Take the Star Out of the Window

(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 life
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
On 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:
And it's a hello California, hello Dad and Mom
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
So 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.

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]


Don't Plug In — Bluegrass and the Folk Revival

Gibson ETB150 Banjo  Electric Banjo
(Gibson ETB-150 Model Electric Tenor Banjo, 1940)


Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1970's and 80's, I knew some lovers and practitioners of bluegrass music. They all loved rock n' roll too, and seemed a lot more worried about electricity running microwave ovens than musical instruments. I remember laughter at the thought that folkies had turned on Bob Dylan for "going electric."

Still, I also remember sharing with bluegrassers a special affection, even reverence, for the acoustic quality of bluegrass instruments. I'm reminded of John Hartford's drawn-out, playfully grandiose introduction to his tongue-twister "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy":

Bluegrass music a-playin' in the park
Bluegrass music picking way past dark
Bluegrass music, it don't butt in
Don't need an amp and don't plug in
I thought of all this last night while reading the introduction to Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History." In a section entitled "Bluegrass — What Is It?", Rosenberg insists on a paradox. Bluegrass has always been a commercial and professional form designed for radio and records, and its sound was shaped by a 20th-century electric invention: the microphone. Nevertheless, the non-electric stringed instruments of bluegrass are usually the first thing mentioned by its followers when trying to describe the genre:
... [as] can be seen from a joke told by Ricky Skaggs ... "How many bluegrass musicians does it take to change a light bulb? One, and three to complain because it's electric!" [taken from Rosenberg's book]
I've finally begun reading Rosenberg's history of bluegrass because, over the past year or so, I've become aware of a lot of such paradoxes and surprises. That's what good histories are always for — "the past" always turns out to be nothing like the way our presumptions lead us to believe.

For example, I've recently realized how important the Folk Revival of the 1950's and 60's was to the survival of bluegrass. The first-ever bluegrass LP was released in 1957 by Folkways Records. It was recorded and compiled by Folk Revival future-heavyweight Mike Seeger, and its liner notes mark the first use in print of the word "bluegrass" to refer to a genre of music.

The author of these liner notes, Ralph Rinzler, would eventually found the Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. — but first, he helped revive Bill Monroe's stalled career by becoming his manager. Some of Monroe's new band members were soon to be Northern "citybillies" who first encountered bluegrass in Greenwich Village coffee shops or at folk music concerts on college campuses.

This surprises me, both comin' and goin'. On the one hand, today's officianados of "Old Time" music think of Mike Seeger and his New Lost City Ramblers as champions of authentic folk alternatives to post-WWII commercial inventions like rock n' roll and bluegrass. It is definitely not widely known in the Old Time community that Seeger, Rinzler, and Alan Lomax helped rescue bluegrass from obscurity (if not oblivion) by forcefully asserting its legitimacy as an authentic American folk genre.

On the other hand, it's surprising coming from the other direction, too. An acquaintance from West Virginia once expressed suspicion about the fact that I, a Chicago native, have an intense interest in "her" music. From what I gathered, she might have been surprised to learn that Monroe's invention only dates from the mid-1940's, and that its commercial prospects nearly died a decade after they were born. Not only the finances, but the very values and identity of bluegrass were shaped by us Northern revivalists. Rosenberg writes:

Until the mid-fifties the acoustic aspect of bluegrass was not unique within country music, and in that sense the use of acoustic instruments in bluegrass is a historical accident. But because it was performed on such instruments, particularly the antique five-string banjo, it was virtually the only form of contemporary country music acceptable to the folk boom of the late fifties and early sixties, where electric instruments were considered inauthentic and symbols of the alienation of mass culture. Through the folk boom bluegrass gained new audiences and recognition as a distinct musical form [that is, became thought of as "bluegrass"]. Today the insistence upon acoustic instruments has become a philosophical position.
By the way; thinking about bluegrass and the folk revival, it's interesting that other branches of country music in the post-War years dealt directly with social problems facing southern expatriate "urban hillbillies," such as adultery, divorce, depression, and alcoholism. But bluegrass chose to deal with these same pressures by evoking feelings of an alternative — and idealized — place and time. Rosenberg:
Because the content of the bluegrass repertoire is so often clearly symbolic (rather than directly oriented toward current concerns), it is more accessible to people from very different cultural milieux who relate to the music as an art form, enjoying it as many enjoy opera sung in languages they do not comprehend.
I may report more about these and other matters as I get further into "Bluegrass: A History".

