The Story of How Singer-Songwriter Arlo Guthrie Owed Me 50 Cents Over a Bet

A ramblin’ road or an adventure that started with a bet with singer Arlo Guthrie over a pinball game in Missouri, then ricocheted through the decades to Kailua-Kona and Honolulu.


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author hoover in his younger, pinball-wizard days in nashville.
photo: courtesy of willis david hoover

The story behind The Great All-Night Café Harris Pinball Showdown goes like this: 

 

Back in the autumn of 1966, Arlo Guthrie and your humble storyteller had a fierce, after-hours pinball duel at the Café Harris coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri. As the first rays of sunlight swept over the eastern horizon and our competition drew to an end, the not-yet-famous folksinger owed me 50 cents, which he didn’t have. He promised to pay me later.

 

That’s the bare account of what transpired. The full reckoning goes more or less like what I’m about to impart. Notice I have employed the “more or less” qualifier because I’ve told so many versions of this tale over the past half century—usually during a singing and guitar engagement—that it is no longer possible to tweeze fact from raconteur embellishment. I’ve probably never told the tale the same way twice at any rate. And, as we used to say back in the day, “It’s good enough for folk music.”

 

With this telling, though, I will attempt to focus on the “more” of the facts, and less on the “or less.” Still, the whole tale emerges from the confines of my cranium, wherein personal yarns dwell for anecdotists one and all.

 

hoover today, playing his 1956 martin o-18 guitar; at far right, hoover playing in 1971.
Photo: David Croxford

The pinball contest happened in the midst of the great folk music revival of the mid-20th century, during which college coffeehouses sprang up like toadstools across America. Columbia, home of the University of Missouri, had a popular downtown coffeehouse and restaurant known as the Café Harris. It was owned and operated by my older brother, Russ, and his college compadre, Bill Burton.

 

The Café Harris specialized in bringing top coffeehouse performers to the hinterlands—names such as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, “Spider” John Koerner, The Reverend Gary Davis and, once, for an entire month, a 19-year-old kid named Arlo Guthrie. I was a 21-year-old folk singer myself in those days, having performed throughout the preceding three years at clubs, colleges and coffeehouses in towns up and down the Missouri River—Council Bluffs, Omaha, Kansas City.

 

I got a call from my brother, who was an accomplished singer-songwriter and guitarist in his own right.

 

“We’ve booked Woody’s boy for a couple of weeks,” he began. “Thought you might want to come down for the weekend to see his show. If you want, you could do a guest set or two.”

 

I understood “Woody’s boy” meant the son of the immortal Woody Guthrie, whose protest songs had influenced folk stars from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan. So I packed my trusty 1956 Martin 0-18 guitar and drove from my apartment in southwest Iowa to Columbia, 270 miles to the south and east—located approximately halfway between Kansas City and St. Louis on US Interstate Highway 70.

 

Arlo was there when I arrived. He seemed delighted to be performing somewhere other than New York City for the first time in his life. He was so smitten with Café Harris, in fact, that he extended his scheduled visit by two weeks at no extra charge. His first name may not have been well known back then, but his last name had cachet. The audience response for “Woody’s boy” proved to be exceptional.

 

In those days, coffeehouse singers ordinarily stayed at performance venues to save on expenses. In keeping with that tradition, the Café Harris had a back room with a couple of cots where Arlo and I spent the night after our sets. Arlo, a likable, easygoing sort, taught me a tune he’d written called “Ramblin’ Road,” with a wanderlust storyline and melody that fit my style. I soon worked the song into my own act. Arlo also regaled me with an amazing song-in-progress titled “Alice’s Restaurant,” which had one of the catchiest guitar parts I’d ever heard. It was an epic countercultural Arlo narrative (later adapted into an MGM motion picture), that could last anywhere from 18 to 45 minutes, depending on the singer’s mood of the moment.

 

The next night, after the singing had ended and the crowds and café help had vanished, Arlo and I decided to play the five-games-for-a-quarter pinball machine located in the darkest corner of the coffeehouse, up by the front door and away from the stage. I don’t mind saying that not many people have ever bested me when it comes to pinball, which I’ve been playing since I was old enough to stand on a crate box to reach the flippers. So, when Arlo said, “Let’s play for a dime a game,” I was ready to accept the challenge. 

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