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Thanksgiving at Alice's Restaurant: The Guthries' American Dream Lives On

5 years ago
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A rock 'n' roll tradition marks "turkey day" for baby boomers and their "Not again!" suffering children, an annual cultural moment via the radio airwaves that educated generations of Americans beyond their textbooks.

And from today's perspective, this goofy 40-year-old boomer rite spotlights the evolution of a controversial American entertainment dynasty, reveals how politics evolves – while showing us the heart of Thanksgiving.

From WRNR's Chesapeake Bay to KFOG's Golden Gate Bridge, if you turn on your radio this holiday while driving to Grandma's house or basting the turkey, you might hear "Alice's Restaurant," with its 18-plus minutes of strumming guitar and wondrous storytelling by Arlo Guthrie – a satire first recorded in 1967 that outlives the politics it portrayed.

That's politics: Yesterday's crises transforming into today's compromise dissolving into tomorrow's vision. One morning you're a rebel huddled in your tent against the snows of Valley Forge, fomenting a revolution against God and country, then in a blink of time's eye, you're the first president of the world's debut democracy.

"Alice's Restaurant" would be a forgotten novelty song of the '60s, except that the great Arthur Penn worked with Arlo to turn the ode into the dominant art form of the 20th century: The song became a movie. Calling the 1969 film a comedy misses its noir backbeat of betrayed romanticism, and thinking of it as a madcap autobiography misses its politics. This is a movie driven by the military draft and the Vietnam War -- two political crises that consumed America half a lifetime ago but now might not be definable by Americans just entering adulthood, who pay scant attention to yesterday's news or the theory that history repeats itself.

One repetition we know is that each Thanksgiving, baby boomers get so nostalgic to catch a few guitar plucks or the chorus of "Alice's Restaurant" that their sentiment has become a market force and "demand" means that radio stations "supply." The song that became a movie became a tradition. Arlo told Politics Daily that he is "amazed and awed" by that.

The politics of "Alice's Restaurant" criticize America's draft, which truly was a "selective service system" -- from which clever young men could escape with no harm to their future careers. But Arlo Guthrie throws no bombs, gets busted for littering, trusts his fate to "the system" and does fine in court because justice is literally blind. His crime makes him ineligible for the draft that turned young American males into soldiers for the Asian war he opposes.

This cinematic political rebellion represents an unexpectedly mild but natural political progression for "a Guthrie," a progression mirroring politics where an extreme flows toward some middle -- or a middle flows to some extreme. Either way, the flow carries us along for the ride.

Arlo's father was Woody Guthrie, a Dust Bowl to mid-1950s radio and stage singer, an artist radicalized by "Grapes of Wrath" poverty, by lynchings, by money's corruption of politics. Woody became the troubadour of America's left-wing politics. To his credit, Woody was right about the injustices he saw. To his determent, his solutions included embracing fraudulent communist monsters like Stalin.

As historian Will Kaufman chronicles, Woody is a complex historical figure with huge flaws and grand visions, simultaneously self-centered and self-sacrificing. But for all his contradictions, he's one of our conscience poets – influential both here and around the world – in the mold of musicians ranging from Springsteen to the Chinese punk rock band PK-14.

Woody endures because his best songs speak to empowering the average American. His most famous song served as the Springsteen-Pete Seeger led finale to the free concert for President Obama's inauguration: "This Land Is Your Land," a song that celebrates the U.S.A. and its ordinary citizens. The whimsical baby boomer tradition created by Woody's son Arlo is known for its chorus of: "You can get anything you want (at Alice's Restaurant)." In 2009, that reality means "anything you want" is still a seductive, if elusive, American dream.

For some of us, this Thanksgiving is more about famine than feast. Churches and homes across America echo with prayers for our soldiers. Hospital E.R.s host coughing citizens with little hope of paying their medical bills. This year, every family lucky enough to fill their plates with steaming turkey and pumpkin pie while putting up with obnoxious Uncle Burt is painfully aware of their good fortune. This year – every year – we're thankful just to be here.

And this year, the generational journey of the Guthrie family celebrates an evolution that can remind us about the heart of Thanksgiving.

Arlo's daughter (and Woody's granddaughter) Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion -- who in a simple twist of fate is a shirttail relative of Nobel novelist and Woody contemporary John Steinbeck -- are carving a place of their own in America's culture with acoustic guitars as folk/rock balladeers. They can play almost any song a truck driver knows, while their original music captures the timeless -- and nonpartisan -- joys and sorrows of regular life, everyday romance and modern humor.

But Sarah Lee told Politics Daily they wanted to "step out from what we normally do."

Johnny added: "And we wanted to make a record that didn't make anyone wanna jump out of a minivan." So working with Woody's friend Pete Seeger, their pre-teen daughters and Guthrie kin, they recorded a new album of songs written by them – and by Woody -- and released this fall by Smithsonian Folkways recordings.

What we do and how we do it reveals our politics as individuals and as a nation. The wonderful irony of this year's Thanksgiving is that the heirs of an American political and entertainment dynasty have created a musical work that, without partisan preaching, reminds us of what's important and what we should be most thankful for: the Guthrie clan's latest offering to our culture is a CD of songs . . . for children.

Happy Thanksgiving.
Filed Under: Culture

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