Why does my Cleveland dad listen to Arlo Guthrie’s ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ every Thanksgiving?

Arlo Guthrie

Folk singer Arlo Guthrie's 1967 protest opus, "Alice's Restaurant," has become a Thanksgiving classic, played by radio stations across the country each Turkey Day. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)Boston Globe via Getty Images

NEW!
701
shares

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- We’ll save the tale of how “Die Hard” became a Christmas classic for another day. This holiday story is about how “Alice’s Restaurant,” a 1967 opus by folk singer Arlo Guthrie, went from a Vietnam War-era protest song to a Cleveland Thanksgiving radio tradition in less than a decade.

At heart, the satirical talking blues tune depicts a 1965 incident leading to Guthrie’s arrest and conviction for illegally dumping trash on Thanksgiving in western Massachusetts.

As far as how it became a Cleveland radio Turkey Day tradition, that started in 1974 when then-new WMMS Program Director John Gorman -- a Massachusetts native -- remembered the song while programming holiday music.

“Even though the content was basically much broader, it did mention a situation that happened at Thanksgiving so we thought why don’t we put this in,” Gorman said. “And who better to play it than Len ‘Boom’ Goldberg before 2 p.m. when people are getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner?

“You’re taking a chunk of time for one song but it just sounded good. We got enough response saying it was a good idea that we figured we would save that for next year. And next year became every year.”

The following year, deejay Matt The Cat (aka Matt Lapczinski) -- remembered by most folks in these parts for playing “Alice’s Restaurant” on Thanksgiving -- took over middays and continued The Buzzard tradition for decades.

“It wasn’t part of a novelty,” said Gorman, who left WMMS in the mid-1980s. “People had forgotten about ‘Alice’s Restaurant.’ Nobody talked about Arlo Guthrie anymore but that one sort of stuck with us.

“I don’t know if ‘MMS was the station that started it, I don’t think we were, but we probably had some influence. Now in almost every city, there’s one radio station that’s going to play’ Alice’s Restaurant’ on Thanksgiving.”

WNCX CONTINUES THE THANKSGIVING TRADITION

The Thanksgiving tradition of playing “Alice’s Restaurant” was co-opted in 1987 by WNCX when Cleveland native Bill Louis returned home that fall taking over as a new disc jockey at a classic-rock station in transition.

As leadership was preoccupied with station operations, the midday jock -- who admittedly had forgotten about WMMS’ annual playing of “Alice’s Restaurant” -- listened to the listeners.

“I started getting calls about it as we got closer to the holiday,” Louis said. “At the time, there wasn’t a program director so I said, ‘Of course, we’re going to do it, it’s Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition.’ That was back in the days when we actually showed up on and played it off the album.”

While Louis may have forgotten about The Buzzard’s Thanksgiving Day tradition, he was no stranger to Guthrie, catching the singer-songwriter with folk icon Pete Seeger during the late ‘70s at Blossom Music Center.

“They put on great shows,” Louis said. “You’d go to Blossom and it was like sitting around a big campfire. Actually, there were a lot of little campfires with Bic lighters. That was as unique and intimate of an experience I ever had at Blossom.”

The intimacy and nostalgia of listening to “Alice’s Restaurant” continue today with WNCX playing the 18-minute song at both noon and 6 p.m. Thanksgiving across its airwaves and streaming globally.

“For the longest time, we’d always leave at noon on the drive from Bedford to grandma’s in Brunswick so I could listen to it,” said Louis, who retired last year.

“This year it’s going to be quiet around the house with just the one daughter coming over so I’ll definitely be streaming it. That’s cutting edge nowadays days.”

If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation.