Running 18 minutes and 34 seconds, this song is based on a true story that happened on Thanksgiving Day, 1965. Arlo was 18, and along with his friend Rick Robbins, drove to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to have Thanksgiving dinner with Alice and Ray Brock. Alice and Ray lived in a church - the former Trinity Church on Division Street in Stockbridge - and were used to inviting people into their home. Arlo and Rick had been traveling together, Arlo working his way up in folk singing and Rick tagging along. A number of people, Arlo and Rick included, were considered members of the family, so they were not guests in the usual sense.
When Ray woke up the next morning, he said to them, "Let's clean up the church and get all this crap out of here, for God's sake. This place is a mess," and Rick said, "Sure." Arlo and Rick swept up and loaded all the crap into a VW microbus and went out to the dump, which was closed. They started driving around until Arlo remembered a side road in Stockbridge up on Prospect Hill by the Indian Hill Music Camp which he attended one summer, so they drove up there and dumped the garbage.
A little later, the phone rang, and it was Stockbridge police chief William J. Obanhein. "I found an envelope with the name Brock on it," Chief Obanhein said. The truth came out, and soon the boys found themselves in Obanhein's police car. They went up to Prospect Hill, and Obie took some pictures. On the back he marked them, "PROSPECT HILL RUBBISH DUMPING FILE UNDER GUTHRIE AND ROBBINS 11/26/65." He took the kids to jail.
The kids went in, pleaded, "Guilty, Your Honor," were fined $25 each and ordered to retrieve the rubbish. Then they all went back to the church and started to write "Alice's Restaurant" together. "We were sitting around after dinner and wrote half the song," Alice recalls, "and the other half, the draft part, Arlo wrote."
Guthrie, the son of legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, greatly exaggerated the part about getting arrested for comic effect. In the song he is taken away in handcuffs and put in a cell with hardened criminals.
In the song, Guthrie avoids the draft and did not have to serve in Vietnam because of his littering arrest. In reality, he was eligible, but wasn't drafted because his number didn't come up.
Many radio stations play this on Thanksgiving. This is usually the only time they play it, since the song is over 18-minutes long.
Guthrie performed this song for the first time on July 16, 1967 at the Newport Folk Festival.
This reflected the attitude of many young people in America at the time. It was considered an antiwar song, but unlike most protest songs, it used humor to speak out against authority.
After a while, Guthrie stopped playing this at concerts, claiming he forgot the words. As the song approached it's 30th anniversary, he started playing it again.
In 1991, Arlo bought the church where this took place and set up "The Guthrie Center," where he runs programs for kids who have been abused.
Over the years, Guthrie added different words to the song. He recorded a new, longer version in 1995 at The Guthrie Center.