A friend of mine posted a link to an article pointing out that it is the 50th anniversary of Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.
On “Alice’s Restaurant” becoming such a cultural phenomenon, Arlo says, “Well, I’ve always loved good stories. And I’ve loved telling tall tales. Why people enjoy it is beyond me. I haven’t sung ‘Alice’ for years and people still keep coming to the gigs. ‘Alice’ has taken on a life of its own and become attached to Thanksgiving. If I had to guess though, maybe because it’s a story about a little guy against a big world.”
Arlo doesn’t know but I know. And I am saying that in my head with the same tone that he used to utter those words in the rambling story part of this clip of The Garden Song.
The reason people love Alice’s Restaurant, and Arlo, is that he is original. He doesn’t fit into the clean entertainment niches they promote on TV. He is sometimes a comedian and sometimes sentimental and philosophical. He’s witty, self-depreciating, and he makes language and story telling into music. There is a cadence to his speech not only when he is speaking over music as in Alice’s Restaurant but also when he speaks between songs or when he stops the song to speak. (As in the clip above.)
People hunger for good stories told by great story tellers. They don’t just want the written word, but the performed word. It is an ancient art and an increasingly lost one.
“Talk,” Oscar Wilde said, “is a sort of spiritualized action and conversation one of the lovliest of the arts.”
Wilde, raised on Irish oral folk tales himself, was known as one of history’s most brilliant talkers. “Oscar Wilde believed the possession of a musical voice to be the most indispensable attribute of a successful story teller,” wrote Thomas Wright in Table Talk Oscar Wilde. “…His voice inspired more adjectives and metaphors than any of his other attributes…It was clear that the rhythm and sound of words were as important to Wilde as their meaning… It is also evident that he used his voice to create ironic effects: he frequently narrated comic tales in a slow and solemn voice and told tales of fantasy as though relating everyday incidents.”
Wilde used cadence, tone, word emphasis, and wit to weave spells. Don’t let the vaguely southern-ish drawl fool you. Arlo Guthrie is part of the Wildean tradition.
There was a period of my life when I was entirely Arlo immersed. That voice, his pauses, his relaxed comic delivery, lived in my mind in familiar phrases. I could share those catch-phrases with others in the greater Arlo community, which I assure you does exist and is quite as vibrant as I imagined it might be when I had hippie fantasies stoked by the film version of Alice’s Restaurant.
Incidentally, when you go to a lot of Arlo Guthrie concerts in the same year, you tend to hear the same stories repeated. Oscar Wilde also told and retold his stories. His written works were generally worked out as oral tales and not put to paper until they had been road tested with multiple audiences. When you do hear the same story over and over, you start to notice different things. I have always admired how Arlo’s son, Abe, who plays the keyboards, remembers to laugh at the punchlines– a display of Ed McMahon-style support– even though he knows they are coming. Watch his performance in the background in this clip:
Arlo’s way of talkin’, the music of it, has found a permanent place in my thoughts and is probably a subconscious and generally unacknowledged influence on my writing.
I thought of that today when I was trying to find a way to encourage lurkers to support my Identity Theft campaign which has been stalled at 25% for a day or so. (My apologies, but I am contractually obligated at this point to bring every post back to my novel and to ask readers to support it.)
I thought of The Garden Song (shown above) and that moment when Arlo asks the crowd to sing along and then says, “Stop the song.” The audience is with him, but they are not enthusiastic enough. They’re happy to listen, but not yet ready to participate.
“Why should I sing along with that dingleberry folk song anyway?” In another version of this narration Arlo takes on the voice of an audience member and says, “I’m not going to sing that song because I hate gardens, and I hate songs about them.”
I am facing a similar enthusiasm gap. My friends offer words of encouragement, but many are not yet ready to participate. I tried to imagine how I could use this tactic. “I’m not going to buy that book because I hate words, and I hate books filled with them…”
I tried to imagine how I could start from that spot, modulate the cadence, bring people along until there was a crescendo of enthusiasm, good feeling and support; take my audience from passively clicking like to clapping and singing out loud, telling their friends what a great story they have experienced.
Ah, but I’m not Arlo. Print is not verbal poetry. And I don’t play the guitar.