The Frying Pan

(from Tijuana Bibles)


(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 writes a song like The Frying Pan now and then — strong shades of parody, joyously silly (even stupid), and irresistibly appealing. "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" and "Aw Heck" and the next song on Diamonds in the Rough, "Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You," are like that. Should we think seriously about a song that couldn't even get recorded with a straight face?

The lyrics to The Frying Pan are wildly unambitious and seem like they may have been made up on the spot. They relate the tragic tale of a man who comes home from work to find that his wife has left him. He grieves. And that's about the extent of it.

There are a few telling details. The wife leaves her goodbye note in the frying pan, presumably to make the point that she was appreciated neither very deeply nor for the right things:

I come home from a-work this evening
There was a note in the frying pan
It said, "Fix your own supper, babe.
I run off with the Fuller Brush man."

The song doesn’t say whether he actually makes his supper in that pan –- a bitterly seasoned meal inDEED! Prine's character then "commenced a carrying on":

And I miss the way she used to yell at me
The way she used to cuss and moan
And if I ever go out and get married again
I'll never leave my wife at home

So the character grows, and his future wives may find him somewhat more attentive.


John Prine understands that the ordinary details of everyday life are where all the drama and meaning are. But the details of everyday life keep changing with surprising speed –- you realize this more the older you get. I think this is why the songs on Diamonds in the Rough seem so meaningfully, precisely, poignantly located at a specific point in the past.

The last door-to-door salesman I remember seeing was an actual Fuller Brush Man who came to our door when I was around nine. I dimly remember his case full of brushes, as well as the feeling he created that buying some brushes was absolutely inescapable. I very distinctly recall my mother once asking me to tell him I was home alone while she was, in fact, hiding nearby. I guess I may be from the last generation of John Prine listeners who will have direct experience with Fuller Brush men at the door.

Appreciating a Prine song –- or any song –- requires more and more research, explanation, and imagination the older the song gets. It requires more and more of the listener’s participation and knowledge to make the full meaning and pleasure happen. That’s why it makes sense to me, at least, that popular song first became high art in the context of a Folk Revival.


Bluegrass is lurking in all the arrangements on Diamonds in the Rough, but only The Frying Pan puts it at center stage. Everything is there, except maybe a fiddle.

David Bromberg's mandolin "chops" the rhythm and then does lightning-fast runs. Steve Goodman provides the requisite smokin' bluesy guitar solo and high-lonesome backup vocals. Steve Burgh provides standup bass. And Dave Prine plays the most recognized of all bluegrass signatures — a 5-string banjo with a resonator back, played with three fingers and finger picks. The solo spot after each chorus is taken by another instrument, passing the spotlight around from one bandmember to another. It’s bluegrass.

There’s just one thing. I’m used to thinking of bluegrass in a smooth, fast 4/4 time — each beat in the measure emphasized (or de-emphasized) the same. This open, spacious, adaptable meter is what allows the complex, synchopating, polyphonic, collective noodling of a bluegrass band — and it also allows that band to “stay together,” to remain in close conversation with itself. The 4/4 meter was Bill Monroe’s main and final insight, learned from the jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and it completed his creation of bluegrass music.

The Frying Pan, as I hear it, is in the meter Bill Monroe finally left behind –- the 2/4 time that's closely associated with oldtime stringband music and that gives it an easy, front porch, loping feel. Instead of the banjo skittering, independent as a hog on ice, across the surface of an open 4/4 time, Dave Prine's playing sounds cramped inside the ONE two THREE four oldtime beat. The result is a banjo that sounds simple, old, and sincere, if somewhat bound by circumstances. It also sounds like the banjo-playing that David Akeman and Earl Scuggs did in Monroe’s band in 1945 and 1946. The Frying Pan sounds like a portrait of bluegrass represented exactly at the moment it became itself.

The Torch Singer

Prine torch singer


(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


In "The Torch Singer," John Prine provides a view of himself not as we usually think of him, as a songwriter and performer, but as an audience member — that is, now he's in our shoes. And it's a grim vision. Prine has always thought deeply about women's voices, and has even recorded an entire album of duets between himself and women singers. Here, in 1972, the torch singer's song leaves him in some kind of exquisite pain and self-loathing:

She sang of the love that left her
And of the woman that she'll never be
Made me feel like the buck and the quarter
That I paid 'em to listen and see

Maybe Prine's narrator is the torch singer's ex — that is, he's the love that left her — and her song leaves him guilt-ridden. Or maybe she reminds him of other women he's wronged. Or, most interesting to me, maybe he recognizes himself in her, and in her performer's servitude to the audience, which now includes him:

I picked through the ashes of the torch singer's song
And I ordered my money around
For whiskey and fame both taste the same
During the time they go down

Ultimately, what troubles the singer is intense but uncertain, like the unspecified troubles facing the characters in the album's previous song.

