Alice's Restaurant will be played on radio stations all over the country tomorrow. It's an 18-minute, 34-second Thanksgiving anthem, written by Arlo Guthrie about his Thanksgiving arrest for littering in the Berkshires. The song was released in 1967 and quickly became a holiday staple on the level of stuffing and cranberry sauce. Guthrie is on tour celebrating the 50th anniversary of the song, and on a recent stop in Lowell, he spoke with WGBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Is it fun for you to play this in front of people, or is it your "Stairway to Heaven?"
Arlo Guthrie: Well, unlike a lot of other people I decided a long time ago that I was not going to do this every night of my life. Especially, you know, it's one thing if it's a 3-minute song. It's another thing if it's almost a half an hour. It doesn't become like you could sleep through it or think about what's for dinner in the middle of the song.
Mathieu: Even though, you're kind of thinking about what's for dinner on Thanksgiving?
Guthrie: Well, that's other people. We don't actually listen to the song on Thanksgiving.
Mathieu: Do you remember that fateful Thanksgiving meal that spawned the song, do you remember what you guys ate and what you did?
Guthrie: I don't. I mean, Alice is still a dear friend of mine. You know, she lives on the Cape, and one of the things was, she really was a great cook. She also had a number of restaurants, and all because of the availability of the song and her proximity to it. She was never a major character in my tale, but you know, people that hear that stuff go lookin'. And so people came to Stockbridge and said, 'Where is the restaurant?' And we would say, 'It's long gone.'
'Well, where was it?' And they'll stand out and take selfies or something out front.
Mathieu: The Back Room, right?
Guthrie: It was called The Back Room. It was right off the main drag in Stockbridge, which only has one main drag. And so it wasn't hard to find. Eventually she got out of that whole thing altogether and moved to Provincetown, where she's been ever since.
Mathieu: You changed her life in a lot of ways, and I guess she changed yours.
Guthrie: Well it was difficult for her, and I was sympathetic.
The real problem that we had as individual people was that when they made the movie, they based it on the song, right? And the song was based on these real events. And it takes about 20 minutes to tell. But a movie has to be an hour and a half. So how do you make a movie that's an hour and a half, when you only have a 20-minute story? Well, you end up making up a bunch of stuff. So they had to make up an hour and a half of stuff, in order to create a movie. People see things on film and assume it's true. And it became sort of an iconic film of the time, even though it really wasn't a great film station.
Mathieu: But it sounds like you remember that kid who wrote that song and told that story and why, all these years later.
Guthrie: No one could have expected, no one would have anticipated, that a story like that would ever become popular. I mean, if I thought it was going to become popular, I would have made it a hell of a lot shorter to begin with, if I knew I was going to have to repeat it for 50 freaking years.
Mathieu: So are you inspired at this point, or depressed by the fact that the message of that song is maybe more relevant now than it was 50 years ago?
Guthrie: I think, you know, the human condition doesn't change all that much. Irony is still funny. Being anti-authoritarian is still valid. Being suspicious of people who get elected is still a good idea. I don't care what side of the aisle you're on, I don't care what your story is, I don't care if you agree with me or not. But there are certain fundamental things about being a human being that are healthy, and one is a suspicion of people in authority. One is a sense of humor, I think, is a requirement. When people get angry, they lose their sense of humor. And I think a sense of humor is necessary to survive as a human species, not as an artist, not as a comedian, but we need to laugh. And we need to laugh at ourselves, and if we're able to do that, we'll get through any of these storms we have to weather these days.
Mathieu: Arlo Guthrie may not be listening to this tomorrow, but he has his own Thanksgiving tradition, a special meal for those in need at the Old Trinity Church in Great Barrington, Mass. It's the same one featured in the story, which Guthrie later purchased and turned into a cultural community center.