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A Brief History of “Alice’s Restaurant”

Arlo Guthrie got arrested in 1965, and he wrote a little song about it. One of the reasons that the song has lasted so long is that it happened on Thanksgiving, so that "Alice's Restaurant" has become classic for a holiday that has a dearth of songs. Guthrie wrote "Alice's Restaurant" soon after the events happened, and added more context until the song eventually took up a half-hour of his live show.

But the song’s first true breakthrough, one that commemorates a second golden anniversary, was “Alice’s” February 1967 radio debut on New York City’s WBAI-FM. Said Arlo: “I’d been a big fan of WBAI. I’d been to their studios a few times and one night they asked me to perform live. I had no idea they were taping it, although it wouldn’t have stopped me from performing. I loved those guys.”

By May, the non-profit WBAI was receiving so many requests to play ‘Alice,’ it became a fund-raising gimmick. “WBAI…would play it after they’d been pledged enough money,” recalled Guthrie, then quipped: “Eventually they were playing it so often, they took pledges to stop playing it, and…raised even more money.”

Guthrie released the 18-minute recorded version in 1967, and the feature film was released in 1969. You know the story of the arrest; now read the story of the song that became a Thanksgiving classic at Smithsonian.


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