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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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‘Alice’s Restaurant’ Revisited, 50 Years Later

(CN) - These days it comes right after intermission, its ascending, four-note introduction starting even before the stage lights come up.

"You still here?" Arlo Guthrie says in mock surprise as the anticipation in the darkened hall gives way to sustained applause.

The sound coming from the audience almost eclipses the spare sound of Guthrie's acoustic guitar, cresting just as the first verse approaches.

"Well, it sounds like you might have heard this before," Guthrie says, adjusting his position on the wooden stool at center stage.

"I know I have," he adds ruefully.

For the next 18 minutes and 34 seconds -- more when he's in the mood -- Guthrie's audience sits enraptured, listening intently to the verses most of them know by heart, and singing along on the choruses.

Somehow, the song originally titled "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," but known for almost all of its life simply as "Alice's Restaurant," never grows old. Its smirkily subversive message finds new adherents every year, while in its familiar glow longtime acquaintances grow young again.

It all started 50 years ago this Thanksgiving, with a friendly gesture that went comically awry, and later played a surprising and more serious part in making in making Guthrie ineligible for the draft, keeping him out of Vietnam.

However , the roots of "Alice's Restaurant" go back much further than that, to Woody Guthrie's decision to settle in Coney Island, New York, where his first son Arlo was born on July 10, 1947.

By the time he arrived in New York, Guthrie was well established as one of America's most important folk singers and songwriters, the majority of the hundreds of songs he turned out commenting on social injustices and his experiences traveling with displaced farmers from Dust Bowl era Texas and Oklahoma to California.

It was radio that cemented his image as "the Dust Bowl Troubadour," and his daughter Nora Guthrie suggested he could have been a big radio star, but inevitably, "his politics got in the way."

"That happened on almost every, single radio show he had," she said. "Woody would start out and people loved him. He was very funny, personable, and then, at a certain point, the sponsors would start getting uncomfortable with the things he was talking and singing about. This was especially so when his music became more political.

"So what would happen is, the sponsors would ignore the comedy and the strong public response, and say, 'Could you please lighten up?" And Woody would get upset and he quit almost every show he had," she said.

The move east was a chance to rekindle his radio career; it became so much more.

Between stints on the CBS network, and the New York radio powerhouse, WNEW-AM, Guthrie met Arlo and Nora's mother, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, wrote what would become his most famous song, "This Land is Your Land," became a member of the Almanac Singers, and completed his long-gestating memoir, "Bound for Glory."

Despite being the keeper of her father's legacy, Nora Guthrie apologetically admits she's far from a Woody Guthrie scholar. She doesn't know how her Dad wound up in WNEW, for what would turn out to be his last programs as host. She does, however, still possess the script from his very first WNEW show, covered with notes written in her father's hand.

The date was Dec. 3, 1944.


"The show opened with just the sound of him playing guitar, and then, as he continues to play, he goes into this spiel, talking about himself, his songs, and what he hopes to convey over the course of the show," she said.

Looking down at the faded pages, Guthrie paused. Then she chuckled, as if to a private joke.

"I want to say it's kind of like 'Alice's Restaurant,'" she said.

"And included within it are a lot of Woody's most famous quotes," Guthrie continued. "For instance, he says, 'I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good ... I hate a song that makes you think you were born to lose.' And it goes on like that. It's a very iconic piece of Woody's writing.

"And then he goes on to explain what his music is like, what his positions are politically, and he talked about his support of labor union and so forth," Guthrie said.

The program lasted only until May 1945, when Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Army, and then promptly joined the Merchant Marine.

Woody Guthrie's life was never less than complicated, and it became even more so in the aftermath of World War II, when he was blacklisted for a tenuous association with the Communist Party, and first exhibited the symptoms of Huntington's disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder that would ultimately kill him.

He and Mazia divorced in the early 1950s, when Guthrie's increasingly erratic behavior was sometimes mistaken for signs of insanity or drunkenness, and the doomed folksinger began an extended hospitalization at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris County, New Jersey -- where the young Bob Dylan would visit him in 1960 -- the Brooklyn State Hospital, in East Flatbush, and finally, the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, New York.

Arlo Guthrie was six when his father first went into the hospital, and he later said he only remembers bits and pieces -- what he described as "snapshots" -- of his father at home. Among these snapshots is a visit during which Woody bought Arlo the $80 acoustic guitar on which the younger Guthrie learned to play.

Marjorie Guthrie, who feared the family was forever teetering on the edge of poverty, was angered by the purchase, but Woody was unmoved, arguing strenuously that a cheaper guitar would only frustrate to the boy.

