December 4, 2012 by folkchris
The Motorcycle Song: The Meaning of this ‘Dumb Song’
This is a study of ‘The Motorcycle Song’ written and performed by American singer songwriter Arlo Guthrie.
Born in July 1947, Arlo Davey Guthrie the son of Woody Guthrie who is one of the most important and iconic figures in American folk/ protest music.
Arlo has released 26 solo albums and contributed to dozens of other records with other artists.
He rose to fame in 1967 after an appearance at The Newport Folk Festival, where he debuted ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ an 18 minute, largely spoken protest against the Vietnam draft.
The piece I am going to focus on, originally featured on the album ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ and is called ‘The Motorcycle Song’.
There are currently 4 official released versions of this song, all of which are completely different from each other: the only similarity being the chorus.
(There is a 5th version on ‘Alice’s Restaurant: The Massacree Revisited, but in terms of structure it is the same as the first release of the song, therefore, it has been omitted from this study.)
The versions range from 3 minutes to 10 minutes in length, the structure of the song, the characters and even the events all change throughout the versions.
In the course of this blog entry, I shall look at what the song may actually mean, using the earliest (studio) version to illuminate my argument.
As the versions of the song change so dramatically, I shall concentrate my search for the song’s meaning mainly on the chorus- which, over the 4 different versions, is the only unchanged part of the song.
Over the last 45 years of playing this song live, Arlo often refers to ‘The Motorcycle Song’ as just being a ‘dumb song’, often commenting on his surprise at ‘getting away’ with playing such a stupid piece for such a long time.
However, as a talented musician, why would you:
i) Continue playing what you know to be a ‘dumb song’ for such a long time
ii) Why would you constantly re-enforce this to audiences for the next 4 decades
In case you are not familiar with ‘The Motorcycle Song’, in the lyrics of the chorus, Arlo tells the listener that he ‘don’t want a pickle’, he just wants to ride his motorsickle, and subsequently, he ‘don’t want a tickle’ because again, he’d rather ride his ‘motorsickle’ before telling us: ‘ i don’t want to die, I Just want to ride on my motorcy…cle’
This study will analyse the lyrics of ‘The Motorcycle Song’to see if there is more depth than Guthrie lets on or if it is indeed a ‘dumb song’.
To do this, I decided to use a qualitative methodology by means of hermeneutic interpretation and a sociological approach, to consider the background and political climate in which the song was written.
Simon Frith argues that there is often the ‘temptation’ to analyse the words at the expense of the music, however, in the case of ‘The Motorcycle Song’, language is the key element in examining whether or not the piece has any ‘real value’. (Frith, 1983, p14)
In the song, when Arlo Guthrie tells the listener that he doesn’t want a pickle, doesn’t want a tickle, he just wants to ride his motorcycle, does he mean this literally? If so, perhaps this is a ‘dumb song’, if not, then what is he talking about?
Perhaps a brief examination of the hermeneutics of motorcycles may help begin to explain this seemingly banal lyric.
Associated with windswept notions of rebellion, danger and promising the rider complete ‘freedom on 2 wheels,’ motorcycles have long been seen to stick the middle finger up at an otherwise ‘straight laced’ society.
This image in-built and reinforced since the 1950’s, via the connection between motorcycles and American pop culture, as famous images of Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’ and James Dean in ‘A Rebel Without a Cause’ rolled across cinema screens.
Advertisements in the 1960s used the fast paced machismo to promote their products, using the ideals of liberty and independence to suggest to onlookers of how their life could be if they purchased a motorcycle.
Honda offered the individual to ‘Escape First Class!. The Moto Guzzi was designed to ‘Go Around the World or Around the Corner!’ while BMW imports claimed that in buying one of their products, the customer would have: ‘A Ball with No Chain!’
One would argue that ‘The Motorcycle Song’ is not about wanting a motorcycle at all, but what a motorcycle is seen to represent: limitless freedom.
In ‘The Poetry of Rock’n’Roll’ Richard Goldstein argues:
‘Rock writers have learned that equality is not the same as liberty, so when they speak about being free, they generally mean free from hang ups, from authority, from obligation.’ (Goldstein, 1969,p52)
If Arlo is indeed singing about being free and having freedom, rather than having a motorcycle, one must ask: freedom from what?
There are 2 significant (albeit on going) events in 1967 (when the song was written) which may have been seen as a threat to Guthrie’s sense of freedom.
The first is the social backdrop of this year in the form of the hippy counterculture. As a result of belief and lifestyle, Arlo Guthrie has often been strongly associated with this movement.
