A Cultural History of “The Motorcycle Song” by Arlo Guthrie

Misao Dean

“I don’t wanna pickle. I just wanna ride on my motorsickle.” If you ask me to name a song that features motorcycles, this is the one that pops into my mind right away: Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song.” The lyrics may be nonsense, but they stick in your head, and the song has had enduring popularity; a radio hit in the late sixties, “The Motorcycle Song” appears on five of Guthrie’s albums across the length of his career from 1967 to 2011, and in at least four versions.[1] Its long-standing appeal is now partly nostalgic: Guthrie was at the center of hippie culture in the late sixties and early seventies, and he continues to fill his live concerts with crowds of boomer fans. Another reason why the song has endured is that it’s funny: the comic spoken-word performance that explains how the song was written while “going a hundred and fifty miles an hour sideways and five hundred feet down at the same time” continues to appeal to audiences, and was made into a stop-motion animated film in 1979. The facile rhymes may make the song seem trivial, and the story-telling style sounds improvised. But “The Motorcycle Song” is anything but: it has its roots firmly in the links between the motorcycling community and the counter-culture in the late 1960s, and points toward important elements in the history of North American motorcycle culture.

Guthrie, A. 1968. The Motorcycle Song. [Promotional Vinyl] USA: Reprise Records. [Fig.1]

Most motorcycling pop songs, such as the Shangri-Las’ “The Leader of the Pack” (1965), Manic Street Preachers’ “Motorcycle Emptiness” (1992) or even Lana Del Rey’s 2012 hit, “Ride,” depend upon the image of the motorcyclist as a dangerous and hyper-masculine gang member. This image, according to Bill Osgerby, was constructed partly through alarmist press reports and B-movies that depicted motorcyclists as “snarling, maverick outsiders” and “conjured themes of an uncontrolled, macho “Otherness” whose unrestrained lusts and sneering disaffection set it beyond the pale of mainstream culture” (99). The association of motorcyclists with “danger and an outlaw lifestyle” (Austin, Gagné, and Orend 946) achieved widespread cultural currency “in a paranoid Cold War context in which deviance of any sort was considered a threat to the domestic social order” (Austin, Gagné, and Orend 946). Austin, Gagné, and Orend describe the domestication and marketing of this image in their article, “Commodification and Popular Imagery of the Biker in American Culture,” which tracks the history of the biker image from the early twentieth century to the present. They argue that “the present day surge in the popularity of motorcycles is, in large part, a response to the commodification of a rebellious biker image created in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s and later amplified by capitalists to sell products to a population in search of adventure and expressions of rebellion” (943). This image of the motorcyclist as representing “danger and an outlaw lifestyle” (946) is used to sell products like leather jackets, boots, and motorcycle-themed accessories that mark consumers as part of community of rebels, with the result that “the motorcycle has gone from being a countercultural symbol of dissatisfaction with the traditional values of bourgeois American nationalism to embracing those same values” (Carroll 80).

But “The Motorcycle Song” constructs a completely different persona for the motorcycle rider – an easy-going, ironic, laid-back storyteller who speaks in the vocabulary of sixties hippie culture. Contemporary riders raised on The Wild One and Sons of Anarchy are likely to be confused by the song’s association of motorcycles with psychedelic fashion, hippies, and pacifism, but “The Motorcycle Song” was written in a historical moment in which the emerging motorcycle gang image overlapped with the counter-culture in a way that later became impossible. As Austin, Gagné, and Orend point out, “In the 60s, the motorcycle was recast as an object for escaping society, not confronting it. The motorcycle became a moment of the emerging youth counter-culture: as in the urban and rural communes of the hippies, the motorcycle was a means of escaping mainstream America and getting oneself together” (131). Arlo Guthrie’s “The Motorcycle Song” constructs the motorcycle rider as a long-haired freaky folk singer whose motorcycle expressed the same sense of “discontent with hypocritical mainstream practices” (Hamilton 130) that links him with the more traditional biker image.

