Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness, but, if television sitcoms are any guide, the holiday usually ends up with family feuds and resentment. This may be an entertaining exaggeration, but amid the chaotic aftermath of the 2020 election and the widening rift between left and right, angry scenes seem more common than ever. News stories of politically motivated splits among friends and family members have become commonplace. Around the Thanksgiving table, is it to be another year of conservatives versus progressives, boomers versus millennials, and hippies versus squares?
Will you be visiting Alice’s Restaurant this Thanksgiving? No, not a trendy new diner selling roast avocado and smashed turkey but an 18-minute talking ballad that is for folk music fans a Thanksgiving tradition. The epic anti-Vietnam War chronicle may seem like a strange choice for the 2020 holiday season, but Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Massacree describes how one Thanksgiving dinner triggered a sequence of events that highlighted the foibles of the U.S. establishment, as relevant today as ever. Because Thanksgiving is a time for understanding, we’re going to look past the tune to a tale Guthrie told audiences years later.
The son of folk icon Woody Guthrie, Arlo stands out from his ‘60s Greenwich Village folk compatriots for his sense of humor and refusal to take life too seriously. His most famous ballad is suitably hilarious, recounting the true story of how Guthrie was called up for the draft but rejected for service due to his criminal record: a conviction and $25 fine for littering.
Let’s go back to that fateful Thanksgiving, the day on which Guthrie commits his offense. He attended a “Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat” in Stockbridge, MA, at the home of his friend Alice – who lived upstairs in an old church and therefore “had a lot of room where the pews used to be” and refuse accumulated. Guthrie and his friend Richard Robbins wanted to do Alice a favor and delivered the trash to the dump in their red VW microbus, only to find it closed on Thanksgiving. Eventually, they see another pile of trash at the bottom of a cliff and, logically, “decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down.”
After returning to a second dinner without a care in the world, they get a phone call – from Officer Obie. The young men go down to the police station expecting a scolding but get arrested instead. Despite the town’s meager resources of “three stop signs, two police officers, and one police car,” the friends find the scene being treated like “the biggest crime of the last fifty years and everybody wanted to get in the newspaper story about it,” from sniffer dogs to fingerprints, not to mention the aerial photography. And that was only the beginning:
“After the ordeal, we went back to the jail. Obie said he was gonna put us in a cell. He said, ‘Kid, I’m gonna put you in a cell I want your wallet and your belt.’ I said, ‘Obie, I can understand your wantin’ my wallet, so I don’t have any money to spend in the cell, but what do you want my belt for?’ and he said, ‘Kid, we don’t want any hangings.’ I said, ‘Obie, did you think I was gonna hang myself for litterin’?’”
Luckily, Alice bailed them out. Shortly thereafter, they went to court, where Obie “began to cry” upon the realization that the judge wasn’t interested in his large volume of evidence and that in “a typical case of American blind justice,” the boys pled guilty, were fined, and made to pick up the litter.
As Guthrie told NPR in 2005, “it’s [a song] celebrating idiocy … I mean, thank God that the people that run this world are not smart enough to keep running it forever.” Well, Obie is certainly portrayed not only as a villain but also a foolish one. The story doesn’t end there, however.
Two years after the album, the film adaptation was released – with Guthrie playing himself and Obie played by none other than the real-life officer, William J. Obanhein. Why would the lawman agree to appear on film – aside from a shot at stardom? Apparently, he told Newsweek in 1969 that making himself look like a fool was better than having somebody else make him look like a fool. He also defended himself over the years, saying he had removed the prison cell’s toilet seat to prevent theft rather than suicide, and that he would have simply picked up the garbage himself if there hadn’t been so much of it.
Anyway, the song became a classic over the years, played on countless radio stations every Thanksgiving Day. But did the hippie and the square part with quiet but mutual contempt or the kind of ugly rancor increasingly seen today? Happily, the answer is no. Fifty years after the original release of the song, Guthrie celebrated with an anniversary tour, where he regaled audiences with the story of how he and Obie went from being antagonists to lifelong friends during filming:
“I hadn’t seen Obie since everything happened three years before. We got to the set and we didn’t say much to each other, just read the lines in the script. But one day, he said to me, ‘Well, if you hippies can get up at 4 a.m. to do this movie, you can’t be all bad.’ And we started talking and we eventually became good friends. So, you had two guys with absolutely nothing in common, and they start talking and they become friends. And Obie was a dear friend to me until he died some years ago … The world could use a lot more of that these days.”
And that, friends, is not the story of Alice’s Restaurant but the heartwarming side tale that should encourage all of us in a polarized world to remember that there is good in everyone if we care to find it. Nobody is all bad, and nobody is a complete fool – and we can give thanks for that. For the complete saga of Alice’s Restaurant, use a spare 18 minutes to take a listen – and maybe even join in the next time it comes around on the guitar.
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