On August 8, 1967, Will Herberg wrote an article in the ‘National Review’ labelling these hippies a ‘parasitic, drug addicted, cop-hating, love loving free loaders’. He wrote:
‘These hippies, with their cult of love, are naturally almost all pacifists…who have a hostility to all authority…as they see it as infringing upon their freedom’
Hippy protests and sit ins, many of them condemning President Lyndon Johnstone’s involvement of US troops in the Vietnam War were gaining ‘big brother’ like attention and the unwanted presence of heavy handed authority figures.
In Cambridge, MA, raids from police officers targeting so called ‘hippy havens’ in needlessly violent drug busts were common. This could certainly be seen as a violation or at least a threat to one’s freedom.
Arlo himself, was known to criticise the police’s ‘Gestapo like tactics’ often using the stage as the setting to answer back to these questionable police tactics.
In live versions of ‘The Motorcycle Song’, Arlo makes reference to ‘squashing cops’ and ‘killing cop cars’. In 1968 he would frequently dedicate his ‘Christmas Carol’ entitled ‘The Pause of Mr Claus’ ‘to all those FBI bastards out there in the audience’.
In that song, Arlo questions ‘Why do police guys beat on peace guys ?’
The second and perhaps, even more significant threat to one’s freedom, was the prospect of potentially being unwillingly drafted into the army and sent to fight in the Vietnam war.
As Dorian Lynskey notes in ’33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs’:
‘The same people who told you to cut your hair or threatened to jail you for smoking a joint, also wanted to ship you off to the jungle to die’.(Lynskey, 2010,p 111/112)
History shows over 58,000 young Americans did in fact die over the course of US involvement in the Vietnam War.
This in itself, maybe seen as a very real threat to one’s freedom. As a pacifist, a threat to the practice of ones’ beliefs. As a human being, the threat to one’s life.
Considering the facts of the social and political backdrop in which Guthrie was writing, let us consider the lyrics again:
I don’t want a pickle and I don’t want a tickle, I will return to, at the moment I want to consider the most emphasised line in this chorus: ‘I don’t want to die’
With threat of being drafted into the army, seeming very real, and death, of course being the binary opposite of life, this seemingly ‘dumb song’ now becomes a young man’s plea for his life.
Statistically, the average age at which a US serviceman was likely to die at in Vietnam in 1967 was 20. The very age Arlo Guthrie was when he wrote these lines.
As fate had it, Guthrie did not fight in Vietnam. The simple reason for this is that his draft number was never called, another reason was due to an arrest for littering; as recollected by Guthrie in ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ in which he ironically claims that because of his ‘special crime’ he was not ‘moral enough’ to join the army.
However, this outcome could not have been known by Guthrie at the time in which the song was written, therefor, this plea for his life and freedom is a very real one.
In terms of it being authentic, I shall look at Allan Moore’s Tri-partite Scheme of Authenticity to illuminate.
This works on 3 levels:
i) The Authenticity of Expression/ 1st person authenticity
ii) The Authenticity of Experience/ 2nd person authenticity
iii) The Authenticity of Execution/ 3rd person authenticity
In the case of the 1st person authenticity, Guthrie expresses his outlook to the listener, in that he is saying what he doesn’t want to do and what he does want. Effectively, ‘this is what its like to be Arlo Guthrie’.
This experience of expression may also be shared by the listener, therefore, Guthrie is speaking on their behalf.
As Moore notes, in most cases, 2nd person authenticity cannot be found without 1st person authenticity. Therefore, what the musician is singing about must be real to them to be believable to the listener.
3rd person authenticity, in this case, maybe shared by listeners perhaps not directly affected by what Guthrie feels, but can on some level empathise with and relate to it.
Whether or not Arlo went to fight in Vietnam or (in the other versions of the song), whether or not Arlo actually squashed a cop, does that make the song inauthentic? No.
What is important and what is authentic, is the ideas proposed in the song and what they represent.
After all: ‘We ascribe authenticity as listeners and let the music represent us’. (Moore)
Taking this into consideration, along with the social backdrop of 1967, the song evolves from being a ‘dumb song’ about a young man’s love of motorcycles to a powerful protest song expressing a young mans’ plea for his life and his freedom.
If this is the case, why would Guthrie insist to audiences for the next 45 years that this was just a ‘dumb’ piece of work, instead of acknowledging it as a valuable piece of protest music?
I would suggest that ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ Guthrie’s breakthrough piece, being recognised as a significant anti-war protest song, may have persuaded Guthrie to ‘dumb it down’, so to speak, so as not to be pigeonholed just as a ‘protest singer’, which by 1967, was considered somewhat passe, with even the most celebrated writers of protest music ‘going electric’ or going in different directions.
I would also argue that as a performer just starting out, bearing the ‘son of Woody’ or the ‘new Dylan’ tag would be challenging enough, without being seen to play ‘their type’ of music as well.
‘The Motorcycle Song’ was the single from the ‘Alice’s Restaurant’ LP, therefore, it was designed to be short, radio friendly and to an extent ‘dumb’.