It was a pivotal moment in Arlo Guthrie's life. The next came in 1959, when his mother, a former member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, began teaching dance at the Indian Hill Arts Workshop, a summer camp outside of Stockbridge, a small town in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.

"Arlo really took to the country," his sister Nora said.

Then as now, Stockbridge was a fairly quiet town, a bedroom community of Boston, which is some two-and-half hours away, perhaps best known as the home of the illustrator Norman Rockwell, who lived on South Street, and because of its proximity to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

In the autumn of 1962, with his mother's blessing, Arlo enrolled as a freshman at the Stockbridge School, a progressive high school with a music- and arts-heavy curriculum.


Settling into the routine at the small boarding school, where the student body never numbered more than 200, Guthrie soon met Alice Brock, a friendly and welcoming aspiring painter who had taken a job as a librarian at the school, and her husband Ray, an architect and woodworker who looked perpetually in need of a shave, and was teaching shop there.

"It was a very small school, so you really got to know almost everybody there, to one extent or another," Alice Brock remembered more than 50 years later.

In the early 1960s most of the Stockbridge School staff lived in dormitories during the school year, just like their students. Brock and her husband, however, were assigned a cottage on the property -- a home that soon became a refuge and a gathering place for Guthrie and his circle of friends.

"Arlo played guitar and so did my husband -- it seemed like everybody did then -- and pretty soon they were singing folk songs together," Brock said. "That was the initial connection, I think. Ray was a very charismatic guy; the boys just loved him -- the girls loved him too -- and they used to come hang out with us."

"The cottage was a great place for the kids to come and smoke cigarettes and we'd play music and I'd cook for them."

Of course, there was more to it than that. In Alice Brock, Guthrie found a kindred spirit.

"I had been somewhat rebellious when I was young, and it was actually my mother who got me the job at Stockbridge School in an attempt ... to get me under control, I guess," she said.

"I went to college in 1958 and left college in 1960, and I was very involved in everything that was going on politically at the time. I marched on picket lines. I sat in at Woolworths. I was marching with the NAACP,and at the same time,I was involved in the anti-nuclear weapon movement. I belonged to a group called Sane Nuclear Policy."

It was also during this time that Brock began hanging out in the Village.

"It was a wonderful time," she said. "There was all kinds of great music, and there were lots of things going on in the arts ... and I was an attractive single young lady ... so I was popular with the men who were part of the scene.

"It was a great time and a very healthful time -- and then I met Ray," she said. "At first we were beatniks. And then we became hippies. But, you know, those are just names people apply to things."


Among the topics of conversation that first autumn in Stockbridge was the old Trinity Church on Division Street in Great Barrington, a building Alice and Ray paid no mind to when they first arrived in town, but which had unexpectedly become a source of tension between them.

The tall white edifice, about four miles from the Stockbridge School, was built in 1829, and consecrated as the St. James Chapel. It was enlarged and renamed Trinity Church 37 years later, but for many years prior to the Brocks' arrival in the area, it had stood vacant.

That is, until Alice's mother, a real estate agent and still careworn over her daughter's independent nature, politics and penchant for beatniks and the Greenwich Village art scene, decided to buy it and present it to Alice and Ray as a wedding present.


"Initially, we didn't do anything with it," Brock said. "I wanted to move back to New York -- and we actually did move back to New York for a little while -- but then somehow I got convinced to move back up.

"I don't remember how," she continued. "I don't remember what possible argument had been made. But Ray was going to make the church into a living space, which he did."

When they returned to Stockbridge the church was still, architecturally speaking, a church -- one huge open space, with a ceiling 30 feet above it, where the pews had been, and a 70-foot-tall bell tower that could only be accessed by climbing a tall, vertical ladder.

"There really wasn't any living space in the building at all," Brock said.

Quickly weighing their options, they decided to live in the bell tower, which at the time "didn't have any floor," Brock said.

"So we put in a teeny little staircase to get up there, put floors in, and built some bedrooms and a bathroom," she said. "And the ground floor was our living room and our kitchen.

"It was vertical living," she laughed.

Soon, the students who had gathered at the Brock's place on the Stockbridge School grounds were hanging out at the church, and the smoking and singing and eating resumed as if the couple had never returned to New York.

Guthrie graduated from the Stockbridge School in the spring of 1965, and entered Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana that fall, intending to study forestry. It took only a few weeks, however, until Guthrie suspected he'd made a mistake.

Seeing Thanksgiving break as the perfect opportunity to get away and think things over, Guthrie enlisted friend and fellow Stockbridge School alum Rick Robbins to join him on a road trip back to Massachusetts.

