The story of Alice’s Restaurant (with the full orchestration and five-part harmony) is a story in two parts. The first part details a Thanksgiving where Arlo and his friend attempted to get rid of a half a ton of garbage and got arrested for littering; the second part is about how Arlo was not drafted to go to Vietnam. The story is about 2600 words, and takes about eighteen and a half minutes to listen to, one of the longest songs outside of a symphony that you’ll probably hear.
It’s also absolutely fantastic.
And this is for multiple reasons– it’s a mix of comedy, satire, and Vietnam protest song that I’d describe as “if the Pythons wrote 1984” if Terry Gilliam’s Brazil didn’t already exist. But you can also learn a lot about how a story is told from this. There are people who have this monologue completely memorized, and there’s a reason for that. It’s catchy. Some of that is in the story, and some of that is in the telling, but that’s not what I came to tell you about.
Came to talk about the draft.
(I’m kidding, we’re talking about “Alice’s Restaurant”.)
If you don’t know the story, please do listen to the video I put at the beginning of the post. You have the next several days off, you have the time. At least, I hope you have the next several days off. Sorry if you don’t.
Repetition and the Rules of Three
The story repeats several key phrases at various points. You probably know them; “shovels and rakes and implements of destruction”; “27 eight by ten color glossy pictures with…” etc.; “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected”. Repeating key words or phrases indicates to the audience that said word or phrase is important. That’s Creative Writing 101. It’s important that Khan is constantly quoting Moby Dick— he’s on a revenge quest that will end in his destruction. It’s important that Tahiti is “a magical place”– we start to realize that something is terribly wrong with Agent Coulson. It’s important that “The World is Quiet Here”– we… well, the Baudelaire Orphans don’t find out that much about VFD, but we know that there are secrets in this world and that VFD is one of them. Hell, the entire concept of a meme is based in our brain’s connection that “repetition = important”.
He also uses the Rules of Three, in two different ways. One way is through repetition– “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant” is repeated three times in the chorus, the chorus itself is sung three times during the song, “Group W” is said three times. But he also uses thematic threes. Arlo and his friend figured that there were two options Officer Obie could take, but “there was a third possibility that we hadn’t even counted upon” and they were both arrested for littering. There are also three events in the first part of the story– dumping the garbage, being arrested for dumping the garbage, and going to court for dumping the garbage. Each are interluded with “a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat”, which lets us know that there is a scene transition. And then there’s the description of the criminals on the bench which follows the “Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs” trope. The rules of three appear in almost every kind of media– it’s everywhere in fairy tales and comedy, there are three Deathly Hallows, I’m giving three examples in this explanation– mostly because three is a small, prime number that is easily visualized. Two is also prime, but too small, unless you then go to three, four isn’t prime and doesn’t quite feel complete. Five is right out.
Absurdism and a Comedy of Errors
The punchline of the story is that Arlo is unable to be drafted because he was arrested for littering. When said like that, it doesn’t have the same impact as the song does. It takes knowing that Arlo was just trying to get rid of the garbage, Obie and the other police officers were being a bit over-zealous, a blind judge, Arlo not wanting to be drafted in the first place and trying to get out of it at every point, the other people on the Group W bench, and the form asking if Arlo has “rehabilitated yourself”, before the ridiculousness of the situation is fully understood. Absurdism is a philosophical concept that nothing we do matters and was championed by Albert Camus and Søren Kierkegaard. They latched on to the imagery of Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill every day, only for the stone to roll back down the next night. Some more famous works of absurdism are the plays Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and “Alice’s Restaurant” has its fair share of absurdism. The most notable examples of this are Officer Obie’s 27 eight by ten color glossy pictures being presented to a blind judge, and the fact that Arlo’s arrest wasn’t actually why he didn’t get drafted, but the fact that he questioned the form he had to fill out and the Sargent deciding that “we don’t like your kind”.
A comedy of errors is a series of events that are caused by mistakes made and chaos ensuing. The first half of the story is more along these lines than the second– Arlo and his friend probably shouldn’t have tossed the garbage over that cliff, the police probably didn’t need to take them to court, the evidence that they collected wasn’t going to be seen by the judge because “it was a typical case of American blind justice”, etc. The second half is more of a Kafkan comedy, with Arlo going around to different offices and trying to get rejected with no avail. The best comedies of errors are when every party is at fault, but one party is more at fault than the others, and therefore there is a protagonist. Shakespeare does this a lot in his comedies.
Of course, most of the charm of “Alice’s Restaurant” comes from the delivery. Guthrie uses simple language, which fits with the folk style of the piece. The fact that it’s a live performance (and, to some extent, improvised) means that his English isn’t perfect, which adds to that. There are also the times when he blends the music and spoken word aspects. Some phrases are spoken with deliberate rhythm (“and it was about four or five hours later that Alice”) to emphasize them without repetition. He uses voices on occasion as well, notably during the scene in the psychiatrist’s office and the voice of the Sargent explaining the form. The one time he changes what he’s playing on the guitar is when he’s building up to the climax of the story, which is said without accompaniment: “Kid, have you ever been arrested?” The thing about it is that orality is more an art than a science. You can pick apart a story, show its history, its influences, its techniques, but orality is a performance and it’s harder to analyse a performance. (Don’t tell that to Tumblr, though.) This is especially true from where I am– English majors read theater like its a novel and lose the subtleties an actor can bring to the characters. When it comes to a story like “Alice’s Restaurant”, the way Guthrie says it is as important as what he’s saying.
I love this song– but more importantly, this song is a piece of oral history that still remains after print has taken over. As it is Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the printed word, but I wonder what would have happened if oral English had stuck around for a bit longer. Maybe we just have to wait for it to come around on the guitar.