky enough to be in attendance swoon in reminiscence and made a whole lot of people say “God I’m old”.  

So if you have a solid chunk of time this Thanksgiving break, go on Youtube, find a couple of friends, pick up your shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and give a listen to “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”. And please, for your sake and mine, don’t go trying to find a deeper meaning, because you’ll just tire yourself out. Just sing along in three part harmony and enjoy.