A Thanksgiving dinner clean-up in 1965 launched Arlo Guthrie on a folksinging career, created an anti-war anthem and transformed an old church into a home for a local charity called the Guthrie Center.
The satirical monologue tells a story set in Great Barrington, Mass., where Alice Brock and her husband Ray lived in a deconsecrated church.
The church started out as St. James Chapel in 1829, and parishioners renamed it Trinity Church after expanding it in 1866. Alice had bought the small Gothic Revival building with $2,000 from her mother.
Alice was an artist, Ray was a woodworker and architect. The young couple was influenced by Jack Kerouac and the Beats. They both worked at the Stockbridge School, a boarding school from which Arlo Guthrie had graduated in Stockbridge, Mass.
Arlo Guthrie, Beatnik
Arlo Guthrie, the son of folksinging legend Woody Guthrie, dropped out of college after his freshman year and came to stay with Ray and Alice for a few weeks. The Brocks acted as surrogate parents to young people like Guthrie who camped out in the church to escape ‘Establishment pressures’ and the draft.
The neighbors hated the ‘Beatnik commune.’ They wrote letters to the editor complaining about it, and honked their horns and yelled when driving by.
Alice opened a restaurant in the back of a row of businesses on Route 7 in Stockbridge, but it isn’t clear if she’d opened it by Thanksgiving in 1965.
Guthrie, 18, and his friend Richard Robbins, 19, joined Alice and Ray’s Thanksgiving dinner that year. Afterward, Alice asked the boys to take the trash to the town dump, but they found it closed. So they threw the trash down a nearby hillside.
Hours later, Stockbridge Police Officer William ‘Obie’ Obanhein called the Brocks. He told Alice he had just spent two very unpleasant hours going through the trash until he found an envelope with the Brocks’ name and address on it.
Alice ratted out Arlo Guthrie and Richard Robbins. Officer Obie (William Obanheim), who had modeled for Stockbridge artist Norman Rockwell, didn’t like the long-haired hippies. He decided to make an example of them. So he arrested the teenagers and put them in a jail cell. Alice, furious with Obie, bailed them out.
On the day of their trial, Officer Obie brought detailed photos of the crime to the courtroom. In the song, Guthrie describes his exhibits as
…27 8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.
Guthrie described in the song how Officer Obie watched the judge walk to the bench with a seeing-eye dog.
The judge fined Guthrie and Robbins $25 each and told them to pick up the garbage. Later, Guthrie was drafted. He was disqualified from military service because he was ‘morally unfit,’ having been convicted of littering. He was sent to the Group W bench, where, he says in the song,
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 chorus, ‘You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant’ begins and ends the song. Guthrie sang it live on WBAI radio in New York some time in 1967. It was so popular it became a staple of non-commercial radio pledge drives, and many classic rock stations play it every Thanksgiving. Pierre Robert on WMMR 93.3 in Philadelphia plays multiple versions multiple times over the holiday.
Alice’s Restaurant came out as an album in 1967, but the 18-minute, 34-second song was too long for a single. Later, Arlo Guthrie learned President Richard Nixon owned a copy. He joked that explained the 18-1/2 minute gap in the Watergate tapes.
Alice sold the church, and it changed hands several times. Many Alice’s Restaurant fans continued to make pilgrimages to the church, including Arlo Guthrie in 1990.
He felt the building nurtured lasting relationships, so he raised money and bought it. He named it the Guthrie Center, and it houses the Guthrie Foundation, an interdenominational interfaith meeting place.
Officer Obie died in 1994 at the age of 69. Years after the Alice’s Restaurant incident, he said, “You know, if it had only been a couple of bags of garbage, I would have picked it up myself.”
You can watch Arlo Guthrie sing Alice’s Restaurant Massacree at Farm Aid in 2005 here. He suffered a stroke on Thanksgiving in 2019, and gave up touring. “[I]t’s time to hang up the “Gone Fishing” sign,” he wrote on his website. “Going from town to town and doing stage shows, remaining on the road is no longer an option.’ But you can watch archival video and recorded sessions starting on Nov. 28, 2020. For tickets, click here.
This story about Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s Restaurant was updated in 2020. Image of the Stockbridge Cafe By Dtobias – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3931984. Image of the Stockbridge School by By Wlmg – Canon 35mm Camera, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28430426. Image of Arlo Guthrie in 2005 By Adam Hammer from Saint Cloud, Minn., USA – Arlo Guthrie, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2595064.