Nora Guthrie Talks About Alice’s Restaurant, Arlo, and Woody

By lambert strether from Corrente.

My family, like many families, had a Thanksgiving tradition: Playing Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant (1967 version). For this Thanksgiving, the Unknown Transcriber has been kind enough to offer us the text of a recent interview with Arlo Guthrie’s sister, Nora. So, if you’ve emerged from your tryptophan haze, or if the Lions game lacks suspense, check it out. I like the story about Arlo being a ringleader. We need more ringleaders, don’t we?

[NOTE: Video will play automatically.]

In case the video about doesn’t work, here’s a link to the BBC original:

BBC Radio 4 segment posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012


NORA GUTHRIE: I’m his younger sister. Yeah, he’s 2½ years older than me. I mean, I remember hearing it at least a year before he recorded it. He would come home and play it, and it was very funny. I mean, Arlo always wrote a lot of goofy kind of songs like that, so it was one among a lot of other goofy things that he was doing in those days. You know, he was all of 16, 17, 18 when he was playing music with his little band already, and always had a really funny sense of humor, so it was kind of, for us, it was kind of another one of Arlo’s funny songs, you know? And I knew all the cast of characters because that was his teachers and his friends, you know, all of the kids that were involved in the story. They were real people, you know, real friends. So I had grown up with them all.

Arlo singing: You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. You can get anything you want…

NORA: He was at a party with Alice and Ray at their house for Thanksgiving, and they, the day later, they took out the garbage and dumped it, illegally, someplace (laughs), and got arrested for it, got picked up. I remember them calling my mother to tell her that Arlo was in tr– I’m not sure if it was Arlo or the cops or somebody was calling my mom and saying he’s been arrested for littering or something. So this story is actually probably 85% or 90% actual fact. And it’s the way he tells it to you, the way he delivers it, that makes it sound so bizarre. And maybe that is part of Arlo’s talent is taking reality and showing you how bizarre reality can be.

Arlo singing: …the bell tower like that. They got a lot of room downstairs where the pews used to be, seeing as how they took out all of the pews. And having all that room down there, they decided that they didn’t have to take out their garbage for an extra special long time. Having all that garbage in there, we decided that it would be a friendly gesture for us to take the garbage down to the town dump.

NORA: I think the thing that really made it was Arlo, his timing, his sense of humor. He was always making up, since he was a little kid, he was always making up alternative universes (laughs) that he was living in. And like I said, the word “ringleader” comes to mind. I mean, when we were little, just on the streets outside where we would play with the friends, Arlo was always the ringleader, like inventing stories and let’s do this. And I remember he had this one ride that he invented, and he basically took a shopping cart from a supermarket and he would put you in the shopping cart and race you all up and down the block and over bumps and making sharp right turns and left turns and just doing everything to kind of scare the pants off of you. And he would charge a nickel. And all the kids, all the kids would get in the – you know, want to get in the shopping cart – you know, “It’s my turn! It’s my turn!” And it was called the Hairy Scary Safari ride. (laughs) And he just had this way of, first of all, just making up funny titles and putting words together in funny ways. And his timing and his wit were – it kind of, it keeps surprising you what happens next, it keeps surprising you, kind of like a great writer would do.

But, you know, it’s funny, because it wasn’t until many, many, many, many years later I heard a recording, I would say about maybe four years ago, I heard, my first time, I heard a recording of my father performing in front of a live audience, which I had never heard before. Someone had made a tape of it. And I can’t tell you how parallel Arlo was in his timing, in his delivery, etcetera. And I had heard my father’s songs, obviously, all my life, but I had never heard him as a performer. And it turns out like he would introduce his songs with these 15-minute comic deliveries of how he made up the song, and why he did it, and his timing, and the words that he would use. And it was so almost exactly the way Arlo delivers a song. Which is basically Alice’s Restaurant is an 18-minute introduction to a 30-second song called Alice’s Restaurant. It’s basically an introduction, you know? (laughs) But the introduction is more interesting than the song. But I don’t know if it’s genetically – I don’t think he ever heard Woody perform, so he didn’t get it from that. But it’s like this weird genetic thing where he’s just almost, you know, the exact image of, the exact sound of how my father would perform.

Arlo singing: …story about it. And they was using up all kinds of cop equipment that they had hanging around the police officer station. They was using plaster tire track, footprints, fingerprints, dog-smelling prints, and they took 27 8×10…

NORA: Oh, my dad would have loved it, because I think my dad would have said, “That’s my boy. That’s my boy. You know, he got my sense of humor, he got my timing, he got all of that stuff.” And it’s just kind of really bizarre to me, because like I said, Arlo never really heard Woody perform in his prime. Woody was in the 1940s when he was in his prime, and Arlo wasn’t born until the late ’40s, so he wasn’t even conscious, you know, a kid, until he was in the 1950s, so there’s no way he would have heard Woody perform. And I just think it’s really eerie sometimes how much his humor and everything is just so much like my dad’s. I think my dad would just love it. He would be cracking up with us.