They set out from Montana in a red VW Microbus, stopping only in Chicago and Philadelphia so that Guthrie could play some gigs to pay for gas and food. Racing the disappearance of the fall foliage, they made their deliberate way back to Stockbridge, the church and the Brocks, hoping to arrive in time for the holiday dinner.

Meanwhile, back in Stockbridge, the Brocks were preparing for nothing short of a gala, and that called for some strategizing.

"I decided I was going to do the Thanksgiving, and we thought, 'Why not do it in style?'" Brock said. "We invited our friends from New York. We invited our friends from Stockbridge. You know, everybody. We had this gigantic space downstairs, why not take advantage of it?

"The only problem was, while the room was great to use in the summertime, it was impractical to heat in the winter. We didn't live in the downstairs, after all; so by the late fall, it would be freezing cold," she said.

Ray was also using the downstairs space as a workshop, and had a number of tools set up for ongoing work on the tower.

"Plus the guys had their motorcycles in there, and we had a big trapeze set up as well," Brock said.

All of this had to be relocated, and the space filled with tables.

Then, for the comfort of their guests, the Brocks decided to fire up the old boiler down in the basement.

"It was this old, coal-fired heating system," Brock said. "So we got a ton or two of coal, and filled this gigantic thing, which was quite a production by itself. After that, we hired a kid to stay down there and keep shoveling coal, so we could use the ground floor space even though it was the end of November."


As Guthrie, Robbins and the other guests arrived, Ray entertained; Alice cooked.

"It's one of those dinners -- no matter the size of the gathering -- where you are committed to preparing very specific dishes," Brock said.

"I made a large turkey. I made stuffing. I made cranberry sauce. Mashed potatoes. Candied yams. Creamed onions. Apple pie. Pumpkin pie. Pecan pie," she said.

It was, Guthrie would sing later, "a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat."

Ray Brock rose early the following morning and finding the great room in complete disarray, woke Guthrie and Robbins and set them to work, helping to clean the place up.

Backing the VW Microbus to the front door of the church, they proceeded to cram it full of boxes, cartons, bottles, an old couch and other rubbish, before heading off to the Great Barrington town dump on Route 7, the main thoroughfare through town.

Finding it closed, they drove around aimlessly -- no doubt thinking about the leftovers that awaited them back at the old church -- when Guthrie remembered a side road leading up Prospect Hill, a residential section of Stockbridge, dotted with verdant estates across from the Indian Hill Music Camp.

Guthrie drove to the crest of the hill and pulled the VW onto the shoulder, the pebbles distinguishing it from the asphalt roadbed making the sound of popping corn as the van rolled to a stop.

If one were inclined to throw a large amount of refuse over the side of the hill -- and Guthrie was -- you could not ask for a more auspicious spot. The scene of the crime was a clearing, about a car-length wide, at a break in the concrete wall that ran parallel to the lane.

The top of the wall, the only partly visible from the road, was a two-by-two-foot concrete barrier. At the break, the ends of the wall were marked by white paint and the signs of repeated impacts and other rough treatment. Guthrie and Robbins obviously weren't the first to stop at the spot or to back up to the drop off.

Making the location all the more inviting was the concrete slab that spanned the opening - a feature providing steady footing for fast work.

The wall extended several feet straight down, where it met ground that gently sloped to a shallow valley, where conifers, plentiful bare elms, beeches and maples stood, and a tangle of leafless bushes and dried winter grass waited to buffer the sound of anything dropped on them.

Guthrie and Robbins heaved their load over the side and headed back to the church.

An hour or so later, having been summoned by property owner Nelson Foote Sr., Stockbridge Police Chief William J. Obanhein climbed from his blue Ford Galaxy police cruiser and stood at the top of the wall, surveying the mess below. His jaw tightened.


"There must be a pickup truck's worth of stuff down there," he thought.

Obanhein, a large gruff man with a reputation for being quick to anger, was the kind of local character that gave rise to the cliché "straight out of central casting." Only in Obanhein's case it was literally true. Beginning in the late 1950s, the illustrator Norman Rockwell -- Stockbridge's most famous resident -- frequently asked the police chief to pose for him.

In June 1957, Obanhein appeared in the pages of Reader's Digest magazine in "Policeman with Boys," an advertisement Rockwell created for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.

Obanhein reprised his "role" as a law enforcement officer in one of Rockwell's most controversial and enduring illustrations. "The Problem We All Live With" depicts a six-year-old black girl, Ruby Bridges, being escorted by four U.S. marshals to her first day at an all-white school in New Orleans.

The event the painting is based on occurred on Nov. 14, 1960, when racist crowds jeered the youngster as she headed to class, and again in the afternoon, when she walked home from the school.