To me, this song has always been vaguely flawed in a way that only makes it more perfect. "The Torch Singer" is a waltz, which is just about the last meter I'd expect a torch song to use. But this isn't a torch song, it's about a torch song. It's not the torch singer's point of view, but the audience's — and their perspective requires a tragic country waltz.

The cut starts with a kind of a cappella cry from Prine, "The nightcluuuuuub was burning," With "burning," Prine's guitar and Steve Burgh's bass come in, thumping down on the first beat of the waltz-time measure (ONE two three). Two beats later, John's older brother and his strongest early influence, the versatile Dave Prine makes his first appearance of the album, on the dobro. The sliding, whining dobro gives this recording — or just about any recording — a strong country feel.

It's only after the second line of the lyrics that the arrangement finally declares itself as bluegrass, via David Bromberg's remarkable mandolin accompaniment. In the spirit of Bill Monroe's approach to the instrument, Bromberg uses the whole pig, squeal and all. As Robert Cantwell writes:

The shallow, metallic, sometimes toylike sound characteristic of the mandolin ... is the problem that Monroe solved by abandoning the effort to produce discrete, pure tones. Monroe's tones are not discrete: they come at us like meteors trailing the smoke and flames of ... tones, overtones, and sheer noise ... Its texture arises in part from the undercurrent of noise made by the washboardng of the pick itself on the strings and from the many complex overtones in the mandolin ... Whereas the jazz trumpet seems to take the smoke of the cabaret into its throat, the mandolin's sound, like that of a distant engine, is a noise that seems to resolve itself into a tone.

The song's storyline, if any, is left to the listener. The point of this recording is to convey a feeling and an atmosphere using John's almost yelling voice, the country waltztime, the whining dobro and noisy mandolin, and — most of all — John's hellish lyrics. They bring to mind the atmospherics of Heartbreak Hotel, which I once heard compared to Dante's Inferno:

The nightclub was burning from the torch singer's song
And the sweat was flooding her eyes
The catwalk squeaked 'neath the bartender's feet
And the smoke was too heavy to rise

The narrator's entire life seems drawn up into the atmosphere of this nightclub only to be burnt up by the torch song's grief and humiliation:

I was born down in Kansas 'neath the October sky
Worked the dayshift from seven to three
And the only relief that I received
Was nearer, my God, to thee
She constantly throws me off timing,
Leaves me standing both naked and bare
Makes me feel like the Sunday funnies
After everything's gone off the air
Air, everything's gone off the air

The intervening years have left this song not dated, but poignantly situated in time. Was there really ever a moment in history when the darkness and lonesomeness of nighttime could deepen to the point where even the media of radio and television exhausted themselves, leaving us alone with our own troubled minds?


As you've noticed, The Celestial Monochord is on a brief vacation. It will be back very soon, I promise! In the mean time, I'm upgrading my workstation so I don't have to upload from work, nor from my wife's computer. I also have two new kittens, and several other distractions ... including ...

I'm finally reading Robert Cantwell's first book, Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. I haven't read it before because I'm not very interested in bluegrass and when I did read the first two chapters, I found them somewhat peculiar. Now that I'm a little further, I realize the error of my ways. It's great, a worthy predecessor to Cantwell's brilliant When We Were Good: The Folk Revival.

Bluegrass Breakdown will no doubt get a lot of airplay here in the future. For now, I'll briefly commment on the subtitle, "The Making of the Old Southern Sound."

Bluegrass is not an old music, not an ancient folk form. It did not exist before 1945 or 1946, when it was unleashed by Bill Monroe. It's the personal style of that one very original musician — but bluegrass was so widely, enthusiastically, and creatively imitated that it came to be seen as a genre unto itself. Monroe invented bluegrass at the same time others were inventing Rock & Roll.

Nor — in certain significant ways — is it particularly Southern. Monroe grew up on a Kentucky farm, but his family sent him north, in 1929 when he was 18 years old. It was during this long removal from the South, living among other exiles from Appalachia, working in a factory washing out barrels using gasoline, listening to Chicago radio stations, that Monroe began to dream of a contemporary sound that would thrive (or help him thrive) in the environment he occupied.

Bluegrass is nevertheless heard by its audiences as both old and Southern, so Cantwell's book traces "The Making of the Old Southern Sound" — that is, how and why this thoroughly modern music came to be "about" certain times and places from which it did not arise and which it had never actually occupied.