Arlo Guthrie began his career as a musician with an audience already primed to listen. As a son of legendary folk musician Woody Guthrie (whose anti-fascist and pro-union politics were well-known), Guthrie was a living link between the old and the new left, and marched against the Vietnam War as a teenager. After his initial popularity with Alice’s Restaurant, he was compared to Bob Dylan and Donovan, and performed at Woodstock. Guthrie’s laconic speech, wild hair, and distinctive hat were themselves a challenge to the “establishment” in a time when even white “hippies” were automatically targeted by law enforcement for harassment and detention. But his later career never really lived up to his early popularity. Guthrie’s song, “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” was made into a semi-autobiographical movie in 1969, and he had considerable success with “Coming into Los Angeles” in the same year. Though he continues to tour and to create new recordings (notably achieving “Top 40” status with a cover of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” in 1972) his subsequent albums never reached the popularity of these early hits.

Guthrie’s public persona was fully established in “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” an eighteen-minute performance that took up a whole side of his 1967 debut record for Warner Reprise, Alice’s Restaurant. That performance consisted of a catchy eight-line chorus that was sung intermittently while Guthrie told a long, rambling story about how he was ticketed for littering, and managed to escape being drafted for the war in Vietnam as a result. “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” is generally associated with the peace movement, though more recently Guthrie has backed off from the specifically anti-war interpretation of “Alice’s Restaurant,” calling it a song about administrative stupidity.[2] But the song created the image of Guthrie as a hippie “weirdo” and a peacenik that underwrote his popularity, and it was so successful that Warner Reprise asked Guthrie to include similar songs on his next album.[3]
Guthrie responded by including two new story-telling songs, “The Motorcycle Song” and “The Pause of Mister Claus” as live recordings on his second album, Arlo (1968).[4]

“The Motorcycle Song” had already appeared in a “studio version” on Guthrie’s debut album, Alice’s Restaurant. The “studio version” had no spoken word elements, just two verses and three iterations of the chorus arranged with a full rhythm section. At slightly less than three minutes long, the “studio version” conformed to the stringent length requirements required by AM radio, and it was released by Warner as the A-side on a 45 rpm “single” in December of 1967.[5] The chorus is the main element of the song, and is built on the comic situation of the hapless songwriter trying to find words in English that rhyme with motorcycle. The song begins with a rhyme so lame it could only be intended to be laughable: “I don’t want a pickle; I just wanna ride on my motorsickle.” It continues:

And I don’t want a tickle,
I’d rather ride on my motorsickle.
And I don’t wanna die,
I just wanna ride on my motorcy . . . cle.[6]

These lines create the impression of a songwriter obliged to use rhythm and mispronunciation to torture various nonsensical words into a semblance of full rhyme. The words “pickle” and “tickle” only rhyme because the singer uses the vernacular pronunciation “motor-sickle,” but for the third rhyme he is forced to switch back to the standard pronunciation of the word (motor–cy) to make the final rhyme of “die”; after an ironic pause, the singer then tacks on the syllable “cle” to complete the line. In the “studio version” this persona is not so much developed, as continued, in the ensuing verses:

It was late last night the other day
I thought I’d go up and see Ray
So l went up and I saw Ray
There was only one thing Ray could say, was:
Just last week I was on my bike
I run into a friend named Mike
Run into my friend named Mike
Mike no longer has a bike. He cries:

These verses carry out the impression of a songwriter whose limited abilities are challenged by an elementary requirement like end-rhyme.

But the “studio version” is not the version that Guthrie performed in his live shows, and that fans continue to call out for. The second recorded version of the song, on the 1969 album Arlo, includes for the first time the familiar spoken-word story of how the song was written. This new version is over twice as long, running seven minutes and fifty-one seconds: recorded live at “The Bitter End” nightclub, it features Guthrie performing solo, accompanied by acoustic guitar. After the opening chorus, Guthrie launches into an epic tale of writing the song while riding his motorcycle off a cliff. Guthrie’s story-telling technique utilizes familiar components of the American tall-tale, such as repetition, exaggeration, and claiming the ability to do the physically impossible[7] (including putting an ink cartridge in a fountain pen while falling off a cliff). But much of the comedy in the story comes from timing and syntactic delay. For example, the punch line of the story, “I landed on top of a police car. And he died,” is delayed to the end of a long sentence that begins with conventional phrases:

But as fate would have it,
and as you all know
I didn’t die.

