War and Arlo Guthrie’s Thanksgiving: Sitting on the Group W Bench
By RON JACOBS
I first heard “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1968 on Washington DC’s underground radio station WHFS. The most memorable time I heard it was in May 1970 on the day after the military murders at Kent State when a friend read it in homeroom at the junior high I attended in Frankfurt, Germany. The song’s innocence and hope echo today in the empty chambers of our empty culture where the current antiwar movement has yet to find an anthem. For those who don’t know this song by Arlo Guthrie, it is the story of a littering arrest that becomes a humorous yet pointed diatribe against the culture of war and conformity. The littering arrest itself took place on Thanksgiving Day in 1965 and the draft was in full swing-filling the growing demands of the war machine and its war of the day.
Guthrie’s song was part of a general distrust of authority making its way back into white America after a post World War Two hiatus. It was more than distrust actually. In fact, it was turning quickly into a refusal to go along with said authority. For the most part, this sentiment was most profoundly felt and expressed by the young via their music, culture and politics. In a story told several times over and with an equal number of twists, the youth counterculture of the time was a culture of opposition. Sometimes that opposition took the form of protests and direct action against authority and sometimes it wore the costume of color and danced to music enhanced by sex and drugs. As naïve as its audience and as jaded as its target, Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” combined all of the counterculture’s aspects into a tale of disgust with the corporate status quo, opposition to its desire to classify us all and throw us into war, and some good ol’ fun.
What can be more traditional than Thanksgiving, after all? Despite its negative historical connotations in that it celebrates the beginning of the Europeans’ ethnic cleansing of the American continent’s indigenous peoples, most folks in the United States celebrate it. It’s not that they are celebrating their ancestors’ massacre of the native peoples; it’s that they see it as a time to gather with friends and family and have a good time. Even the homeless shelters take on a bit of a festive air this Thursday in November as merchants and individuals contribute time and money to preparing a traditional Thanksgiving meal for the residents of those often quite dismal places of refuge. Of course, the next day there is no more turkey and stuffing on the table and those without permanent shelter are still without a home. The wealthy, meanwhile, scrape several days worth of poor folks’ Thanksgiving dinners into their garbage disposals.
The second part of Arlo’s song takes place at the draft induction center formerly located on Whitehall Street in Manhattan, New York. He has received his draft notice and is reporting for the physical and mental exam that was given every inductee before he had his locks shorn and went off to boot camp and a life of military. After going through a number of tests, which are related quite hilariously by Guthrie, he is finally at the last station on his induction, where he is asked, “Have you ever been arrested?” This question naturally brings up Guthrie’s entire tale of his Thanksgiving arrest for littering in Massachusetts and the entire trial following the arrest. Because of his arrest, he is sent to the Group W bench with all the other “criminals.” There he is given another form that ends with the question: “Have you rehabilitated yourself?” I’ll let Arlo tell the rest of the story …
I went over to the sargeant, and I said, “Sargeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I’ve rehabilitated myself, I mean, (with added emphasis and a sneer)
I mean, I mean that just, I’m sittin’ here on the bench,
I mean I’m sittin here on the Group W bench ’cause you want to know if I’m moral enough to join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein’ a litterbug.”
Guthrie is not drafted because of his record. And his Thanksgivings will never be the same. Neither should ours, even if George Bush shows up for a photo op in Baghdad with a plastic turkey and a couple dozen unarmed handpicked-for-their-loyalty troops. There are thousands of other troops who have deserted because they don’t want to go back to Iraq. Protesters have been arrested in Olympia and Tacoma, WA. For blocking military shipments. It’s time that those who oppose these dirty little wars join their fellow antiwarriors in the Pacific Northwest on today’s Group W bench. Who knows, we might start a movement.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for posting your thoughts on Arlo’s Alice’s Restaurant song. I recently ran into something just as ridiculous which I relate in the comments in Bob Cringely’s November 9th column on the PBS site titled “Getting to Know You: Think you have a secret life? Think again.”
I hope you and your readers visit me and I have linked the Alice’s Restaurant image in my own Thanksgiving Day Attitude of Gratitude post back to you here.