(from Military Sheet Music)
(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
Take the Star Out of the Window seems to have a public face and a private life, and they're fiercely at odds with each other.
On its face — that is, its overall sound — the recording is a catchy sea chanty, among the most gleeful and snappy guitar-mandolin duets I know of. But inside its head — that is, in the text of its lyrics — it's a grim portrait of what the Vietnam War had come to feel like in America by 1972.
Take the lyrics first. The verses are written in the third person and in past tense. Prine's narrator is a distant observer telling us a fairy tale or parable — but in telling it, he can't hide his rage and grief. And if you can clear your head of the melody, this narrator has a very bitter sense of humor indeed:
Robert was a sailor for the best years of his lifeOn the other hand, the chorus is written in the present tense, first person — Robert the sailor himself is speaking, and he has an problem. He's faced with the soldier's age-old dilemma of having to confront that blue star in his family's window — that is, of trying to reassure a relieved family that its son is back safe and sound, while knowing that the son they raised didn't really survive the war after all:
His captain was his mother and the ocean was his wife
Only fresh out of the cradle, life's one and only spring
He was sworn to do his duty and got blood on his high school ring
And it's a hello California, hello Dad and MomSo the Vietnam War divides this sailor from his family and from himself — it even puts the song's verses in another world from that of its chorus. I was a child during the Vietnam War, but Prine's songs (and my own feelings about Iraq) suggest that a lot of people must have felt agonizingly estranged from their own country — which is to say, from themselves.
Ship ahoy, your baby boy is home from Vietnam
Don't you ask me any questions about the medals on my chest
Take the star out of the window and let my conscience take a rest
Most striking to me is that the SOUND of the song is at odds with its SENSE. The recording has the soul of sea chanty, played in up-tempo bluegrass time — it's deliriously fun to hear, even if the lyrics are among Prine's more bitter social commentaries.
But this public/private split is exactly what attracted me first and most to the old southern music of the 1920s and 1930s — like the stuff on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Its public face rarely matches its private thoughts. The first words Sara Carter ever recorded were "My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow," but the song was an irresistibly jaunty jingle. Whether Prine knew it or not, Take the Star Out of the Window taps into the estranged character of American folk music to portray America's mindset during Vietnam.
One reason for the long pause in this series on Diamonds in the Rough is that it's taken me a while to decide what Take the Star Out of the Window really is, musically. Is it bluegrass stripped down to just John Prine's guitar and David Bromberg's mandolin? Jazz in the style of Django Rhinehart and Stephan Grappelli with the fiddle transcribed to mandolin? The closest recording I could think of was "Is It True What They Say About Dixie," recorded by Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns five years later. Did Prine, Goodman, and his running buddies invent their own fully-developed genre of duet?
Reading Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History" has been the right thing to do. I now think Take The Star Out of the Window is in the tradition of the early country brother acts of the 1930s — The Delmore Brothers, The Dixon Brothers, The Rice Brothers, etc. Homer and Jethro inherited this tradition, making Jethro Burns a direct link from Prine and Goodman back to its beginnings in, I suppose, acts Burnett and Rutherford in the 1920s.
Ultimately, the most influential of all the brother acts was The Monroe Brothers, whose junior member would "invent" Bluegrass during and after World War II. But back in the 1930s, what mattered most about Bill Monroe was his fiddle-influenced handling of the mandolin, which almost immediately revolutionized the status of the instrument:
They sang higher and played faster than the others. Charlie's bass runs on the guitar were snappy and attracted attention; Bill's mandolin playing, with its speed and dexterity, was unique. He showed how versatile and potent it could be as a lead instrument. Bill Bolick, then just beginning his career with his brother Earl as the Blue Sky Boys on WWNC in Asheville, recalled: "People kept writing in and wanted me to play the mandolin more, so in a very short time, I discarded the guitar entirely and we did practically all the numbers with the mandolin and guitar. This I attribute to the popularity of Bill Monroe's mandolin ... Bill Monroe was making the mandolin a popular instrument." [Rosenberg, pages 34-35]