The delay adds emphasis, as does the laughter that punctuates this statement. Similarly, in the lines:

I drove away on the road that he was on.
I came into town at a screamin’ hundred and seventy-five miles an hour,
Playin’ the motorcycle song,

the comic claim that the speaker was playing his newly composed song while simultaneously riding his motorcycle at one hundred and seventy miles per hour is delayed to the end of the sentence, and introduced by a pause. This claim is followed by a sequence that indicates speed by joining together independent clauses with commas, but also uses the repetitive syntax to persuade the listener to accept the ridiculous claim that the motorcycle drove itself: “I came into town, I jumped off the bike, the bike went around the corner by itself, went up on the stand by itself, turned itself off.” This entire sequence serves to introduce the idea that the death of the cop should inspire the audience to sing along enthusiastically, and in the recording, they do.

Arlo Guthrie performs The Motorcycle Song at a benefit festival for The Worthington Clinic, 1975. [Fig.2]

The third recorded version of the song (which appeared on The Best of Arlo Guthrie in 1977) preserved the version that Guthrie had been performing since 1969 (Reineke 91), which is frequently subtitled, “The Significance of the Pickle.” In this version, the motorcycle doesn’t simply drive off the cliff; instead, a broken guitar string wraps around a stop sign and pulls the bike off course, leading to the familiar predicament of composing a song while going a “hundred and fifty miles an hour sideways and five hundred feet down at the same time.” The singer is “looking for the cops” during his fall, because he knows that riding a motorcycle while playing a guitar is “ill-legal.” Again, he lands on a police car, but in this version the “cop” is squashed rather than killed, appearing later in the story as a “four-foot cop … with a five-foot gun, a cop that at one time must have been around six foot seven but was met at the bottom of a mountain by a flyin’, singin’, writin’, weirdo.” The cop writes him a “ten-foot ticket,” wraps it around a pickle and shoves it down his throat, at which point, he says, he realized “I don’t want a pickle. I just wanna ride on my motorsickle.” This cue begins the “outro” of the song with another iteration of the chorus.

The style of the spoken word performance in both “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” and “The Motorcycle Song” obviously owes much to the form of the “talking blues,” in which the performer tells a story, using repetition and irregular rhyme to adapt the words to a simple guitar accompaniment. Guthrie’s father Woody Guthrie and his protégé Ramblin’ Jack Elliot had adapted the “talking blues” from African-American performers, and it was popularized for white audiences in the 1960s by Bob Dylan.[8] Guthrie has also said that his story-telling style was inspired by the live performances of two comedians popular in the early 1960s: Lord Buckley and Bill Cosby.[9] Richard Buckley, who performed with an exaggerated English accent as Lord Buckley, was famous for his “translations” of classic literature such as Shakespeare into “hipster jive”: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears” became “Hipsters, flipsters and finger-poppin’ daddies, Knock me your lobes.”[10] Buckley based his style on African-American vernacular, as did Cosby, whose standup performances at the Gaslight in the early 1960s included the long rambling stories about his own childhood that later became the basis of the “Fat Albert” cartoons. Guthrie has said that Buckley’s and Cosby’s standup routines proved to him that telling long stories about his own life could be successful with audiences, and his spoken-word performances adopt their techniques, including vernacular elements such as dropping the “g” at the ends of present participles and using current youth-culture expressions such as “groovy,” and “trip,” and the greeting, “What’s happening?” The “talking blues” was a familiar part of Guthrie’s live performances from the beginning of his career, and he helped to inaugurate the combination of musical performance with long comic (and often political) stories that also proved successful for performers such as Steve Martin and the Smothers Brothers.

