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Prine Diamonds in the Rough


(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


Steve Burgh's bass starts out the album "Diamonds in the Rough" with a rising lead-in, and then its first song, "Everybody" springs to life as a seriously toe-tapping 2-4 country juke box tune. David Bromberg, the great Chicago multi-instrumentalist, dances along the top with a clucking, snapping electric guitar accompaniment. His syncopation gives the recording a swing that I'm not sure you hear much in country music anymore. John Prine's accoustic guitar provides the percussion — Burgh's booming bassline frees John from his characteristic boom-chuck, allowing him to simply chuck with gusto. The overall effect is what an African American former roommate of mine lovingly called "chicken music." You'd need a heart of stone to not love it.

The song tells the story of a sailor who happens along Jesus taking a stroll across the water. It turns out Jesus is troubled and lonesome, needs someone to talk to. The singer has troubles of his own, of course, and might have liked to talk about them too, but Jesus won't shut up about his own problems long enough to do any listening. The singer just chalks it up as his good deed for the day.

In 2005, the lyrics are refreshingly blasphemous (as they probably were when they were written in 1972):

I bumped into the savior
And he said, "Pardon me"
I said "Jesus, you look tired"
He said, "Jesus, so do you"

A few years later, John would repeat the first joke more explicitly, in case we missed it:

Father, forgive us
For what we must do
You forgive us
We'll forgive you

It's a good joke — we pardon God. Maybe the Bible spends so much time teaching us to forgive because God knew there was gunna be a hell of a lot to forgive him for. The song doesn't really tell us what's troubling Jesus, but in the depths of the Vietnam War, it's not hard to believe he's feeling guilty.

This kind of "high concept" for a song wasn't so unusual in country music in those days — "Everybody" is a novelty song like "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life." But John Prine's approach is so sympathetic to the situation of the song that it comes off less as a joke than as a parable. You think about it when you're done laughing.

Humor is a funny thing. It can release a songwriter or arranger from the rules of the game in ways that mimic — or explain — real artistic innovation. I'm thinking especially of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa, who would be more widely thought of as surrealists if they weren't so widely thought of as silly. There might be a little of this in "Everybody." It's a novelty song, but it has a seriousness, maybe, that invites you to listen closely without listening literally. In this sense, maybe it gently prepares you for the flashes of modernist poetry that you'll hear in the rest of the album.

On Not Going To Camp

I never went to camp — that is, until my wife sent me to Banjo Camp for my 40th birthday present. My mental images of summer camp come from Alan Sherman's "Camp Granada" (hello mudduh, hello faddah), from the movies (comedies and horror flicks, mostly), and from the stories friends have told me (typically about their earliest sexual awakenings).

Today, I mostly hear about camp from my wife. Routinely, I turn to her to announce that I've made some fantastically paradigm-smashing ethnomusicological discovery — an obscure song long-forgotten in this age of mechanical reproduction, the tune and lyrics of which finally unlock some nagging mystery of the American imagination.

"Oh, sure," she says, "we sang that at camp!" At this point, she shout-sings all of the lyrics to my new discovery, complete with elaborate hand choreography, animal sounds, rhythmic clapping, etc. A field recording of Maybelle and Sara Carter's rendition of the "The Ship That Never Returned" was such a discovery.  The song turned out to have been reworked by the Kingston Trio as "M.T.A.", and was a favorite of the counselors at some Bible camp or other in Minnesota, where my wife heard it a couple decades before I did.

This experience is always a little deflating, needless to say. I begin to wonder what I could possibly have to contribute if all my greatest discoveries turn out to be well-known to every Brownie in the country. But I appreciate being reminded that these old folksongs are still alive, both in my wife's memory and in my curiosity.

Sometimes I think I really missed something by not having gone to camp. More often, I suspect that, had I learned more of these old songs back then, I would not have the fanatical zeal for them that I do today. And I enjoy my fanatical zeal ...

Darwin and Relativism

In a recent NPR segment on religious anti-Darwinism, a young person-of-faith declared that evolution could never be finally, completely proven, whereas Creationism has already been completely proven — "because the Creator," she explained, "is in my heart."

