Nathan’s Famous may be the place to go in Coney Island, but this June, revelers will be shouting for “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Folk singer Arlo Gurthrie and his sister Nora have been crowned King Neptune and Queen Mermaid for the 37th Annual Mermaid Day Parade, hosted each year by the nonprofit organization Coney Island USA. This year, the celebration takes place on June 22.
According to Coney Island USA founder Dick Zigun, this year’s honorees are the only Mermaid Parade royalty to have grown up on Mermaid Avenue, right in the heart of Coney Island.
Arlo and Nora Guthrie are two of folk icon Woody Guthrie’s children, and both have kept their father’s legacy alive for generations. Arlo, who was born in 1947, is a folk legend in his own right, having performed at Woodstock, toured around the country and appeared in movies.
His classic ballad “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” details a true-life episode from 1965, in which an 18-year-old Arlo was arrested on Thanksgiving Day for illegally dumping a half-ton of garbage on private property after discovering that the local landfill was closed for the holiday. The song became an anti-establishment anthem and launched Guthrie on a recording career that has spanned generations.
“Alice’s Restaurant” was also the title of Guthrie’s hit 1967 record album and the 1969 movie in which he starred. In 1972, Arlo’s recording of “City of New Orleans” made the Top 20 on the pop chart.
Over the years, he’s released a string of critically acclaimed albums, including “Washington County,” “Hobo’s Lullaby,” “Amigo” and the appropriately titled “Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys.”
Along with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, he performed many of his father’s songs in concert and continues to perform in venues throughout the country.
Nora, an acclaimed author, has also kept her father’s memory alive by developing and producing a series of projects dedicated to her father’s vast song archive. She serves as president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and is the founder and director of the Woody Guthrie Archives.
In 2012, she served as editorial consultant on the GRAMMY Award-winning “Woody at 100: The Woody Guthrie Centennial Collection” released on Smithsonian Folkways Records. In 2013 she collaborated with Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp on the release of “House of Mirth,” an unpublished completed 1947 manuscript by her father about an expectant couple trying to survive the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.
“I’ve known Nora for a couple of years and she’s done a few events with me,” Zigun said. “She worked on two programs with me at the Coney Island Museum and screened a film about Woody.”
In addition, Nora presented a program with British singer Billy Bragg, who, along with the group Wilco, released the 2012 “Mermaid Avenue” album featuring previously unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics set to music by Bragg and Wilco.
“I think that the legacy should continue and in the resurgence of Coney Island they should open a restaurant called “Alice’s Seafood,” Zigun added.
Woody Guthrie’s songs were the voice of the American conscience. “This Land Is Your Land” still echoes just as loudly today “from California to the New York islands” as it did when he first wrote it in 1940 as a response to hearing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” overplayed on the radio.
Guthrie saw a less than idyllic America and felt that Berlin’s song was sugar-coating the truth. Guthrie loved his country and was not afraid to address hard issues that existed in America at the time, such as racism and rampant poverty.
In fact, the Oklahoma-born Dust Bowl balladeer and former resident of Coney Island lived for a time in a housing project built and managed by Fred Trump.
“Pastures of Plenty,” “Hard Travelin’,” “Do Re Mi,” “I Ain’t Got No Home” and “So Long it’s been Good to Know Yuh,” are among Woody Guthrie’s catalog of songs that helped shape and define the folk music movement of the 1930s and ‘40s.
Thanks to Arlo and Nora Guthrie, Woody’s songs will never be forgotten, and there’s no doubt that this year’s Mermaid Day Parade honorees are “Bound for Glory.”