While Guthrie is sometimes accused of imitating popular folk musicians of the sixties like Judy Collins and Bob Dylan (see Reinke 65), “The Motorcycle Song” demonstrates how he differs from the mainstream of sixties folk artists. Unlike Judy Collins, he is rarely lyrical, and while he uses the “poetic sensibilities and free-association wordplay” (Reineke 65) associated with Dylan, Guthrie’s lyrics are never directly political. Instead, Guthrie’s “sweet and colorful and funny” (Reineke 77) persona set him off from other folk and protest musicians of the period. Arthur Whitman comments: “The humor is an unlikely cross of Charlie Chaplin and Lennie Bruce. Like Chaplin, Arlo is a hapless Everyman, victimized by anyone who needs a victim. Like Bruce, he is knowing and cynical about all that happens to him” (Whitman 16). For some listeners (like Whitman) Guthrie’s humor made him an adolescent gag-artist in a field of politically engaged professionals. But for others, Guthrie’s use of irony and “purposefully opaque lyrics” (Reineke 65) signaled the way his humor depended upon the unarticulated values and insider knowledge that he shared with his audiences. Despite its nonsense rhymes and its humor, “The Motorcycle Song” reinforced Guthrie’s positioning as a participant in the struggle against ‘establishment’ authority figures and a critic of the actions of drug and traffic enforcement officers against members of the motorcycling community.

Guthrie had learned to ride a motorcycle in his late teens among friends who rode Triumphs and other English bikes off road. “That was probably 1965, 1966, somewhere around there,”[11] Guthrie recounted in an interview. This period in Guthrie’s life is represented in the movie Alice’s Restaurant (1969) with scenes of a dirt track “scramble” on café style motorcycles. Guthrie also appeared riding a Triumph on the cover of his 1969 album, Running Down the Road. This placed his motorcycle song squarely within the moral panic over the relationship between motorcycling, youth rebellion, and criminal gangs, which played out in the media in the late 1960s.

The story of this moral panic is well known.[12] Concern over the possibility that motorcyclists formed a threat to public order became widespread when Life Magazine published a staged photograph of a drunk on a motorcycle on page 31 of the July 21, 1947 issue, with a caption that claimed that thousands of members of the American Motorcycling Association had spent a weekend terrorizing the town of Hollister, California. The AMA defended itself by saying that the trouble had been caused by a few riders who were not members of the association, but Life readers found the photograph and the accompanying caption compelling, and flocked to a Hollywood film inspired by the story, The Wild One, in 1953. Public fear of motorcyclists was increased by the release of the Lynch Report, described by William L. Dulaney as “the first large-scale bureaucratic attempt to portray motorcycle clubs as a clear and present danger to local, state and ultimately international constituencies. The report consists of what can be interpreted as little more than law enforcement urban legends” (2005). The Lynch Report initiated a campaign of harassment against motorcyclists by law enforcement across the US: “Detentions, beatings while handcuffed or in custody, false arrests, expulsions from towns and from states when crossing boundaries, routine failures to cite car drivers who injured bikers or violated the right-of-way, and even murders were committed by police officers, so great was their individual and collective prejudice against bikers” according to Gary L. Kieffner in Police and Harley Riders: Discrimination and Empowerment (2009).

The Lynch Report and its claims were almost immediately debunked, most notably by Hunter S. Thompson in his book Hell’s Angels. He argued that the early sixties motorcycle clubs in California were essentially groups of uneducated and unemployed young men who had been left behind by the post-war economy, and who constituted no more (or less) of a threat to public order than any other group of comparable young men. And of course the AMA continued to defend its members, asserting that the majority of motorcyclists were law-abiding (Dulaney, 2005). However, as public concern about “youth rebellion” and criminality ramped up in the wake of violent protests in favour of civil rights and against the draft, harassment of motorcyclists by law enforcement continued as overt policy: Kieffner suggests that this harassment was motivated not by legitimate fear of criminal activity but by a form of prejudice that was similar to racism, targeting people of color and drug offenders along with motorcyclists as scapegoats for wider social ills.

