Wow, That’s A Good Song: Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

I’m sure I’m not the only kid who ever spent every November irritated by the fact that Christmas music is way better than Thanksgiving music. I know all of three songs about Thanksgiving. There’s “Over the River and Through the Woods”, which was never one of my favorites. The other song I know is only four lines long, told from the perspective of a turkey. It involves the impending threat of decapitation, and a quick Google search tells me it’s used as a preschool song. How cheerful!

The third song, however, is near and dear to my heart. I’m assuming we don’t all know it already, but even if we do, it’s the right time of year to spend eighteen and a half minutes listening to Arlo Guthrie tell the story of a dump closed on Thanksgiving, a red VW microbus, the twenty-three 8×10 color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one, a typical case of American blind justice, two Thanksgiving dinners that couldn’t be beat, and how to make friends with the mother-stabbers and father-rapers on the Group W bench.

It’s also about the draft.

Proceeded on down the hall gettin’ more injections, inspections, detections, neglections and all kinds of stuff that they was doin’ to me at the thing there, and I was there for two hours, three hours, four hours, I was there for a long time going through all kinds of mean nasty ugly things and I was just having a tough time there, and they was inspecting, injecting every single part of me, and they was leaving no part untouched. Proceeded through, and when I finally came to the see the last man, I walked in, walked in sat down after a whole big thing there, and I walked up and said, “What do you want?” He said, “Kid, we only got one question. Have you ever been arrested?”

If you’re just interested in the story, the lyrics are here, and Wikipedia has some of the background, but I’d recommend listening to the whole thing. It’s easy to get caught up in the story and let the repetitive and generally unoffensive music fade to the background, but it’s actually pretty deft and emotionally versatile, especially in the section when Arlo makes his way down to the draft board and joins his buddies on the Group W bench. The background music is the same sixteen bars of 4/4 time, with no change in key or time signature — one of those things, in short, that looks and sounds as though it was easy to write, but is difficult to actually do.

Also, if you listen to the song seven times in a row, it’ll take up the whole ride between where I’m spending Wednesday night and where I’m spending Thanksgiving. Y’all have a good holiday, don’t eat too much, and don’t start any fistfights with your family. I’ll be off playing cards and driving a tractor in the wilds of rural Georgia, but if you’re somewhere with an independent record store, I hear a bunch of them are doing Black Friday specials in conjunction with Record Store Day. (Isn’t Record Store Day supposed to be in April? Oh well.) I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather get music than a Snuggie.

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