Given the nature of "Alice's Restaurant Massacree," Arlo Guthrie's signature song, clocking in at 18:37 and containing 2,833 words, one might think Guthrie would be the talkative sort. Maybe other renderings of that epic song, some stretching 30, even 45 minutes, have Guthrie being more economical with his words. In any case, Guthrie's answers to this interviewer's questions were, well, concise, at least in comparison to the rambling song.
Nevertheless, Guthrie's place in American musical lore is forever secure. "Alice's Restaurant" opened the doors for a new level of anti-disestablishmentarianism (one of the longest words in English language but not a word used in the song) and since has become part of the American lexicon of folk music in which justice prevails in the face of foolishness.
"For me, the song and narrative was a classic tale of the little guy up against the big forces," Guthrie says of his song based on real-life events. "The 'hero' succeeds not because of any great personal attributes, but rather because of the stupidity of his adversary. If anything, that still means there's hope for everyone who feels like they can't get anything done."
Time constraints kept the song and Guthrie's influence confined mostly to living rooms, though the lengthy song does get some radio airplay -- sadly, only once a year -- every Thanksgiving. Yet, despite that the song is clearly Guthrie's best-known work, Guthrie doesn't perform the song except on special tours marking "the 10th anniversaries." This year marks the 50th anniversary of the song, so Guthrie has upped the ante on the current tour.
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Even without the "Alice's Restaurant" success -- "It introduced the world to me and introduced me to the rest of my life," he says -- or his popular rendition of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," Guthrie was destined for a musical career. His father was folk legend Woody Guthrie who, along with his wife, "dreamed that one day they'd have a bunch of kids and they'd travel around singing together, trying to make a positive difference," Guthrie says, noting that he also tours "from time to time" with his children as part of his band. "We are living their dream."
Yet, he adds, "They could not have cared less whether or not we were professional entertainers, leaving that to fate . . . My parents both believed that music was a language worth knowing well. So, as young kids, my brother, sister and I learned to read and play music."
As far as using those musical skills to secure his father's legacy as, as Guthrie puts it on his website, "America's most beloved songwriter," this eldest son of that musical legend feels confident in the fact his father could never be forgotten.
"My father's legacy would have been in good hands with or without me," he says, "but I'm happy to be another link in the chain of people who sing about the hopes and dreams some of us still have for a better world."
"Alice's Restaurant" certainly fills that bill, for this tour at least -- and every Thanksgiving in the foreseeable future.
Correction: This article originally published with an incorrect byline.
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