Arlo singing: …we sat down. Obie looked at the 27 8×10″ colored glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us, then looked at the seeing eye dog, then looked at the judge…

NORA: One of Arlo’s chief features is his twisted humor. And I say that in the best sense of the word, where he takes something that’s really kind of tough and hard and serious and manages to kind of twist it around, and you find yourself laughing at the thing that made you upset an hour ago. And I’ve also discovered over the years that my father was very good at doing that. Somebody told me this story, when he was in the merchant marines and the ship he was on was being torpedoed, and there were like 2,000 guys down in the hold in the ship that they were bringing over to Europe, soldiers. And my dad went down there to quote unquote entertain them, to calm them down. And what song did he choose to sing? The Sinking of the Reuben James. And everyone’s looking at him, his friends are like, “Are you nuts? Why are you singing that song? That’s crazy!” And it was so bizarre that he’s singing, “Oh, the good ship went down, and what were their names, tell me what were their names.” It was just so bizarre and crazy that everyone started cracking up laughing, and then the soldiers got up and started dancing, “What were their names? Did you have a ship–” You know, “Did you lose a friend on the good Reuben James?”

So Arlo also seemed to inherit that kind of, uh, you know, ability to turn something upside down so that you find yourself in a bizarre situation where you’re laughing at something that was terrifying to you, and that certainly was the draft in the 1960s to so many kids, when there still was a draft in the United States then. And Arlo was kind of getting prepared, you know. He was of age, and I think he was preparing himself for what was he going to do when his day came and he got the letter in the mail. And one of the ways he could deal with it was by creating this incredibly long and silly, stupid (laughing), crazy, bizarre song that, of all the reasons that he doesn’t get drafted is because he was littering. You know? So, I don’t know, he just has that kind of sense of humor. Always has.

Arlo singing: You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant…

NORA: I try not to listen to it too much these days (laughing), but – it’s such a long song. But the thing is is that even now when he performs it, every couple of years he pulls it out, I sit there laughing, and I can’t believe that after all these years I’m still laughing. I don’t know if it’s the delivery, his performance, I don’t know what it is, but it still cracks me up. And I keep thinking, “Oh, I never want to hear that again,” and then he plays it again and I crack up again. But that’s kind of always been my relationship with Arlo, he’s always cracked me up since I was a little kid. It’s just one of those things, like on one hand you say, “I can’t get enough of it,” and on the other hand you say, “Stop! Stop!” (laughs) But I, I imagine him, when he has to do it all the time – and one of the things that always amazes me about him as a performer is that he always sounds like he’s singing it for the very first time.

Arlo singing: You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, excepting Alice. You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant. I said, walk right in, it’s around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything that you want at Alice’s Restaurant, da da da da da da da da, at Alice’s Restaurant.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. .

    Huh, never considered that as a T’giving observance. Top ten early life apotheosis to be sure. And not just for the likes of us, a chiefcooknbottlewasher of hers told me he chucked his idyllic preppie ski bum life to return when the song made him realize how countercultural his home had become. The restaurant where Alice’s was is sadly not so good now. Or one’s tastes have become more effete.

  2. direction

    Thanks Lambert,
    Hope you had a cozy Thanksgiving, and thanks for eveything you do for this blog. You have a precious sense of humour, and perhaps this is due to the sort of family and friends you grew up with. The humour, everybody’s contribution to the humour, is what makes this blog so appealing. I hope you have a good Winter.

  3. psychohistorian

    Radio station here in Portland, OR (KINK) plays it every year on Thanksgiving.

    Yep, we need more trouble makers like Arlo.

  4. charles sereno

    On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m reminded of tales of banquets, particularly from the literature of the two testaments (Matthew, Luke, Isaiah, Ezekiel). Matthew, perhaps, provides the most memorable quote — “Many are called but few are chosen.” There’s a certain edginess in how invitations are issued. Does that mean that Greeks not bearing gifts or Argentines without credentials are to be turned away? There’s also an opposite view. When the elites turn up their noses, bring on the the lame and poor. I know there are other interpretations as well. In the spirit of Arlo, I say, “Many are cold but few are frozen” (as attested by Rockaway residents and so many others).

  5. Paul Tioxon

    Just got home from Thanksgiving with the whole family. Wife, 3 kids and 1 grand kid and immediate in-laws. And, I displayed my old copy of Alice’s Restaurant. And of course, this being Philadelphia, it was played again, 3 times today, for the umpteenth year. So Lambert, compadre, it’s like old home week all over the place. It is just a gem of a story all by itself. And for me and for you, it is a special marker for a time, a great time for me, when we were younger and took on the world with the help of music on the radio. And Arlo was one of the voices that made for a steady influence of humanity in the face of so much inhumanity.

    You can hear it every year via the internet on Thanksgiving Day on WMMR fm.

  6. LucyLulu

    “My family, like many families, had a Thanksgiving tradition: Playing Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant (1967 version).”

    Our tradition was to eat turkey and stuffing. If there was any music, it was the depressing whining sounds coming from my father’s violin after dinner. Your family sounds way cooler.

  7. Goin' South

    One question I’d like answered is about the movie, “Alice’s Restaurant.” Arlo played himself. The movie was directed by Arthur Penn.

    At the time, I was very disappointed by it. Instead of reflecting that ringleader with the great sense of humor, the movie was sad, even depressing. I never understood whether it reflected Arlo’s vision or Penn’s.

  8. Norman

    Gosh G.S., obviously you were not enlightened at the time that you saw the movie. Your’s is the first comment that I’ve heard like you wrote! Are there many of the same mindset out there today? No wonder the countries falling apart.

  9. Jazzbuff

    Thanks for this. I heard him play this many years ago on WBAI in New York – I think it was the first time.

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