Arlo Guthrie talks trash and politics as his first hit turns 50
In 1965, 18-year-old Arlo Guthrie and his friends celebrated Thanksgiving at a deconsecrated church-turned-commune in Massachusetts, setting in motion an unlikely sequence of events involving Guthrie’s arrest on littering charges and his eventual rejection by the draft board to serve in Vietnam. He turned that experience into the 18-plus-minute, talkin’ blues masterpiece of satirical songwriting, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” which was released on his 1967 album Alice’s Restaurant and made into the 1969 film of the same name. Guthrie is currently touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the phenomenon, and in advance of a stop in Chico, the legendary folk singer (and son of the most legendary folk singer, Woody) took time to do an email interview with the CN&R.
I’ve read that you rarely play “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” so what’s it like playing it every night now?
A few decades ago, I removed it from the setlist except for the occasional 10-year anniversaries. The length of the piece and the fact that the times had changed made it too hard to keep doing it every night. That said, the 50th anniversary was a chance to renew it in ways that weren’t even conceivable decades ago. So, we’ve added other dimensions to the tour (not just the song) for the occasion—lights, archival photos, video clips, etc., and it’s been a lot of fun over the last year and a half. I’m gonna be sad when it comes to a close.
Do you ever get guff from people for littering 50 years ago?
There’s always somebody with something to say about everything, including that.
Do you ever imagine what life may have been like if you’d been drafted?
I’m pretty sure the military would’ve found something for me to do, and I’ve always had a great respect for the guys who had to do the work. It was the policies I was against, not the soldiers. And I’m sure I would’ve found a way to show my displeasure with those polices. In fact, many soldiers did just that. I had no plan B. I went to the draft board expecting to be shipped out that day. I must say it was a great relief that it turned out the way it did.
A picture of Sen. Bernie Sanders leaving the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla., has gone viral. Did you see that? And, what do you think your dad might have made of Sanders?
Well, naturally, I love Bernie Sanders and I hope things go very well for him during this election. I saw the photos from the Woody Guthrie Center, and I was saddened only because I missed him by a day (we were there the day before). But, whether or not he wins, the die is cast. People are rightly fed up … they just disagree on what to do about it. I won’t speak for my dad—his work speaks for itself—but if I get the chance, I will definitely vote for Bernie.
Anyone who was (or is) a parent knows what it’s like to drag the kids kicking and screaming somewhere, even though you know they’ll be happy when they get there. Sometimes the whole nation feels like that kind of family. Bernie, even on his grouchiest day, appears to be the most qualified and trustworthy parent in the bunch. The guy has been in Congress longer than anyone else running, so he’s kind of like an inside outsider. … I can settle for alternatives, but I’d actually be excited to live at a time when the New Deal evolves into a Fair Deal for the average guy and gal. I remain hopeful.