During Thanksgiving, after a cocktail or three, I usually end up behind a guitar, pickin’ out a raggedy-ass version of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” that’s mostly haphazard chords and half-remembered verses. Somehow, everyone smiles and sings along when it comes around, and pretends it’s the greatest retelling in a living room by a half-lit hillbilly ever witnessed by a thankful few. I’m always grateful for the reminder that family traditions aren’t always pretty, but that music– even when it’s mighty out of tune– remains the best and most forgiving of them all.
I learned the epic tune from my cousin Jo Lynn’s husband John thirty years ago. Their son Antonio performs with the band Parsonsfield, and I wonder if he too eats turkey and pie and sings the Massacree to all those gathered (though I suspect his effort is much, much savvier than mine). I also recall visiting my Aunt D’Ann in New Jersey when I was around twelve years old and her husband, my uncle (another John) rented the 1969 film Alice’s Restaurant— on videotape. I don’t think I quite “got it” then and probably didn’t “get it” when I was sixteen… But that’s not what I came to tell you about. I came to talk about the other half of Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 debut studio album of the same name, which due to the legendary status of its eighteen-minute A-side gets criminally overlooked.
Following in the footsteps of his iconic father Woody, Arlo’s skill as a songwriter and ability as a player are almost supernaturally better than his then twenty years should’ve allowed. Of course, a lot of kids in America were compelled to grow up quickly during the Vietnam War Era, and Guthrie’s songs navigate the ironies and intricacies of the period handily.
Arlo matches the hilarity and satire of the Massacree with beautiful snapshots of folk and counterculture poetry in “Chilling Of The Evening”, “I’m Going Home”, and “Highway In The Wind”, mixing in a slight dose of psychedelia with “Now And Then”. Arlo keeps his wit(s) about him with “Ring Around-A-Rosy Rag”, and “The Motorcycle Song” is as good a place as any to protest– especially around seldom-seen relatives during an election cycle!
This Thanksgiving, before you listen to Arlo talk about a half o’ ton o’ garbage, a VW microbus, and tools and rakes and implements of destruction (or you butcher your own version), flip the platter over and start with the B-side. Consider it an appetizer.