The Thanksgiving song: How art can take you home

(William Cumming/AQ)

A familiar twang of a guitar comes on the radio, filling the house with its round sound. The smell of turkey browning in the oven mingles with the scent of onions and garlic, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States. For southwestern New England, that means a couple of things, one of them being that Arlo Guthrie’s eighteen-minute song “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” will be played at least a few times by any self-respecting local radio station.

For the uninitiated, “Alice’s Restaurant” is a spoken-monologue released in 1966 by counter-culture folk artist Arlo Guthrie. The son of folk legend Woody Guthrie, he was born in New York City but lived for a time in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, about an hour northwest of my hometown of New Hartford, Connecticut. The song tells the story of when Guthrie and a friend were arrested by the Stockbridge police for littering after throwing “half-a-ton” of garbage over a cliff, having taken it out as a favour to their friend Alice (of Alice’s Restaurant) only to find the town dump closed for Thanksgiving.

The story then takes a turn into Guthrie’s physical examination at the draft office during the Vietnam War, which he tried to dodge by showing up hungover and acting homicidal, neither of which worked. What saved Guthrie in the end was his criminal history as a litterbug, which at the time was on the same level as a violent felony in that both crimes required a moral waiver to ensure his eligibility to join the army.

Guthrie’s delightfully humourous rambling and redundancy add to the small-town charm of his storytelling. With lines like, “Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago, was on — two years ago on Thanksgiving,” and a gritty country folk voice, it’s no wonder this song became a Thanksgiving anthem. But don’t let me tell you. Go listen to it now. I’ll wait.

When I moved to Canada to come to St. Thomas University, I was heartbroken about missing Thanksgiving, my favourite holiday, for the next four years. When the end of November rolled around in my first year, I felt “Alice’s’ Restaurant” pulling me toward memories of home and family. I was surprised however, when I mentioned the song to my friends at STU from Maine and they had never heard it. I’ve heard it every Thanksgiving since I can remember. It is the Thanksgiving song. How can you be American and from New England and not listen to that song on the holiday?

After my shock subsided, I realized that song is part of what makes the little piece of the world I’m from unique. Everyone in America can connect to Guthrie’s song — that’s part of any good storytelling — but only a select few can feel the slightly stronger tie of, “Yeah, that’s where I’m from,” to art that comes out of their geographical location. I’ve driven through Stockbridge, I’ve seen the old Trinity church that Alice and her husband Ray lived in, I’ve had my share of New England Thanksgiving dinners “that couldn’t be beat” and I’ve grown up surrounded by quaint little towns just like Stockbridge, including my own.

I’m coming up on my fourth Thanksgiving away from home. Over the years I’ve celebrated in different ways, from an “American Thanksgiving” presented by Aramark to coming home to my roommate’s parents from Maine preparing a feast in my apartment’s kitchen (thanks, Mrs. Beals!) to making three pumpkin pies and a vat of fresh whipped cream and having all my friends over for an American Thanksgiving pie party. But one thing has always been constant, and you can probably guess what that is.

Every year I listen to “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and I still get that feeling of being home. That’s the power of art that is rooted not only in your memory of where you are from, but has a physical connection to the landscape.