Obanhein was one of four Stockbridge men who posed as one of the marshals in mid-1963. A racial slur is scrawled on the wall behind them, as are the letters "KKK". Remnants of a tomato hurled at the procession lay at their feet.

Originally published as a centerfold in the January 14, 1964, issue of Look magazine, the painting became an icon of the civil rights movement, and in July 2011, President Barack Obama requested the original be hung outside the Oval Office.

On the afternoon of Nov. 26, 1965, however, Obanhein was merely an irate policeman, wading through trash. Finally, after what he later said was "a very disagreeable two hours," he found a telltale clue: an envelope with the name "Brock" on it.

A short time later, the phone rang at the church.

"He was pretty rough," said Alice Brock, who was on the receiving end of the police chief's call.

Although she tried to shield Guthrie and Robbins from Obanhein's wrath, he heard her cup her hand over the receiver and ask someone in the room where he'd dumped the trash. In short order, the truth was out.

After collecting the two young men, Obanhein drove back to the pile of garbage and took a series of photographs -- black and white, rather than the "8x10 color glossies," immortalized in the song -- labeling them "Prospect Hill Rubbish Dumping. File under Guthrie and Robbins 11/26/65."

He placed the duo under arrest, and drove them to the Stockbridge police station on Main Street. There, they were placed in a cell - a small, room with green walls, a metal cot and chicken wire stretched over the window -- and told to make themselves comfortable.

By the time Alice showed up to get them out of jail, she was livid.

Not only did she think Obanhein's arrest of her guests for littering a gross over-reaction, but raising money for bail on a weekend when banks were closed had been difficult.

"Let me tell you, it wasn't easy to come up with $50 in cash on Thanksgiving weekend," Brock said. "It was a lot of quarters and dollar bills. Everybody had to cough up some money."

Arriving at that station, Brock said, "I went in there like gangbusters.


"I yelled. I gave Obanhein a hard time. 'You let those guys out,' I demanded. And let me tell you ... that approach did not work with him. He almost arrested me as well."

Once the two calmed down, Brock paid the bail, and Guthrie and Robbins were allowed to return to the church to await their hearing in Lee District Court the following day, a Saturday.

It was only after the presiding magistrate, Special Justice James F. Hannon entered the courtroom that the defendants realized he was blind, and their case was fated to be "a typical case of American blind justice."

After Guthrie and Robbins pleaded guilty, Hannon accept the bail payment as their fine, and sentenced them to remove the rubbish that afternoon, a task made complicated by the heavy rain that had fallen earlier in the day.

After they were done, Obanhein gloated. He told a local newspaper reporter that Guthrie and Robbins found dragging the refuse up the hillside much harder than throwing it down.

He also said he hoped their case would be an example to others who were tempted to be careless about their garbage disposal.


Many accounts of the writing of "Alice's Restaurant" suggest Guthrie began toying with the idea almost as soon as he and Robbins returned to the church after picking up the garbage. Some have even suggested Brock had a hand in writing it.

Alice Brock herself said all of these accounts are wrong.

"That Thanksgiving dinner is only one element of the story, and many of the things mentioned in it hadn't happened yet or simply didn't exist," she said.

In fact, it would be months before Alice Brock opened her first restaurant down a little alleyway behind Nejaimes Market, now gone, at 40 Main Street in Stockbridge.

Before she went into business, "Alice's" had been a luncheonette, serving mostly breakfast and lunch. Its decor consisted of a little counter and a few booths.

But Alice didn't stay in business long. Realizing that her marriage was crumbling, she closed the restaurant long before anyone ever heard its namesake song. She didn't open another place until "Alice's Restaurant," the movie, came out a few years later.

As for Arlo Guthrie, in the aftermath of Thanksgiving at the church, he got swept up in the social and other changes that were fast coming to define "the '60's," abruptly left college, and immediately became eligible for the draft.

Guthrie's number was called in March 1966, a milestone that inspired him to write a lengthy letter to his draft board, asking it to reconsider.

"I do not believe that war is a means to attain good, nor that it creates love or respect for something good. ... Everyone involved can only lose. We can only defeat our own purposes," he wrote.

He added later, "By going to war, I am going against my basis for living. This is why I cannot go to war."

The government was unmoved.

Instead of forgetting the whole thing, it invited him to visit the New York City induction center at 39 Whitehall Street and make himself available for a physical examination. That's when a remarkable thing happened -- Guthrie learned his Thanksgiving weekend arrest for littering barred him from military service, preventing him from being sent to Vietnam.

"I just couldn't believe it," he told Rolling Stone in 2014.

