"Alice's Restaurant" - A Thanksgiving Eve Tradition on American Pastimes

According to his biographer Joe Klein, “one of the last things that Woody Guthrie did before he died was to listen to a recording of his son Arlo singing a long, convoluted talking blues about how he’d been arrested for littering in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and how he’d parlayed that ‘criminal record’ into a means of dodging the draft and avoiding the war in Vietnam.” Whether Woody could actually comprehend the story or even knew it was Arlo singing and story telling will never be known. He was in the final stages of the neurologically debilitating Huntington’s Disease and would succumb to it within a few short weeks.

Because of Arlo's recording however, fame came to Woody’s oldest son much earlier in life than it came to Woody. Arlo Guthrie was raised in Howard Beach in Queens, New York. He had just graduated from the Stockbridge School in Stockbridge Massachusetts where he had met Alice & Ray Brock who both taught there. The couple lived in an old church and served large meals for friends and family. On Thanksgiving Day in 1965, 18-year-old Arlo and his classmate Rick Robbins were arrested in Stockbridge by police officer William Obanheim for dumping trash left over from Thanksgiving dinner at the Brock's. The two had originally planned on taking it to the town landfill but it was closed for the holiday. In court a few days later they pled guilty.

Courtesy of the Guthrie Center

The judge, the Hon. James E. Hannon was actually blind. And as Arlo points out, “in a typical case of American blind justice” he found them both guilty, fined them $50, and made them collect their garbage. Guthrie and Robbins hit the road as performers immediately afterward. According to Robbins, “we followed the footprints of Woody and Cisco [Houston].” The original song “Alice’s Restaurant” was a faux advertising jingle that Arlo had composed for the Brocks. He began to include it in his stage repertoire and during performances he started telling the story of their arrest and conviction and its effect on his Viet Nam era draft status: "you want to know if I'm moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses, and villages.... after being a litterbug?"

But it wasn’t until 1967 that the song and story reached a larger audience. That year he performed it at the Newport Folk Festival and then during a WBAI radio broadcast. WBAI is the New York City Pacifica station; a non-profit community station. Arlo’s performance was hugely popular and often requested by the station’s listeners but WBAI only played the tape during fund-raising pledge drives. Its popularity in New York served to get Arlo a record contract and the song was released in 1967 on a long-playing album (at 18 minutes long the song and monologue couldn’t fit onto a 45 rpm single). The album reached #17 on the pop charts. A 45-rpm single called "Alice's Rock 'n Roll Restaurant" was also released by the record company but predictably it tanked.

In 1969 United Artists and director Arthur Penn released a film version of the story that featured Hollywood actors as well as Stockbridge locals including Officer Obanheim. Said Officer Obie: “If anyone is going to make me look like a fool, it will be me."

Officer Obie

As Arlo performed “Alice’s Restaurant” throughout his career he would periodically change the monologue to reflect current social concerns and political situations. A few of these other versions have been released on CD. "Alice: Before Time Began" was first recorded in 1969. Its satirical account of cockroach armies took on the military. A version recorded in 1990 at the Kerrville Folk Festival addressed policies of the first President Bush.

In 1997 Arlo re-recorded his entire debut album for CD: This recording, "Alice's Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited" includes an updated narrative that involves a visit to Jimmy Carter’s White House and a discovery there related to Richard Nixon. One version or another of “Alice’s Restaurant” has been featured on American Pastimes every Thanksgiving Eve since KZFR has been gracing the airwaves. 

Arlo purchased the old Trinity Church in Stockbridge in 1991. The church, formerly owned by the Brocks and site of the infamous 1965 turkey dinner has been developed into The Guthrie Center, a non-profit interfaith church foundation dedicated to providing a wide range of local and international services.

Alice Brock went on to open a variety of restaurants and has written a number of cookbooks. Officer Obie was forced into retirement after over 30 years on the Stockbridge police department. He evidently beat up another peace officer.

Rick Robbins, Arlo’s friend and co-conspirator in garbage dumping continued to sing and tour into the late 1970’s when he settled down and became an architect and house builder. In the mid 1990’s he began to perform again, recording a number of CD’s with musical support from Rory Block, Eric Weisberg, John Sebastian, Garth Hudson, and others. In recent years he has toured extensively with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot.

Here's archived Thanksgiving broadcast from 2015: