The post-Thanksgiving news from 52 years ago

News you can sing!

Passed on by Virginia Transue, this story from the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield MA:

52 years ago (Nov. 29, 1965) the Berkshire Eagle printed a little article about two young men being fined 25 bucks for dumping trash. Little did we know at the time that the incident, which ran on page 25, would become the basis for Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant. Here’s our original story from 1965:

(#1) The genesis of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

[Note: I refer to Virginia as my sister-in-law, but technically she’s my sister-in-law-in-law: the widow of my late husband-equivalent Jacques’ brother Bill (feel free to graph this on a piece of scrap paper). I describe this relationship not (merely) for your entertainment, but because, though Virginia will now vanish from this story, Jacques will eventually become prominent in it.]

On the song, from Wikipedia:

(#2) You can listen to the whole thing here — with lyrics on-screen

“Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” (self-identified multiple times in the lyrics of the song itself as “Alice’s Restaurant”) is a song by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie [son of legendary folksinger-songwriter and political activist Woodie Guthrie], released as the title track to his 1967 debut album Alice’s Restaurant. It is notable as a satirical, first-person account of 1960s counterculture, in addition to being a hit song in its own right and an inspiration for the 1969 film also named Alice’s Restaurant. The song is Guthrie’s most prominent work, based on a true incident from his life that began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering, and ended with the refusal of the U.S. Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime. The ironic punch line of the story is that, in the words of Guthrie, “I’m sittin’ here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the Army — burn women, kids, houses and villages —after bein’ a litterbug.” The final part of the song is an encouragement for the listeners to sing along, to resist the draft, and to end war.

The song consists of a protracted spoken monologue, with a constantly repeated fingerstyle ragtime guitar (Piedmont style) backing, bookended by a short chorus about the titular diner [“You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant” (excepting Alice)]; Guthrie has used the short “Alice’s Restaurant” bookends and guitar backings for other monologues bearing the Alice’s Restaurant name. The track lasts 18 minutes and 34 seconds, occupying the entire A-side of the Alice’s Restaurant album. The work has become Guthrie’s signature song and he has periodically re-released it with updated lyrics.

… The term “massacree,” used by Guthrie in the title to describe the whole scenario, is a colloquialism originating in the Ozark Mountains that describes “an event so wildly and improbably and baroquely messed up that the results are almost impossible to believe.” It is a corruption of the word massacre … but carries a much lighter and more sarcastic connotation, never being used to describe anything involving actual death [The DARE entry has it as “chiefly Sth, S Midl, old-fash.”, with cites from 1727 on — mostly with deadly meaning.]

Two memorable chunks of the monologue:

Group W’s
Where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after
Committing your special crime, and there was all kinds of mean nasty ugly
Looking people on the bench there. Mother rapers. Father stabbers. Father
Rapers! Father rapers sitting right there on the bench next to me! And
They was mean and nasty and ugly and horrible crime-type guys sitting on the
Bench next to me. And the meanest, ugliest, nastiest one, the meanest
Father raper of them all, was coming over to me and he was mean ‘n’ ugly
‘n’ nasty ‘n’ horrible and all kind of things and he sat down next to me
And said, “Kid, whad’ya get?” I said, “I didn’t get nothing, I had to pay
$50 and pick up the garbage. ” He said, “What were you arrested for, kid? ”
And I said, “Littering.” And they all moved away from me on the bench
There, and the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty things, till I
Said, “And creating a nuisance.” And they all came back, shook my hand,
And we had a great time on the bench, talkin about crime, mother stabbing,
Father raping, all kinds of groovy things that we was talking about on the
Bench. And everything was fine, we was smoking cigarettes and all kinds of
Things

(Linguistic notes: hairy eyeball, treated in a 12/9/16 posting here. And the sequence mother raper (a literal correspondent to motherfucker) … father stabber … father raper; the synthetic compounds in raper seem not to have distressed critics, in part because raper rather than rapist makes them sound silly.)

there’s only one thing you can do and that’s walk into
The shrink wherever you are, just walk in say “Shrink, You can get
Anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant.”. And walk out. You know, if
One person, just one person does it they may think he’s really sick and
They won’t take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony,
They may think they’re both faggots and they won’t take either of them.
And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in
Singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out. They may think it’s an
Organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said
Fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and
Walking out. And friends they may think it’s a movement.

(Faggots, on the other hand, distressed a lot of people, and Guthrie later felt he had to replace it.)

Now flash ahead from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. Jacques and I are in Washington DC, for a bit of Linguistic Society business, but mostly as I gift for him: staying in a funky hotel near Dupont Circle, enjoying the neighborhood, the Mall, and Georgetown, eating well, doing touristic things (including a bunch of museums, but J was especially pleased by the Phillips and the Hirschhorn), and then J discovered that Arlo Guthrie! was playing a concert at George Washington University and we could get tickets, so it was off to Foggy Bottom for a really splendid evening.

As a bonus, the young James McMurtry was opening for Arlo (who was a generation older than McMurtry, as were J and I). He was news to us, but we found him as satisfying as Arlo, and more pointed. From Wikipedia:

James McMurtry (born March 18, 1962 in Fort Worth, Texas) is an American rock and folk rock/americana singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader, and occasional actor (Daisy Miller, Lonesome Dove, and narrator of Ghost Town: 24 Hours in Terlingua). He performs with veteran bandmates Daren Hess, Cornbread, and Tim Holt.

… In 2005, McMurtry released his first studio album in three years… Childish Things … was perhaps McMurtry at his most political, as his working-class anthem “We Can’t Make It Here” included direct criticism of George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and Wal-Mart. [You can watch the video of the song here.]

J was alive on 9/11/01, but so far sunk in dementia that he never knew what happened then, or afterwards. But he recognized McMurtry as in a line of protest singing from Woody Guthrie (and others) through Pete Seeger to Arlo Guthrie (all of whom he deeply admired), and would have relished McMurtry’s savaging of W’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

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