Thus bikers in the early sixties (when Guthrie learned to ride) had at least one thing in common with hippies: harassment by law enforcement. In addition, many younger motorcyclists used drugs recreationally and like hippies, were victims of the exaggerated fears of social decay that were part of the public health campaigns against drug use. But ultimately a simple identification between motorcyclists and hippies was based on the misconception that because both rejected the values of mainstream consumer society, they could be allies. As Bill Osgerby writes “The truth was rather different.” The tragedy at the Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont Speedway, when a member of the crowd was attacked and killed by a group of Hell’s Angels “who had been hired by the rock group to act as security” is often cited as “the end of the American counterculture’s decade long love-affair” (Wood 336) with bikers, but from the beginning the association was fraught with violence and contradiction. Hunter S. Thompson describes how the breach between one-per-centers and the counter culture was effected, first by the Hell’s Angels’ visit to an LSD party at Ken Kesey’s La Honda Ranch, and later when they appeared at a protest against the Vietnam War in 1965 not to protest, but to chastise the participants for their lack of patriotism. Each of these events quickly became news items, and were publicized in portrayals by Thompson, Kesey, and Allen Ginsberg. The counter-culture “was often naive in its celebration of the Hell’s Angel as a free spirit, valiantly kicking back against the establishment” (Osgerby) but the prevalence of militarism, violence, and right-wing patriotism among the one per-centers ultimately prevented any real collaboration (see Wood). Nonetheless, the association between motorcycles and the counter-culture persisted in popular culture: the iconic sixties movie Easy Rider (1967) portrays its heroes as pacifist long-haired hippies who finance their purchase of custom bikes with a successful drug deal, and whose American odyssey includes a visit to a commune as well as a ranch.

Like Easy Rider’s Captain America and his sidekick Billy, Arlo Guthrie was a self-described hippie who also rode motorcycles and admitted to drug use. An unrecorded version of “The Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” titled “The Alice’s Restaurant Rainbow Roach Affair” (Reinke 65) joked openly about marijuana use, and Guthrie’s 1969 song “Coming into Los Angeles” is about smuggling “a couple of keys” of marijuana into the Los Angeles airport. One of the things that held these three ideas together – motorcyclist, hippie drug user, and counter culture protestor – was a belief that members of these communities were unjustly victimized by law enforcement. Thus in Guthrie’s performances of “The Motorcycle Song” on Arlo and The Best of Arlo Guthrie the news that the motorcycle landed on a “cop” is greeted with gales of laughter. Guthrie’s hapless speaker has accidently effected the audience’s revenge against the hated cop, and whether he is dead, as in the first version, or only comically “squashed,” as in “The Significance of the Pickle,” matters little.

While much of Guthrie’s humor was based in the deflation of “pompous authority and establishment figures” (Reineke 86) like cops, “The Motorcycle Song” also uses shared knowledge and cultural codes to create irony. Near the end of the 1968 version of the song (from Arlo) the speaker, having performed/endured the amazing experience of falling off a cliff, riding into town while singing a newly written song, and watching his motorcycle park itself, casually walks up to a bystander and asks, “what’s happening?” This question encodes a whole unarticulated worldview that views openness to experience as its highest value, accepts the weirdness of the world as presented, and sees any other young person as a potential ally. A similar form of irony is at work in “The Significance of the Pickle” when, after arriving in town, the speaker is confronted by a man “eating the most tremendous pickle” and notices:

a cord hangin’ from the long end of the pickle
Goin’ up his sleeve down his shirt, into his pants and shoes
Out into a briefcase he had near his feet.

The wire implies that the pickle hides a microphone for the secret recording of his conversation, and its termination in a “briefcase” (associated with businessmen and government officials), reinforces the impression that the pickle is wielded by a journalist or a narc (an informer for the narcotics police). Guthrie’s dedication of his spoken word performance “The Pause of Mr. Claus” to the FBI agents that he claims are in the audience reinforces the idea that Guthrie and his audiences were not only targeted for enforcement of drug possession laws, but were suspected of being Communists. In “The Motorcycle Song” the speaker is not fooled by the covert pickle-microphone, and the joke is on the “straights”[13] who believe they can take advantage of him with such an obvious device.[14]

The most significant use of irony in the song is located in the chorus, in the lines, “I don’t wanna die / I just wanna ride on my motorcy … cle.” The line “And I don’t wanna die” is surprisingly poignant, with the “I” sung at the apex of the melodic line. This line spoke to Guthrie’s audience directly, as many of them were faced with the military draft and the immediate prospect of death in Vietnam. In the context of other popular anti-war songs of the time (such as Country Joe and the Fish’s 1967 “Feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” which was also performed at Woodstock) the line resonated as a simple articulation of the youthful longing for freedom and enjoyment in the context of the real threat of death. While the line is immediately undercut by the joking part-rhyme with “motorcy … cle,” its significance to Guthrie’s audience would have been clear. In this instance the singer’s desire to ride his motorcycle represents the opposite of the draft, and the opposite of death: freedom, choice, life.

