The BEST: Alice’s Restaurant

Rina Chaya Shamilov Tradition Online | November 25, 2021

This review is about Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” and it’s about Arlo, and the Restaurant, but Alice’s Restaurant is not about a restaurant, it’s about the Vietnam War, but it’s not really about war, it’s about America and about life. “Alice’s Restaurant” is just the name of an 18-minute song, and this is just a 500-word review of that song.

Summary: In “Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo Guthrie employs a Thanksgiving run-in with rural Massachusetts police to make a larger statement about freedom and war. Using music and humor, he turns his Vietnam draft exemption into a celebration of silly, youthful freedom and common humanity. 

Why this is The BEST: Guthrie’s words are beautifully simple. Yet, “Alice’s Restaurant” conceals universal themes in its eccentric melodies. Guthrie draws his listeners into their own memories of youthful silliness. “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” his brittle voice sings. Alice’s Restaurant is a lyrical journey amidst the chaos of America during the Vietnam War. Guthrie takes the listener on this not so much anti-war but anti-stupidity adventure with him.

“Alice’s Restaurant” mocks the Vietnam War, the police, and the draft. At the beginning of the song, Guthrie describes his arrest for littering; at its conclusion, his rejection from army service. Guthrie calls out the ridiculousness of the drafting process, “You want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.” Guthrie’s voice is calm and cheerful, creating an ironic backdrop to his ultimate message. He journeys outside the scope of death and social rigidity to something hopeful. 

Guthrie masterfully constructs an anti-war anthem without employing anger. He eases his audience into his ideas, with humor, bringing them into the story with his final call, “[T]he only reason I’m singing you this song now is ‘cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation.”

“Alice’s Restaurant” lives on in the homes of millions of Americans every year, where it has become something of a Thanksgiving ritual. Guthrie stated in an interview, “The song maintains its popularity because the concept of questioning authority is timeless.” It reflects a view of America as a place where troubadours can challenge and eventually defeat war—where we give thanks for justice over our country’s own failures—because of our country’s ultimate goodness. 

A central theme in Judaism is questioning and finding meaningful, honest answers. We also sing and question at our own national holiday of freedom, Pesach. “Alice’s Restaurant” romanticizes what was otherwise a traumatic time. Even if his contemporaries didn’t experience what Guthrie did, the entire country was connected in the period’s anguish. To sing “Alice’s Restaurant” recalls a deliverance from that time of pain amidst a Thanksgiving meal.  The ritual takes a traumatic moment and makes it into something beautiful. Utilizing this folk tune, families and communities continue to come together to question authority and celebrate America.

Rina Chaya Shamilov, a graduate of Midreshet Amudim, is studying English Literature at Stern College for Women. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.


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