Once in a decade: Arlo Guthrie

On April 21, American folk singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie will perform at the Chan Centre alongside his daughter, Sarah Lee. The performance is part of the Pacific Northwestern leg of Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant 50th Anniversary Tour, commemorating his most famous song, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree

The celebrated tune is an 18-minute long countercultural anthem that Guthrie performs only once every 10 years, due to its extreme length. This show may be a final chance for fans to see him do it. As Guthrie wryly puts it, he’ll perform the song again at its 60th anniversary, or he’ll be dead.

For younger listeners, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree seems like an improbable American classic. Performed in “talking blues” style, the song is less of a ditty than a protracted, rambling story about Guthrie’s conviction for littering on Thanksgiving Day, 1965. The song gets a lot of November radio play in the United States, perhaps in part because there aren’t many Thanksgiving tunes in the American canon. However, according to Guthrie’s daughter, the song’s enduring popularity is largely due to its honest, irreverent take on the Vietnam War.

Seven minutes into the song — and some time after the Thanksgiving incident — Guthrie’s story changes gears as a young Arlo finds himself in a New York City induction office. After attempting to dodge the draft by appearing hungover (fine by the United States Army) and bloodthirsty (even better), he is deemed ineligible for service due to his past littering conviction. Incensed, Guthrie calls out the army’s selective prudishness in deciding who was “moral enough” to “join the army [and] burn women, kids, houses and villages.”

According to Sarah Lee Guthrie, the song’s humour cut across political boundaries, becoming popular with anyone who’d come in contact with the army whether they’d dodged the draft or not. Both protesters and active soldiers immediately recognized the bizarreness and hypocrisy of the United States military system.

Alice’s Restaurant quickly became a resource for soldiers as code to know who [their] allies were. It became a huge part of the counterculture during that time because it was funny, but mostly because it was true! He didn’t make it up — he just told his story and everyone could relate,” she said in an e-mail interview.

“It is a protest song, but it is more than that. To me, it’s a teacher of how to laugh in the face of tragedy. Some veterans I have spoken to would even say it saved their lives. Certainly their state of mind, that’s not easily forgotten.”

Both folk music and activism have long been a tradition in the Guthrie family. Sarah Lee Guthrie’s grandfather, musician Woody Guthrie, was known to perform with a guitar that proclaimed “This Machine Kills Fascists.” 

His popular song This Land is Your Land was also recently used in a campaign ad for the Democratic Party candidate, Bernie Sanders. Although Sarah Lee acknowledged that the contemporary music industry is “not what it was,” she hopes that the folk music beloved by her family will continue to be a unifying political force for future generations.

“I still do believe that music plays a big role in the hearts of people individually as well as having the power to unite people. When people sing together, it gives us courage, strength and hope,” she said.  

“I heard my dad say, ‘Folk songs were the original social media.’ I believe this to be very true. Music will always be important — it is a reflection of who we are, who we were and gives us the clarity to see who we can become.”