How an "anti-stupid" song became a Thanksgiving anthem

On Thanksgiving Day, radio stations across the country play an 18-minute ballad that’s become the unofficial anthem of the holiday.

Folk singer Arlo Guthrie wrote “Alice’s Restaurant” in the 1960s, and it’s become a favorite Thanksgiving tradition. Guthrie spoke with “Sunday Morning” contributor Mo Rocca in 2012 about the inspiration for the song.

“Alice had a restaurant but it has no part in the song?” Rocca asked.

“Well she and her husband were teachers at a high school up the road here and they bought this building around 1963 and we would sneak out of the school and come here and do what you did in the ‘60s,” Guthrie said.

The year was 1965 and in a country deeply divided over the Vietnam War, then-18-year-old Arlo Guthrie was planning on becoming a forest ranger. 

“Yeah, sitting on a mountain in the middle of nowhere in Montana, waiting for a fire every few years, that’s a -- sounds like a very good life to me,” Guthrie said.

But the son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie found himself on a far different path after his friend Alice invited him to her home – a converted church just outside of Stockbridge, Massachusetts – for Thanksgiving dinner. Arlo and a friend offered to help Alice get the space ready before guests arrived.

“All of the construction material was out here on the main floor, and all the little pieces and stuff like that we had to get rid of, we had to throw it out in order to make it look nice,” Guthrie said. “We put it in a red VW Microbus and drove off into the sunset as it were.”

But the Stockbridge town dump was closed.

Arlo and his friend were charged with illegally dumping Alice’s garbage on private property. After a thorough investigation by Officer Obie and a night in jail, they were fined $25 by a blind town judge.

If it sounds like a joke, well that’s just the set up. The next year when Arlo reported to the draft office, he was put through his paces and rejected as morally unfit to serve. After all, he was a convicted litterbug.

“At the end of the day, the colonel there, whose name I forgot, now says to me, ‘I don’t think you’re the kind of person we want in the military,’ and I thought he was kidding me,” Guthrie said.

Arlo completed the song “Alice’s Restaurant” the following Thanksgiving – an 18-minute opus that became a fixture of the era.

“’Alice’s Restaurant’ was not an anti-war song; it was an anti-stupid song because you can’t run a country like that,” Guthrie said.

Radio host John Schaefer calls the song a “comedy of errors.”

“He was the guy who made a joke out of protest singing,” Schaefer said. “I mean, ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ is an 18-and-a-half-minute punch line.”

“What’s funny is this idiocy, that’s what’s funny,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t make up getting out of the military because I was a litterbug – they did.”

So how does an anti-stupidity song become a Thanksgiving tradition?

“I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: radio DJs love long songs,” Schaefer said. “Especially if you are working a shift on a holiday, an 18-minute song -- man, that was time to take a nap, get a smoke, have a snack. I mean, or all of the above.”

From Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, of the more than 100 radio stations CBS News reached out to, over half said they planned to play the song at least once – some as many as four times.

“We been playing ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ at high noon for almost 20 years,” said Gary Crow, a Seattle disc jockey at KZOK-FM.

“We play the original vinyl from 1967,” said Tommy Carbone, a disc jockey at WBLM-FM in Portland, Maine.

“We’re serving it up twice because one serving is never enough,” said Laura Steele, a disc jockey at the Lone Star in Dallas.

The church has been converted once again – this time into the Guthrie Center, a non-denominational space dedicated to fellowship, music and giving thanks.

“Every year at Thanksgiving, we invite whoever wants to come for a free Thanksgiving dinner,” Guthrie said. “You don’t have to believe anything, you don’t have to do anything; you just have to be hungry.”