(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough: Everybody The Torch Singer Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues Sour Grapes Billy The Bum The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You Take the Star Out of the Window The Great Compromise Clocks and Spoons Rocky Mountain Time
John Prine is often misunderstood — I mean the guy mumbles, and so you get the lyrics wrong. Among hard-core fans, these misunderstandings can be a kind of a sport and a badge of honor. The lyrics to The Late John Garfield Blues are especially tough to make out, so everybody hears a slightly different song.
I used to hear a song in which "wind-blow scarves and top-down cars all share one western tree" and in which "the men on The El (Chicago's elevated train) sit perfectly still." Prine tells a joke in the song, but I never got it — "Two men were standing upon a bridge, one jumped and screamed yoo-hoo!"?
Each listener creates the song's meaning anew. Everybody has a hand in writing the The Late John Garfield Blues.
Only about seven years before The Late John Garfield Blues was recorded, Bob Dylan had finally figured out how to mix 20th-century Modernism with popular song.
John Prine learned this trick from Dylan more naturally and vividly than most songwriters, and was one of many who the press called "The Next Bob Dylan." (Today, of course, we know the next Bob Dylan always turns out to be Bob Dylan himself, and Prine has now become The First John Prine.)
With The Late John Garfield Blues, Prine jumps headlong into Dylan's Modernism more completely than anywhere else in his first two albums:
The fish don't bite but once a night
By the cold light of the moon
The horses screamed, the nightmares dreamed
And the dead men all wear shoes
Cuz everybody's dancing
Those late John Garfield blues
As I see it, Dylan's main insight was that making sense of a song — what's happening, who it's happening to, why it matters — should be a job shared with the listener. A song's meaning shouldn't be complete, an inanimate object lying dead inside the song. It should be a process that happens when the song and the listener sit down together and share the same space for a minute or two.
And if it's partly our job to help make the meaning of a song, then my attitude is that we should try to do it well. Shouldn't we bring to the job the best of what have to offer?
The Late John Garfield Blues certainly needs us to participate, since the lyrics don't make make sense all by themselves. They have no real characters, very little setting, no train of thought, few hints of an "occasion."
The lyrics are all mood. In fact, Prine claims that he mostly just wanted to capture a mood — specifically, that of a late Sunday night when there's nothing on television but an old John Garfield movie. The song is "not so much" about the actor, Prine says, and more about a
feeling — the actor is used, if anything, as a vehicle to get to the
mood. Even the word "late" refers to the time of day more than to Garfield's being dead.
But I hear that very same mood much more clearly at the end of The Torch Singer than here. What I hear instead is John Garfield's 1952 funeral.
Garfield had been admired by all sorts of people — he was the son of poor Urkranian-Jewish immigrants, a former boxer, a movie heart-throb, and the screen's first rebel without a cause. When he died at age 39, his funeral was a mob scene the likes of which hadn't been seen since Rudolph Valentino's funeral in 1926::
Black faces pressed against the glass
Where the rain has pressed its weight
Wind-blown scarves in top-down cars
All share one western trait
Saddness leaks through tear-stained cheeks
From winos to dime-store Jews
Probly don't know they gave me
These late John Garfield blues
Garfield was a staunch liberal and became a victim of McCarthy's blacklist. Unable to find work in Hollywood and obsessed with a sense of betrayal by his own country, Garfield became unhinged, obsessively sifting through his personal papers for evidence of his innocence, and descending into substance abuse and some sort of clinical depression.
Two men were standing upon a bridge
One jumped and screamed "You lose."
Just left the odd man holding
Those late John Garfield blues
Old man sleeps with his conscience at night
Young kid sleeps with his dreams
While the mentally ill sit perfectly still
And live through lives in between
[some sources say "And live through life's in-between"]
The recording's musical arrangement, too, makes me think more about history and the life of John Garfield than Prine would suggest.
The first two stanzas (the first 50 seconds) is again a duet between John Prine and Steve Goodman. Prine, as usual, plays acoustic guitar, emphasizing with his bass strings the first beats in the meter of this country waltz and decorating the rest with his high strings.
But during these two stanzas, Steve Goodman is just strumming on an electric guitar. His solid, slow, ringing strumming sound like church bells, like funeral bells.
This is an old trick (i.e., this has a long tradition). Bob Dylan uses it in "Queen Jane Approximately," when nearly the identical guitar sound is used, particularly near the end of the song, to ironically emphasize the song' marriage motif.
I've always felt certain that Dylan (or his band) got the idea from Blind Lemon Jefferson's 1928 "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" in which Jefferson brings the song to a complete stop to imitate the sound of a funeral bell with the bass string of his guitar. The song was recorded at Blind Lemon Jefferson's last recording session and was covered by Dylan on his very first album.
In Prine's recording, I hear the guitars being used to put the song in conversation with Dylan and Blind Lemon Jefferson, just as its lyrics borrow from that same lineage in the way they make meaning. The song conjures up a string of old movies, and it conjures up a mood we've all felt late at night, and it asks us to make our own sense of it.
There are quite a lot of roads into and out of this song, and it's no wonder we recognize it as a point of departure.