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In the age of the single download, Jeff Harford rediscovers the album.

We all love a good yarn, especially one that exposes our follies. The young Arlo Guthrie understood that - as the son of folk singer Woody Guthrie, he had grown up in the company of storytelling giants such as Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and ex-Weaver Lee Hays. As an emerging musician in his own right, he'd witnessed the phenomenon of the beat poets and jammed with bluegrass pickers and blues legends alike.

What Arlo might not have counted on was the human tendency to misappropriate these message songs. In the same way that today's rednecks have erroneously adopted Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA as a patriotic anthem, Guthrie's 1967 talking song-story Alice's Restaurant Massacree became a Thanksgiving Day staple on many classic rock radio stations.

Though the central tale on the 18-minute rambling ragtime opener to Guthrie's debut album Alice's Restaurant begins on this traditional feast day, it bears as much relation to the blessings of the harvest as it does to Alice, or her restaurant. Its aim is to lampoon the processes of the Vietnam War draft, using Guthrie's own true-life experience as a smart-talking youth with a conviction for littering as the vehicle for an anti-war, anti-stupidity rallying cry.

The song hit its mark through its deadpan humour and the straw-chewing nonchalance of Guthrie's delivery. When he eventually gets around to exposing the fundamental hypocrisy - Guthrie is overlooked for induction on moral grounds due to his littering record - the listener has already been won over to his call-a-spade-a-spade approach to life.

A movie based on the song, starring Guthrie as himself, was released in 1969, embellishing peripheral aspects of the story but remaining true to the key events. Guthrie, too, has many times changed the song, often performing extended takes or amending the content to suit the times. In the tradition of folk music the world over, oral transmission will no doubt see this colourful yarn continue to evolve.

 

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