Remembering Alice’s Restaurant

Most of my blog posts are easy and quick to write. I’m retelling a true story that happened to me – typically that day. Occasionally, I will philosophize about something, which takes more work. But rarely do I desire to write about a topic that takes planning, research, outlines, etc. And on the rare occasion that desire presents itself, I take a few notes and then wait for the feeling to pass.

I’m not intentionally waiting. It’s just that writing takes time and energy and that kind of writing takes a lot of energy and more time. As a married mother of three, working full time and then shuttling kids around, all while trying to find time to finish remodeling projects and handle other commitments that I perhaps shouldn’t have made, I rarely find a large enough block of time to give those ideas life. Eventually, I move on.

One of those ideas concerned my favorite songs. I made a tentative list, trying to force myself to narrow the list down to ten. Eventually I decided that there was no way to compare Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony to Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good. Then my husband suggested I consider why I like the songs. Do they have some great import? Do I like the lyrics? Or the music? The list grew. And then sat. And now it’s misplaced somewhere on the computer desk. At least, that’s where I hope it is.

A song that I knew, without a doubt, would be on that list regardless of whether I categorized the list in any way was Alice’s Restaurant by Arlo Guthrie. If you aren’t familiar with it, you should stop reading this and go watch it on YouTube. Actually, don’t. The song is like 23 minutes long and you might not come back to me.

Anyway, I considered this song to be a cultural icon. A song that everyone knew and all the cool people could sing along with. It’s huge and surely only the hopelessly clueless or the young had failed to hear it. I had had very little opportunity to determine my view was mistaken.

That brings me to a recent conversation with two coworkers, both originally from Louisiana, which might have explained the problem if I hadn’t found the problem pervasive throughout my workplace, including some Oklahomans who without question should not have been living in this particular ignorance. One of them made a comment about something being “horrible”. With his New Orleans accent, it sounded like “har-ible” (the ‘har’ rhyming with ‘car’).

I was transported to the end of Alice’s Restaurant where Arlo tries to get the audience to sing along with him. They don’t do a very good job so he announces “That was har-ible. If you want to end war and stuff, you have to sing louder. We’ll do it again the next time it comes around on the guitar. This time with feeling.” (That’s a rough paraphrase, for any of you purists out there).

So I commented on it and they both gave me blank looks. I started talking about the song. More blank looks. I gave them the title and Arlo’s name. More blank looks. I began to panic. “Arlo Guthrie?” I asked. “Folk singer from the sixties?… Um… Woody Guthrie’s son?… Surely you’ve heard of Woody at least?” One of them had not and the other looked uncertain.

I turned to the Oklahoman in the cubicle across from us. He at least knew Arlo and could name a song of his but did not know his seminal work. I asked another Oklahoman as he walked by. No. A couple of other folks. No.

My boss, originally from some place north, knew it but admitted that it was only because his father-in-law forced him to listen as he sang it, that he had never heard Arlo sing it and had obviously never gotten to the end, as he deemed it pointless. Technically, most of the song is pointless (although entertainingly so), but the ending makes it clear that there is a point. It was a war protest song during Vietnam.

Dismayed, I turned to my Facebook friends. I was soon able to make some generalizations. If you had been an adult or near-enough in the late sixties or early seventies, especially if you were in the folk song or hippie crowd, you knew it. If you were not around back then but had a particularly hippie-ish parent or are a major music buff, you knew it. Or if you spent any of your life in Oklahoma City, listening to KRXO, the classic rock station, you knew it because they play it every year at noon on Thanksgiving.

I’m still amazed how many people are unfamiliar with the song. It was a significant part of my childhood. We’d listen to it in the car on the way to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. When my husband and I found it on Thanksgiving while riding in the car with our kids, we made everyone stay seated when we reached our destination, so that we could sing along. Every lyric. Exactly. Our kids thought we were insane.

So go check it out now. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

SIDE NOTE: Even the people unfamiliar with Woody Guthrie’s name, knew one of his songs: This Land Is My Land. What many don’t know is that Woody was a bit of a subversive and that song, now one of our great patriotic songs, was actually a protest song of sorts. He originally titled it “God Blessed America” and considered it a direct response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which he despised. He hated “God Bless America” because he felt that it was demanding more blessings on a country that was already covered in such extreme blessings that it was obscene to request more. I’ve often wondered what he would think about his song’s position in society now.

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