Of course, I puzzled over how this could be understood as proof. What if something else — Darwin, maybe, or perhaps The Destroyer — is in MY heart? Or what if her "heart" changes and she loses faith? How then are we supposed to decide how the biological world came to be the way it is? It would seem that proof based on "hearts" leaves us standing on awfully shaky ground.

The religious opponents of evolution frequently accuse evolution of encouraging "relativism," although I've never heard an explanation of just what this means, as if it were self-evident. It's not self-evident. Science has an awfully firm bedrock foundation for its knowledge — the world, the physical universe, the empirical field. Science changes its mind about things more often than, say, the Vatican because its understanding of the universe deepens and expands, and because it openly corrects its mistakes.

How is science somehow more "relative" than other forms of knowledge, particularly those based on faith (that is, "the heart")? Although Christianity has The Bible (actually, a wide variety of Bibles) to turn to for continuity, it's difficult to see that Biblical study has brought great consistency to Christian thought, either between sects or within a given sect over time. To base belief (that is, what one holds to be the case), on what amounts to culture and desire is relativism so extreme as to make me dizzy.

On July 9th, I had to re-read a paragraph on the front page of the New York Times three or four times.

It was in an article about an editorial written by the archbishop of Vienna, a close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he asserted, in essence, that Darwinian evolution is not true, and belief in it might not be compatible with Catholic faith. This assertion was apparently encouraged by Benedict, in a betrayal of Pope John Paul II's general friendliness to evolution and science.

What made me stop and re-read, over and over, was the NYTimes article's seventh paragraph, which reads, in its entirety:

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.
What's so startling is that these facts were printed in an American newspaper as facts. Most news venues would cut this paragraph on the grounds that "sounds" biased. But it only sounds biased because the facts it contains ordinarily go unreported, or are reported only as the assertions of an expert who is, in turn, contradicted by an opposing expert.

So American journalism has its own trouble with relativism in its tendency to "seem" objective while actually measuring that objectivity by its appearance. It would be better to BE objective regardless of appearance — as the New York Times has done in this case — or even to be openly biased. To be both biased and to pretend to offer objective journalism results in a relativism unlike anything Darwin would have tolerated.

We've Moved

The Celestial Monochord now has its own domain and a better technology to work with.

However, its design is still up in the air (The Institute's Advisory Council for Electronic Publications has degenerated into open warfare over the color scheme ... you know how these things can get political). Anyway, let me know if you have any suggestions or requests about the new features or design.

I hope to see a new life for the Monochord, of some sort. Although I try not to blog about blogging, the changes here seem like a good time to take stock. Start over and concentrate, as Gertrude Stein told Ernest Hemingway.

Years ago, I began reading Robert Cantwell, Greil Marcus, and a few others who've written about "roots music," whatever that is. After quite a few unhappy years in an English graduate program, I found it intensely refreshing to read good writing and valuable insights from people who were writing about what they love, as opposed to writing about what they hate.

There's a place for everything, of course, and I certainly have my own list of things I detest, but I think if I am capable of making a lasting contribution — or even a lasting impression — it is through The Way of the Monochord. There is no shame in loving things, even if they are just banjos and telescopes ...

We're Moving

After another frustrating battle with [Blogger's] service, The Celestial Monochord is moving. The new arrangement will, I hope, be more reliable and will offer better tech support for yours truly. I hope to have my own domain, even!

Check back here soon. I predict the transition will take "noticeably less than a month."

Many thanks for your patience.

Sun and Moon / Summer and Winter

The full moon in summer follows the same path across the sky as the sun in winter. The inverse is true, too. The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter.

About that full moon on hot, humid summer nights, all big and low and yellowy, Tom Waits sang, "looks like a buttery cueball moon, all melted off to one side — Parkay." I love that ... Parkay margarine starts to liquefy and skew on hot summer nights, and the moon on those very same nights looks like that — relaxed, too moist to hold its shape.

It looks like that because the full moon on summer nights rides low from east to west across the sky, down near the horizon, where you have to look through a lot of air to see it, and moist warm air at that. The further north you are, the stronger the effect.

