Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is a Thanksgiving tradition for many. Despite the song’s 18-minute length it gets played by radio stations and listened to by many on the turkey holiday. So here is the challenge: write a review of “Alice’s Restaurant” as a live-blog for all intensive purposes. So I’ve given myself 18 minutes to listen to the song and write with an additional 5 minutes to finish up the article. The timer is currently ticking.
The warm, folky sound of Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is one I have heard but admittedly have never analyzed and to be honest I don’t remember much of it. It is essentially a rambling story told by a great storyteller. The music casually strolls as Guthrie recalls a little trouble with the law when he is arrested for dumping trash illegally, in his semi-defense, it was Thanksgiving and the dump was closed.
His humor is the striking part. When trash with his name on it is found under a ton of trash he confesses not to dumping it but to putting the envelope “under” the trash. He is a classic storyteller in that way, he matches the way Jerry Clower was and the way Jerry Jeff Walker or John Prine can lay a story out. His description of the paperwork and arrest along with his strange perspective of the system and the way it works keeps the story entertaining. It is a very smart-ass approach by Guthrie but one most people can relate to.
He sings very little other than smoothly slurring out “You can anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” and this becomes the redeeming factor of the song. The whole story seems to lead to it. He encourages everyone to sing the line (it is a live recording) and it single handedly makes the song endearing. Sure there are loose social commentaries here and some great one-liners delivered but it turns out to be just a great playful way to get some people to sing along.
The song has become a bit of an urban legend and it is easy to see why. Guthrie shoots straight from the gut on it and it doesn’t seem overly rehearsed but still planned out enough to hold together. So next Thanksgiving we should all play it again (since Thanksgiving Day is when the story occurs) and have a couple chuckles as we lead to the final couple minutes when we can all quietly sing along with Arlo to ourselves. If more traditions were this fun we would all be happier people.
- Time of song: 18 minutes
- Time to write article: 23 minutes
Thank you to my brother Jeff for the idea to write this piece and Happy Thanksgiving to everybody.