Nearly 50 years ago in western Massachusetts, an 18-year-old back from his first year at college celebrated Thanksgiving with friends in an old church. After dumping the trash from dinner in the next town, he and a friend were arrested for littering.
Not only did the arrest lead to a Vietnam War draft deferment for that teen, Arlo Guthrie, but it also resulted in his classic 18-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” The 1967 tune became a career-maker for the son of famed folk singer Woody Guthrie, a cultural touchstone in the Vietnam era and even a 1969 movie. But after a while, Guthrie just stopped playing it.
Now 67, Guthrie revives the song only for special occasions, and what could be more special than the 50th anniversary of the incident? Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Tour” plays a number of local venues this week — the Weinberg Center in Frederick, Md.,; the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas; and the Birchmere in Alexandria.
We chatted with Guthrie via e-mail as he prepared for the tour.
How did you come to do these anniversary tours for “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”?
Somewhere back in the mid-1970s, the song had become less immediate and more nostalgic. I continued to perform it for a little while, but, like so many other songs tied to an event, when the events changed, the song became less relevant. And it still took almost 20 minutes to perform it. So I decided to take it off the set list. There were people who came demanding their money back, expecting to hear my “hit.” Frankly, I was happier performing for people who came with no expectations. But I realized that for many people, the song was not simply tied to a single event but had become part of the soundtrack to their lives and to an era. So I compromised and decided that I would sing it for about a year and a half every decade.
Did you think you’d get to celebrate a 50th anniversary?
I didn’t expect to still be around 50 years after writing the song, let alone have to relearn and perform it in its entirety.
The style of “Alice’s Restaurant” seems to grow out of the kind of “talking blues” your father used to perform. Was that your intent?
It was the idea of a whole evening of songs and stories that I was going for. As a kid I’d watch folk singers simply sing song after song without saying much at all, let alone mean something beyond the songs themselves. I wanted to do songs and tell stories so that the entire performance was like going to see a musical, with a plot and some humor and pathos and all the stuff that makes it worth going to hear and see. I’m still not fond of going to hear someone sing songs that don’t have any connection beyond someone saying, “And here’s another one I wrote.”
How difficult is it to keep the guitar melody going all throughout the monologue and then synch it up with the chorus?
Geez . . . no one’s ever asked me that before, can you believe it? And that’s the magic that makes it all work. That’s trial and error done over years and decades — countless performances. That’s the hard part.
It seemed at the time that it immediately set you apart from your father’s legacy, which I imagine could have been tough.
I love my father’s legacy and always have. We’ve lost most of it because, with one exception, all we have are recordings of his songs. Only recently have we discovered a recording of his stage show, with his rambling stories strewn in-between his songs. When my sister Nora and I first heard the live recording we looked at each other in disbelief. And I said out loud, “I thought I invented that stuff!” My shows were almost identical in style to his. That was mind-blowing.
The song is credited with helping instill a new generation with social consciousness. Did you see that as well?
I wouldn’t have wrote that myself. But, yes, for many people “Alice’s Restaurant” helped show people that a sense of humor can go a long way when you’re attempting to be conscious — socially or otherwise.
Was it a good experience to turn the song into a movie? Did it worry you that Hollywood would take the story in another direction?
It was not a good experience for me personally, as Hollywood certainly did take my story into another direction. My song was 98 percent true and took only 20 minutes to tell. Movies are made to be about an hour and a half. So they had to make up over an hour of stuff to make the movie. That said, I’m glad I did it. But you haven’t seen me in many films since then for a good reason. For starters, I’m a lousy actor.
You are the patriarch of a big family of musicians. Do you see yourself part of a continuum?
My father dreamed that one day when he’d had a lot of kids, he’d take his family out on the road and do shows together. We fulfilled and lived that dream over the past few years — shows with all of my kids and all of their kids. For me that’s still the most fun. That will happen more when the “50th Alice Tour” is over.
You haven’t moved far from the setting of “Alice’s Restaurant,” setting up the Guthrie Center and Foundation in her old church. What are some of its activities today?
The success of the song and the movie provided another chapter in the history of the Old Trinity Church, where the story takes place, and where we actually filmed the movie. About 20 years ago we bought the old building, and we run our not-for-profit foundations within. There are interfaith church services, music programs, yoga and meditation, food services and all kinds of community events. . . . And for me, it’s my hometown venue as well. So we do a number of shows there every year that are financial fundraisers for us and for others. It all happens thanks to the success of the song and the audience who came to hear it.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Tour Feb. 5 at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick, Md. 301-600-2828. www.weinbergcenter.org. Feb. 6 at George Mason University’s Hylton Performing Arts Center, 1090 George Mason Cir., Manassas. 888-945-2468. www.hyltoncenter.org. Feb. 7 and 8 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703-549-7500. www.birchmere.com. (Birchmere shows are sold out.)