Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Arlo: Alice’s Restaurant Massacree

Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant Massacree

There comes a moment on Thanksgiving Day, right about noon, when my wife and I, and whoever is cooking with us, or just kibitzing, stop what we are doing, and listen to WFUV’s annual broadcast of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an 18 plus minute talking blues about how littering on Thanksgiving kept Arlo Guthrie out of the Vietnam War. It is a funny song, clever in its "shaggy dog" structure, and how it ties together so many disparate threads, with a message—a message that Guthrie has specifically noted was not anti-war in general, but rather against the Vietnam War in particular.  Actually, Guthrie likes to say that it is actually an “anti-stupidity” song. I’m not going to discuss in any great detail the history of the song, or what it is about—because I’m betting that most people reading this already know most of it, and Google is our friend.

Listening to this song on Thanksgiving has become a family tradition for our family and for many others, and is the Thanksgiving connection—which is tenuous at best—is why we are running this theme now. But, of course, there is much about Thanksgiving traditions that makes little sense. Nowadays, we identify Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and (sometimes) the Wampanoag, who celebrated what is considered the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621. It is unlikely that there was turkey, but there was waterfowl, venison, ham, seafood, fruit and berries, pumpkin and squash. But probably not marshmallows on anything. And how did an over-hyped parade in New York, sponsored by a department store, featuring huge balloons, marching bands, celebrities, and Santa Claus, become a centerpiece of the celebration (not to mention the inflation of said balloons). Or football?  Just repetition, over a long period of time.

Interestingly (to me, at least), the tradition of tying our Turkey Day to the 1621 feast is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although there have been official and unofficial Thanksgiving celebrations in our part of North America going back to that “First” one, Thomas Jefferson didn’t continue the Thanksgiving proclamations of his predecessors, but James Madison renewed the tradition at the end of the War of 1812. Its observance was spotty and localized during the following era, but since 1863, Thanksgiving has been a national holiday in the United States (usurping “Evacuation Day,” commemorating the withdrawal of British troops after the Revolutionary War. I’d hate to know what people ate on Evacuation Day.)

In the mid-1800s, around the time that Thanksgiving was getting a publicity boost, the publication and popularization of Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish and the recovery of Governor Bradford’s lost manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation, began to spark interest in the Pilgrims and Wampanoags, and by the end of the 19th Century, the First Thanksgiving story became inextricably interwoven into the holiday, in part because of its message of American freedom, citizenship, and, I’d argue, propagation of a “noble savage” role for Native Americans.

How did it become a Thanksgiving tradition? I don’t know, and the Internet isn’t helping. Even Arlo doesn’t know, although he certainly appreciates the royalties. One thing that I can say, though, is that since radio programmers are not always the most creative folks (anymore—and that’s not a boast about my college radio programming days—OK, not completely—but more of a look back to the 60s and 70s, a time when FM radio really was progressive and interesting), someone thought it was a good idea, and everyone copied him. (And I say “him,” because I don’t think there were too many female program directors then, but it could have been a woman, because who knows.)

I also have no clue how “Alice” became a tradition in my family—it wasn’t part of mine growing up, and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t a tradition in my wife’s family. For a while now, my wife and I have hosted Thanksgiving for our families, and do the bulk of the cooking. Which is fine—we like to do it, and like having quality control. I suspect that one year, while we were all working in the kitchen, we dialed it up on WFUV, and we all enjoyed it, including my kids, who love a good song, a good joke, and a good message of peace. And we did it the next year, and the next. Boom—a tradition!!!  One year, my in-laws were there, and my father-in-law enjoyed it, but had trouble understanding all of Arlo’s words, so the next year, we printed the lyrics for him to follow along.

That 18 minutes around noon is like the calm before the storm—the dishes you started early are humming away, but you have some time before the later-prepared items need to be done. Also, it’s lunch time.

"Alice" isn’t a tradition in Arlo’s family. As he said in an interview with Rolling Stone a few years ago, he doesn’t listen, and “no one in my family does either. There are better things to do for us and I’ve got grandkids now.” They really should.

Last year, I wrote about how Thanksgiving traditions change over time, and it is still pretty accurate, although my son’s fiancée is now his wife (yay!). But because this is their year to go to her parents, and my daughter still living in Spain, it is likely that this year’s “Alice” tradition will just be me and my wife. Which is fine, for now, although it is more fun to listen to it with a group, especially one that isn’t familiar with the song.

blog comments powered by Disqus