Of course, the sun sort of looks a little like that on winter days — riding low, fuzzy, yellowish. On those days in the dead of winter, the sun streams sideways into the room and shines on parts of the house you'd forgotten the sun could ever reach. I remember that light especially well from my childhood, I suppose because it came so near Christmas and during the rest of long, house-bound winters.

Now, around midnight in those same winters, the full moon is almost directly overhead, like a bright blue eye, small and alone in the middle of the sky. It strains your neck to look straight up at the full moon in winter - it exposes your neck to the cold, and makes you a little dizzy without a horizon to keep you steady, and the moon is so stark and bright that it's a little blinding.

In that way, it's like the sun in summer, straight up and baring down on you from directly overhead around noon. No wonder people have called it merciless - bright, hot, featureless, colorless, and overhead. I think of sunshine in summer days, but not really of the sun itself - it's too high and bright and dominating to really look into and see. Hart Crane simultaneously described the Manhattan skyline and the sun above it: "a rip-tooth of the sky's acetylene."

The sun in summer follows the same path across the sky as the full moon in winter, and visa versa. I'm not sure how to explain why that's true without waving my hands and drawing a lot of diagrams, so I thought I would try to remind you that its true. Maybe you'll think about the "why" on your own. And maybe I'll think of a way to explain the geometry some other time ...

The Meaning of the John Henry Story

Steel Driving Kitten
my kitten Henry (is not a steel-drivin' man)

I first heard the John Henry story from the public schools, I guess, or maybe from my family, some of whom were involved in the Scouts. And I'd gotten a very specific impression of what the story meant.

But once I grew up and started listening to the music of the 1920's, I found very little support there for the interpretation I'd grown up with. I had always thought it was a story of Man against Machine, where human virtues like bravery, nobility, vulnerability, and the work ethic did battle against technology and heartless Progress.

But that's not quite what I hear on the old records. Take the version Mississippi John Hurt recorded on December 28, 1928, on that same Christmas trip to New York when he recorded "Avalon Blues." It's called "Spike Driver Blues":
Take this hammer and carry it to my captain
Tell him I'm gone
Just tell him I'm gone
"I'm sure he's gone"

This is the hammer that killed John Henry
But it won't kill me
But it won't kill me
Ain't gunna kill me

John Henry was a steal driving boy
But he went down
But he went down
That's why I'm gone
Hurt's delivery isn't comic, it seems to me, but sweet, sincere, and thoughtful. There's no mention of any steam drill at all, just a killer hammer which the singer renounces.

J. E. Mainer and his Mountaineers did a version on June 15, 1936 in which the young John Henry issues a prophesy:
John Henry was a little boy
Lord, he sat on his pappa's knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Said this hammer'll be the death of me
This hammer be the death of me
This version does mention the contest with the steam drill, but as always, it's the hammer that's the cause of John Henry's death.

When I first started listening to the old recordings, the biggest surprise about the message of John Henry was that there didn't seem to be much of a message at all — folk music, it turned out, isn't nearly as preachy as Folk Music. Stranger still was that insofar as there was a message, it seemed to be that hard manual labor just plain sucks and should be avoided.

The story of John Henry seems to have taken hold around, maybe, 1910 or so, and everybody seems to agree that Henry was a black man. So originally the story was, partly, a complaint against working conditions for African Americans during Reconstruction.

But when I encountered it in the post-WWII suburbs, the story was being made to reflect the conflicts and concerns of that time and place. It seemed to assure us of the dignity of hard work. At the same time, it seemed to reflect our middle-class anxieties over the idea of technology rendering our jobs obsolete. Maybe today John Henry would be in a steel-driving race with 30 tech workers from Bangladesh.

There's a lot of good information on the John Henry story. Check out Norm Cohen's Long Steel Rail for more on John Henry (I keep intending to do so myself). I recently discovered Brett Williams' interesting John Henry: A Bio-Bibliography at a used bookstore. And Harry Smith's anthologies of folk music (the original Volumes 1 though 3 from Folkways and now Volume 4 from Revenant) are crammed to the gills with songs about hammers.