And Now, Alice's Restaurant Masacree
You can get anything you want
It’s noon on Thanksgiving, I’m currently driving up the New York State Thruway (like, not while I’m writing this, while you’re reading this), and I am undoubtedly tuned to one of the countless stations across the country that still plays Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant Masacree at noon on Thanksgiving.
The song is idiotic. Rambling. A mostly true story of a bumbling, ass of a man who learns his town dump is closed on Thanksgiving, litters, and then gets arrested the next day. The titular Alice’s Restaurant has very little to do with the story, only adding to the absurdism of the whole thing. It was folk music reminiscent of the depression era, but written about a fuddy couple of days beating around in the Berkshires and not the starvation and despair of the dust bowl.
All media hinges on invented tradition and respecting that tradition. It’s why anchors sign off their broadcasts the same way every time, why newspapers still run the funny pages on Sunday, it’s why NBC lights up a tree in their courtyard. Really, all capitalist enterprise wants is to convince you that shopping is an annual ritual worth honoring, hence your Macy’s parade, your Black Friday/Small Business Saturday/Cyber Monday/Giving Tuesday, your Toyotathon and December to Remember.
Media too, as a business that lives off the attention you give us, needs to create moments of traditions. What started at a gag from a cool alternative station in New York has blossomed across the country as a goofy way to guarantee 15 minutes of listenership on a weekday when people aren’t commuting the way they normally might.
And that itself has turned into a legacy so time honored and unquestioned that it’s one of just 500 or so American songs designated for the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, alongside legendary recordings like Muddy Waters’ Hoochie Coochie Man, Elvis Presley’s Sun Studio Sessions, Etta James’ At Last, and even Herbert Morrison’s haunting radio description of the Hindenburg disaster.
Hats off if you already know where I’m going with this.
My family wasn’t huge on Arlo’s plodding song, I wasn’t even aware of the song until my AP Stat teacher in high school gave us a pop quiz after the long weekend to see how many of us listened (he was really, weirdly into it). You were either an Alice’s house or you weren’t, and we weren’t really.
Instead…my family turns back to another broadcast icon tradition, the big WKRP Turkey Giveaway.
The humanity, indeed.
Whatever traditions you keep today, whether they be breaking wishbones or betting on the Lions, getting stoned with your siblings before dinner or that weird dish your great aunt always brings around, appreciate what that tradition exists for.
It could be a goof, it could be a corporation trying to make money off of you, or it could just be how we remind each other that we all remember the last time we were all here doing this thing we always do, and we’re simply happy to be back in that place, doing that thing again.