Arlo Guthrie came to folk music with an incredible pedigree, the son of folk legend Woody Guthrie who met and jammed with other famous musicians such as Pete Seeger and Leadbelly as they visited his home. He rose to prominence at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival at the age of 20 where the lengthy talking song ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ was first performed at a topical songs workshop.
While the song continues the acoustic simplicity of early 1960s protest folk, it’s also laced with a humour that makes its subversive litany on littering and the draft go down surprisingly easily. In fact, the song is much more notable for Guthrie’s comic timing and laconic delivery than it is for its musical content – the almost incessant guitar riff only adds to the humour – he’s as much a stand-up comedian as a musician over the eighteen minutes as he details his adventures trying to dispose of a half-tonne of garbage, in court and with the army psychiatrist, and the catchy chorus is only introduced towards the end of the song. The song’s following was strong enough to spawn a full length feature movie in 1970, starring Guthrie.
The second side of Alice’s Restaurant isn’t as memorable; with pleasant but generic folk like ‘Chilling of the Evening’ and ‘I’m Going Home’ and assorted silliness like ‘The Motorcycle Song’ (“I don’t want a pickle/I just want to ride my motor-sickle”) and ‘Ring-Around-A-Rosy Rag’, which uses a riff that’s too close to the infinite loop of the title track.
Alice’s Restaurant is an album that has been treated precisely right by posterity – it never makes top album of all time lists, and it doesn’t deserve too, but it’s still easily available and the title track enjoys a cult following and still holds up as a transcendent piece of work that’s as interesting as a piece of social history as it is as a song.