These may indeed be contributing factors, but why continue to ‘dumb it down’ for the next 45 years?
Simply, as Dorian Lynskey suggests, protest music, by its very nature, has a built in shelf life and is often designed for a particular audience, event and or time. Once this event has occurred, the protest, therefor, becomes irrelevant.
By keeping the piece generalised and adaptable or in this case ‘dumb’ allows the song’s lifespan to continue past the event and have some degree of on-going relevance even out with the context in which it was written.
Having considered that life and freedom are key themes in the song, against the Vietnam milieu, I have so far, neglected to analyse the other 2 lines of the chorus, these being:
‘I don’t want a pickle’ and ‘I don’t want a tickle’.
Given that Guthrie is a pacifist, writing in the context which I have cited, perhaps one could interpret ‘I don’t want a tickle’ as ‘I don’t want to kill’.
A letter from March 1966 from Arlo Guthrie to the Draft Board of the US Military may help justify this argument. In this letter Guthrie states:
‘Throughout all of my life, I have been learning and living by a love for people…I am living because I have a reason to live, a job to do, a purpose in life. This purpose is to love people and work with people, so we can all lead better lives…I do not believe that war is a means to attain good, nor that creates love or respect for something good. I do not believe that today anyone can win a war. Everyone involved can only lose. By going to war, I am going against my basis for living. This is why I cannot go to war.’
Perhaps ‘I don’t want to kill’ is a more likely line to be followed by ‘I don’t want to die’.
It would seem that the song’s first line ‘I don’t want a pickle’ at least on the surface, cannot be reinterpreted and may be the root of Guthrie’s definition of the song being ‘dumb’.
However, it was during the process of researching the sociological background in which the song was written that I discovered the following:
In military slang, the term ‘to pickle’ means to release a bomb or bombs from an aircraft, by hitting the ‘pickle switch’.
Pickling a weapon therefore, would be risking human life, ultimately, would kill. Being on the receiving end, one would die.
Throughout this whole song, Arlo has been telling us what he doesn’t want: to pickle, tickle (or to kill) or to die, what he does want is to ride his motorcycle…or simply to be free.
In this study, the themes emerging and re-emerging from this piece seem less ‘dumb’ and what actually seems prominent are the themes of life, taking life, death and freedom. Themes often associated with war.
In this analysis of ‘The Motorcycle Song’ I am not trying to suggest that my reading of the song is the absolute or only possible reading: taking another musicological approach may produce different analytical results.
I am also not merely looking for the political in the aesthetic or the aesthetic in the political for the sake of doing so, but after careful consideration of the lyrics, the writer’s own history, the sociological and political context in which the song was created that I have reached my conclusion.
What I am suggesting, however, is that there is far more substance to ‘The Motorcycle Song’ than Arlo Guthrie makes known (on the surface) to the listener.
Whether the song interpreted by the interpreter to be a protest against war, a disregard for authority, a celebration of individual freedom or something else entirely could be an on-going argument.
What is certain, however, is that the motorcycle song is far deeper, more significant, more poignant and more powerful than just a ‘dumb song’.
Alice’s Restaurant Massacree Facts
[Accessed November 9 2012]
City Police Raid Hippy Havens, Find Pot, Pills Amidst Squalor
[Accessed November 10 2012]
Fighter Pilot Speak
[Accessed November 10 2012]
Rebel Without A Cause
Available http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048545/ [Accessed November 7 2012]
Rising Son Records Discography
Available http://www.arlo.net/ [Accessed November 3 2012]
Statistics About The Vietnam War
[Accessed November 8 2012]
Vintage Motorcycle Ads
Available http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihh7NwaLtrU [Accessed November 8 2012]
Who Are These Hippies?
[Accessed November 10 2012]
The Wild One
Available http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047677/ [Accessed November 7 2012]
Frith S(1983) Sound Effects Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock and Roll. Constable. London
Goldstein R (1969)The Poetry of Rock ’n’ Roll. Bantam Books. New York.
Lynskey D (2010) 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. Faber and Faber: London
Moore A (2012) Song Means: Analysing and Interpreting Recorded Popular Song. Ashgate. Surrey
Reineke H (2012) Arlo Guthrie: The Warner Reprise Years. Scarecrow Press. Maryland.
Wise H (1969) This is the Arlo Guthrie Book. Amsco. New York
Guthrie A (1967) Alice’s Restaurant [CD] Warner Brothers Reprise 7599-27439-2
Guthrie A (1968) Arlo [CD] Rising Son Records. RSR 6299
Guthrie A (1978) The Best of Arlo Guthrie [CD]Warner Brothers Records 7599-27340-2
Guthrie A (2005) Live in Sydney [CD]Rising Son Records RSR 1125-2