More recent recordings of “The Motorcycle Song” have muted its contemporary resonance and adapted it to the increasing age of both Guthrie and his audience. On his 2005 recording Live in Sydney, Guthrie’s spoken-word performance pokes fun at the song and himself as its author, and marvels that this “dumb song” has become part of the curriculum at the college he dropped out of many years before. This version adumbrates the familiar narrative that characterizes the performances of many musicians of Guthrie’s generation, lamenting their increasing age and marveling disingenuously at how mainstream their concerns have become. And the most recent version, on the 2010 Tales of ’69, is a simple recreation of a performance circa 1969, with its predictable nostalgic appeal for Guthrie fans. But placed in its historical context “The Motorcycle Song” is much more than a nostalgic evocation of youth and the passage of time: it is a reminder that as recently as the sixties, motorcycling culture embraced the radical and pacifist politics associated with the left and the anti-war movement. For a contemporary listener, “The Motorcycle Song” is an unfamiliar take on the familiar idea of the freedom to ride: the freedom Guthrie claims is not freedom from helmet laws or taxes, but the freedom to dissent from the ideology of war. As Guthrie wrote in his statement to the draft board in 1966: “I do not believe that war is a means to attain good, nor that it creates love or respect for something good. I do not believe that today, anyone can win a war. Everyone involved can only lose.” He continued, “God is the love that people have for one another and this love is what I have devoted my life to” (cited in Reineke 31).Guthrie continues to be associated with motorcycling culture, participating in promotional events for the relaunched “Indian” brand, and riding his own 2001 Indian cruiser (Wilkinson).

Works Cited
Alford, Steven E. and Suzanne Ferris. Motorcycle. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Austin, D. Mark, Patricia Gagné and Angela Orend. “Commodification and Popular Imagery of the Biker in American Culture.” Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 43, No. 5 2010, pp.942-963.

Brown, Carolyn. The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature. University of Tennesee Press, 1987.

Carroll, Hamilton. Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity. Duke University Press, 2011.

Doyle, Patrick. “Arlo Guthrie Looks Back on 50 Years of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.” Rolling Stone, 26 November 2014. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/arlo-guthrie-looks-back-on-50-years-of-alices-restaurant-20141126

Dulaney, William L. “A Brief History of ‘Outlaw’ Motorcycle Clubs.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies, 1:3, November 2005. http://ijms.nova.edu/November2005/IJMS_Artcl.Dulaney.html

folkchris. “A Study of Arlo Guthrie’s ‘The Motorcycle Song.'” [blog post] https://folkchris.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/a-study-of-arlo-guthries-the-motorcycle-song/

Guthrie, Arlo. Alice’s Restaurant (1967) Warner-Reprise R-6267.

Alice’ Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited (1996) Rising Son RSR 0010.

– Guthrie, Arlo. Arlo (1968) Warner-Reprise RS 6299.

– Guthrie, Arlo. The Best of Arlo Guthrie (1977) Warner BSK 3117.

– Guthrie, Arlo. Live in Sydney (2005) Rising Son RSR 1124.

– Guthrie, Arlo. Tales of ’69 (2010) Rising Son 1128.

Hamilton, Neil A. “Arlo Guthrie.” The ABC-CLIO Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America. ABC-CLIO Publishers, 1997.

Kieffner, Gary L. “Police and Harley Riders: Discrimination and Empowerment.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies5:1, Spring 2009. http://ijms.nova.edu/Spring2009/IJMS_Artcl.Kieffner.html

Osgerby, Bill. “Sleazy riders.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall 2003, pp.98-108. DOI: 10.1080/01956050309603671

Reinke, Hank. Arlo Guthrie: The Warner Reprise Years. Scarecrow, 2013.

Ruhlmann, William. “Arlo Guthrie.” Billboard Artists: Biography. https://www.billboard.com/artist/279917/arlo-guthrie/biography

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Random House, 1967.

