A film version of the song was rushed to the theaters soon after the song became a hit. In Arlo Guthrie's fascinating audio commentary for the "special features" of the film's DVD, Arlo describes the writing of the song, and then its first public performance:
I went to the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, and they said, "Oh, Arlo Guthrie, you know, aren't you Woody's kid?" And they put me out in this field — you know, I was just 18 or 19 years old, I was a real young guy — and I remember playing Alice's Restaurant standing on a box in a field with about 300 people.
They got such a response that they put me on some other program later on that afternoon with, you know, about a thousand people and that got such a respsonse that they put me on at the very end of the festival, and that evening there were probably about twenty, thirty thousand people in the audience.
They were afraid to put an unknown person like me at the end of a big festival. It'd be really chancy, I mean, what if I was terrible? What if it was horrible? ...
And so Judy Collins came out, Joan Baez came out and then other people came out, and Pete Seeger came out. And by the end of the evening, all the performers were onstage singing Alice's Restaurant.
And that was the day that Man first walked on the Moon. I remember being onstage and telling everybody, you know, "There's people walking around up there." And looking at the moon. And it was a big day. Big day for me, big day for everybody. The next day, I started getting the phone calls from all the record companies and the execs and stuff.
It's true that the song made its public premier at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1967. But "Man first walked on the Moon" two years later, in July 1969. There were no astronauts in space during the 1967 festival.
Part of what fascinates me about the film, and Arlo's commentary, is that they are both constantly haunted by endless coincidences, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and mysteries — some of which Arlo points out, and some of which he seems to miss. The moon landing the night of his great triumph at Newport, for example, happened only in Arlo's memory.
The timing of the song and the film interests me. Hollywood in the mid-60s was in pretty bad shape and the studios were desperate to get people into theaters. Bonnie and Clyde (produced by 28-year-old Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn) was a surprise success and helped encourage bolder movies by sometimes by younger artists, oriented toward younger audiences.
Alice's Restaurant was Arthur Penn's next directing job after Bonnie and Clyde, and has a disorienting strangeness that seems to come from being a weird hybrid of countercultural documentary and studio pandering. So, Alice's Restaurant feels like it catches Hollywood in mid-morph, trying to figure out how to do a new thing. The movie is one key to understanding Hollywood at that moment.
But I want to understand the year 1969 and how the The Moon Landing fit into it. One lesson of Arlo's mistaken timeline is that the recollections of the major players — whether astronauts or folksingers — are 36 year old, and are bound to be cloudy.
Certainly, any drugs used at the time are unlikely to help, but they're not the only thing that can make things "run together" — young people in 1969 had a lot on their minds, what with a draft, a war, assassinations, Nixon, and such. I often remind myself that between 1965 and 1970, there were ... well, just five years.
But the main lesson of Arlo's mistake is that it wasn't some other mistake — it was about the Moon Landing. It is testimony to the importance of the landing not just as a technological feat, but as a reflection and contributor to the headiness of the times.
The 1967 Newport Folk Festival was certainly one of the most important events in Arlo Guthrie's life. It changed everything for him, and it was inextricably wrapped up in momentous national events (just listen to the song). It really was a big day for everybody — every day seemed to be.
So, it makes sense that memories would get pegged to Apollo 11 as a way of expressing their own intensity and, especially, to express the way those memories were shaped by various dramatic displays of American power.