With that, it took him about a year to write the song, he said.


"When I first started writing about it, it was just repeating or telling my audience what had happened to me, because I thought it was funny," Guthrie told Rolling Stone.

Right from the start, Obanhein was transformed into "Officer Obie" and the scene in the courtroom became "a typical case of American blind justice."

Throughout the summer and fall of 1966, the song continued to grow, as Guthrie sharpened the song's anti-authoritarian edge and refined it to reflect changes in his life and those of his other protagonists.

By the time he had the more or less polished version of the "Alice Restaurant" finished, the song, a spoken-word piece performed over ragtime guitar, could run anywhere from 18 to 35 minutes, depending on Guthrie's mood.

Brock said the first time she heard it she thought it was great.

"But that's the thing about Arlo, he can take these disparate events and have them all come together in his strange mind in a really unique and entertaining way," she said.

"Of course, nobody thought anything was going to come of it," she said.

There was good reason for this: FM rock radio didn't exist as Guthrie was writing "Alice's Restaurant," and the tightly formatted Top 40 stations that dominated radio markets across the country were loathe to play anything longer than two-and-a-half to three minutes.

In the meantime, Arlo was making himself a presence on the New York City folk scene, which brought him to the attention of Bob Fass, host of the overnight "Radio Unnamable" program on WBAI, the noncommercial, listener-sponsored Manhattan station owned by the Pacifica Foundation.

Fass, a former off-Broadway actor and pioneer of the free-form radio format, strove each night for the intimacy, freedom of expression and experimentation that had originally drawn him to the theater.

His one rule is that there would be a paucity of rules. Callers could talk as long as they wanted about any topic they wanted. His door would always be open to any young musician or writer or activist who wanted to stop by.

"Much of it was based on a kind of serendipity," Fass said.

In the mid-1960s his regular guests included Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg.

Try as he might, though, he had a hard time enticing Guthrie to come on his show the first time.

"I had been hearing about him for a couple of months. He'd been playing around the village, and somebody -- I don't remember who -- told me Woody Guthrie had a son who was really good," Fass remembered. "So I tried to put some feelers, to get him to come up, but for one reason or another, I didn't get his attention."

Finally, Fass turned to a mutual friend, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the Brooklyn-born raconteur and cowboy singer who'd been an acolyte of Woody Guthrie and who for a period in the mid-1960s, until it was no longer necessary, had taken his friend's son under his wing.

"It was Jack Elliott who brought him up," Fass said. Sometime after midnight on February 27, 1967, Arlo Guthrie sang "Alice's Restaurant" on the radio for the first time.

The response from listeners was almost instantaneous. By the time Guthrie finished the song, all ten phone lines coming into Fass's studio were lit up. The calls kept coming the next day, and for weeks after that.

Something extraordinary had happened on the air, they all agreed. "Alice's Restaurant" crystallized a cultural moment -- their cultural moment -- and they all wanted to hear it again. By May 1967, so many requests had come in for the station's recording of the song, that WBAI began using it to support its fundraising efforts.

It was the only way one could hear the song at that point, as Guthrie's debut album, on which "Alice's Restaurant" would take up an entire side, wouldn't be released until the following October.

Ed Sanders, the poet and social activist who had just been featured on the February 17, 1967, cover of Life Magazine as "a leader of New York's Other Culture" when "Alice" had its radio debut, said Fass was ideally positioned to be an early discoverer of people like Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and others.

"He had what they call in the business, 'good ears,'" Sanders said. "He had good taste, and he always kept his radical sentiments and his desire for a better world, at the front of his mind.

"And remember, it wasn't so easy for people who expressed those sentiments in those years," he continued. "Once you stood out against the Vietnam War, or for legalization of marijuana, or even if you were just a supporter of socially aware rock and roll, you could face everything from the FBI to the FCC to right-wing zealots who worked at crushing you down.

"People forget just how stressful a period the '60s really were," Sanders said.

Fifty years later, on stage in Newberry, South Carolina, Guthrie expressed a similar feeling about the times that lent "Alice's Restaurant" its initial context.

"It seemed like somewhere in the mid-1960s into the 1970s, the whole world got thrown up in the air and everybody was waiting to see how it would come back down," he said. "Nobody knew."


In July 1967, Guthrie took the song to the Newport Folk Festival, where he was one of a score of hopeful, promising artists at a three-day event headlined by Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Pete Seeger and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Among the other relative unknowns hoping to gain some career traction by appearing were Leonard Cohen and the Incredible String Band.

Guthrie arrived early Sunday morning, July 16, 1967, and performed "Alice's Restaurant"

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