Whitman, Arthur. “The Apotheosis of Woody’s Kid.” Chicago Tribune, 10 November 1986, Section 7, p.16.

Wilkinson, Bud. “Arlo Guthrie Talks Motorcycles…” Ride – CT and Ride – New Englandhttp://ride-ct.com/arlo-guthrie-on-motorcycles/

Wood, John. “Hell’s Angels and the Illusion of the Counterculture.” The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2003, pp.336-351. DOI: 10.1111/1540-5931.00071

[1] “The Motorcycle Song” appears on the following records: Alice’s Restaurant (1967) Warner-Reprise R-6267 (“studio version”); Arlo (1968) Warner-Reprise RS 6299; The Best of Arlo Guthrie (1977) Warner BSK 3117 (“significance of the pickle” version); Alice’ Restaurant The Massacree Revisited (1996) Rising Son RSR 0010; Live in Sydney (2005) Rising Son RSR 1124 (“education” version); Tales of ’69 (2010) Rising Son 1128 (“The Unbelievable Motorcycle tale” version).

[2] See Patrick Doyle, “Arlo Guthrie Looks Back on 50 Years of ‘Alice’s Restaurant’.” Rolling Stone, 26 November 2014. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/arlo-guthrie-looks-back-on-50-years-of-alices-restaurant-20141126

[3] According to the Billboard biography of Arlo Guthrie, this album “entered the Billboard Magazine Top LP’s chart on November 18 and rose steadily, peaking at number 29 on March 2, 1968, and staying on the chart 65 weeks.” (Ruhlmann).

[4] See Reineke, 76.

[5] Reineke, 60.

[6] Transcriptions of the complete lyrics to the “studio version,” the version from Arlo and “the significance of the pickle” are available on many commercial “lyrics” websites.

[7] See Carolyn S. Brown, The Tall Tale in American Folklore and Literature for a discussion of the characteristics of the American Tall Tale.

[8] The talking blues was originated by southern black blues performers, as was the “jive” that characterized the performances of “Lord Buckley,” and to this extent Guthrie’s story-telling style participates in the general appropriation of African-American culture by the pop music industry in the U.S.

[9] Doyle op cit.

[10] Lord Buckley’s performances are readily available on YouTube.

[11] See Wilkinson, “Arlo Guthrie Talks Motorcycles…” Ride – CT and Ride – New Englandhttp://ride-ct.com/arlo-guthrie-on-motorcycles/

[12] See in addition to the sources cited below, Thompson, Hell’s Angels, Wood, “Hell’s Angels and the Illusion of the Counterculture,” Osgerby, “Sleazy Riders,” and Alford and Ferris, Motorcycle.

[13] In the sixties and seventies, this word had the slang meaning of a conventional or conservative person, or a person who did not use recreational drugs.

[14] “folkchris” points out that “pickle” was slang among US soldiers for the action of dropping bombs on Vietnamese villagers. He suggests that this meaning of “pickle” is another example of ironic coded communication between Guthrie and his audiences.

Image/Video Attributions
[Fig.1] Photograph by Tim Fransen.
[Fig.2] Film Source: https://youtu.be/g266Uwp6ZnI

Misao Dean, Department of English, University of Victoria, Victoria BC, Canada: https://www.uvic.ca/humanities/english/people/regularfaculty/dean-misao.php

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  1. I was part of the same scene in Stockbridge MA, that produced this song, the Ray in the song is Ray Brock of Alice’s restaurant fame. Ray had a motorcycle racing team the TRA that went to scrambles and MX event. While lyrics embellish the events like all good tale it is rooted in an actual event

  2. I heard Arlo sing it in San Francisco back in the 1980s but of course the best motorcycling song is Richard Thomson’s Vincent Black Lightning 1952!

  3. for my 2 cents, I’ll take “little honda” by beach boys

  4. As a seventies to present biker I’m inclined to go with Bob Seger’s pair of motorcycle related songs “Roll Me Away” and “Fire Lake”.

  5. I agree with Tim above with the Jesus and Mary chain but maybe their song The Living End a homage to narcissim and motorbike culture ? https://youtu.be/2KOrenDyKOE

  6. My favourite is ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ by Richard Thompson.

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