'Alice's Restaurant:' Arlo Guthrie's Arrest Spawned Anti-Vietnam War Anthem
Arlo Guthrie in October 1968. Source: Bettmann / Contributor, via Getty Images
Riding the folk-music wave, singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie found his moment of fame in the late '60s with "Alice's Restaurant," a talking blues that begins with a story from his life and leads up to a statement on the Vietnam War. It was a rambling, 18-minute track, combining rural folksiness and hippie irreverence, and its profile was boosted by the fact that Arlo Guthrie was the son of legendary folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie. In a time of musical experimentation, Arlo Guthrie's humorous tale struck just the right countercultural note, and became an anti-war anthem. Eventually, it also became a film, starring Guthrie himself.
The Events In The Song Are Mostly True
In 1965, Arlo Guthrie was a freshman at Rocky Mountain College in Montana, with plans to study forestry although he did not finish out the first year. During Thanksgiving break that year, he went to stay with Alice Brock and her husband in their renovated, deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The Night That Led To The Creation Of A Song
Guthrie knew the Brocks from his time at the Stockbridge School, a boarding school Guthrie had attended while they were working there. Alice, an artist, and Ray, a woodworker and architect, had purchased the Trinity Church, for $2,000. The church became a place for young people to camp out.
Arlo and his friend Richard Robbins joined about a dozen other people at the church. They all camped out in the church while Alice and her husband slept in the bell tower. In gratitude for their hospitality, Arlo and Richard disposed of a lot of trash from the church, filling their VW van with bottles, boxes, papers, and even a couch, to take to the town dump, but it was closed. Rather than cart the trash back to the church, the boys dumped it down a hillside.
Arrested For Littering
Stockbridge police officer William “Obie” Obanheim dug through the trash for about two hours until he found mail with the Brocks’ address on it. When he confronted the Brocks, Alice revealed the identity of the two litterbugs. Obie, who didn’t like hippies, arrested the boys, and took them to jail. Alice bailed them out. The date was November 26, 1965.
The boys were put on trial and Obie brought detailed photos of the crime as evidence to the trial. The judge fined them $25 each and they were ordered to clean up the trash that they had dumped.
Guthrie was later drafted, but he was deemed “morally unfit” because he had been convicted of littering. The official title, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is a reference to the absurd and essentially harmless events of the evening. Guthrie condemned a system that would arrest an individual for littering, yet condone the gruesome military violence happening in Vietnam.
He noted this absurdity in the lyrics: “I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”
The Song Leads To A Film
"Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” was released in 1967, taking up side A of the album Alice's Restaurant, and in 1969, a movie adaptation written by Arthur Penn and Venable Herndon and directed by Arthur Penn was released. The movie differed slightly from the actual story, including a love story that did not happen. However, some of the people who were involved in the incident which inspired the original song, including Obie, the police officer involved in the case, played themselves in the film.
Another New Life For The Church
Guthrie bought the Stockbridge Trinity Church in 1991 and turned it into a nonprofit facility, The Guthrie Center, devoted to helping people with afflictions including HIV and Huntington’s disease, one of the conditions responsible for his father’s death.
Alice eventually opened a restaurant in Stockbridge. Guthrie’s song became not only a protest song, but has become a Thanksgiving staple.
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