Previous month:
August 2005
Next month:
October 2005

Sour Grapes



(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)


Two songs ago, on Souvenirs, Steve Goodman's guitar work was very hard to peel apart from John Prine's. But Prine's guitar picking pattern here on Sour Grapes seems very close to that on Souvenirs, but without Goodman's embroidery. You can use Sour Grapes as a tool to get a better handle on what Prine's right hand is up to on Souvenirs.

More importantly, Prine's relatively unadorned, unsupported guitar work here also gives the song a spare regularity, like the lonesome ticking of an old mantel clock. Sour Grapes is mood song — in fact, it's remarkable how many songs from Diamonds in the Rough can be summed up as "a mood put across in lyric and melody."

The mood in Sour Grapes seems familiar enough, and that familiarity makes the song seem funny, like a silly little tune. Which I think is perfectly true.

But simply taking the words seriously and literally leads me to ask what else is happening. The speaker of the song has retained some friends solely to prevent other people from thinking he's mentally ill, for example. Is Prine's deadpan humor more funny than it is chilling?

I don't care if the sun don't shine
But it better, or people will wonder

Even when he writes a tossed-off song, Prine leaves you wondering ...



(illustration by Sally Minker)


The Late John Garfield Blues

John Garfield
The late John Garfield, 1913-1952

(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.

The Singing Swinging Banjo


I found "The Singing Swinging Banjo" in a used vinyl-record store in Minneapolis. Released in 1959 on the cheap, short-lived Riviera label, the album consists of studio musicians slogging through bland, quasi-Dixieland renditions of standards such as "Buffalo Gal," "Grand Old Flag," "Saints Come Marching In," and "Clementine."

But of course, I bought the album for the cover. The clerk at the counter shook his head, saying "A lot of records have a hot chick on the cover to get people to buy. What were these people thinking?" That's pretty much what I wondered — what were they thinking, how did this cover photo look to people in 1959? Today, it seems like the queerest thing I've ever seen in my life, but in 1959, could the record company or its customers have missed the sexuality-related content in the photo?

Of course, the cover photo must be from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (For one thing, the banjo is a Weymann Style 6, suitable for early styles of New Orleans jazz.) I believe that some people — especially back then — thought of Mardi Gras as a mere costume party, and its drag queens as something like the war-time skits in which soldiers wore drag, and this may have "protected" them from an awareness of the sexual context of the photo. But don't kid yourself — even during skits in WWII, people knew what drag was about. In any case, this is the basic problem in trying to see this album cover through 1959 eyes — what would have been consciously known, what was unknown, and what was known but repressed?

(Incidentally, let me point out a couple of details that may be difficult to pick out. Yes, that's a lighthouse motif in the middle of the structure like a peacock-tail attached to his back. It's hard to see here, but there are two seagulls made of gold glitter flying next to the lighthouse. Note the roiling seas at the foot of the lighthouse. Also, notice that the strap around his neck holding the banjo is made of the same silver-blue satin material that makes up the rest of his costume. Somebody really thought this through.)


Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of about three or four posts on banjos and the psychoanalytic idea of repression ... yes, really.)


Don't Say I Didn't Warn You


It's funny ... somehow, I knew New Orleans was a lake waiting to happen, but Bush seems to feel nobody could have predicted it. I was also completely unconvinced that there were WMD in Iraq, but there was no way anybody could have predicted that there wasn't. Maybe we're being lied to, I guess, but I prefer to think that I'm just incrediby brilliant and far-sighted. Yeah, I like that. I'll stick with that hypothesis ...

I have another prediction. Very bad things will continue to happen now and then — things that only Government can do much about. And those things can't be prevented, no matter how much Government is hated by ... the, uh ... current ... Government.

I don't intend to be alarmist, of course. This is only an example. But when was the last time anyone got warned about the great New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri and Arkansas? There were four quakes above magnitude 7.0 within the span of a few months, and some were powerful enough to break windows all the way over in the White House in Washington, D.C. (so maybe it got their attention). The quakes changed the course of the Mississippi River, which flowed backwards for three days.

The point is that, you know, this is not a political game. Government really does have to take itself seriously, and tax people for whatever that seriousness costs. Here's a few other big earthquakes to think about:

1983 Oct 28, Magnitude 7.0, Borah Peak

1959 Aug 18, Magnitude 7.3, Hebgen Lake

1915 Oct 03, Magnitude 7.1, Pleasant Valley
1932 Dec 21, Magnitude 7.2, Cedar Mountain
1954 Dec 16, Magnitude 7.1, Fairview Peak

S. Carolina
1886 Sep 01, Magnitude 7.3, Charleston


many thanks to Elvis The Fish for use of the photo


(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


I was a little embarrassed by Souvenirs in my 20s and much of my 30s — although, as Bob Dylan would say, I'm younger than that now.

Written when John Prine was about 25, Souvenirs is a very sentimental song about nostalgia, or rather, nostalgia as it appeared in the imagination of a young man. The young Prine imagines surveying the refuse left over from a long life of troubles — graveyards, pawnshops, dirty windows, broken toys — and finds an inexhaustible reservoir of tears and reasons to feel he's been robbed. I used to consider this to be a very improbable speculation.

I hate graveyards and old pawnshops
For they always bring me tears
I can't forgive the way they robbed me
Of my childhood souvenirs

Memories that can't be boughten
Can't be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs
And I don't know how they slipped away from me

Today, I'm reminded of the time when, at the age of 20, I read to one of my professors (who was recently divorced and a recovering alcoholic) a poem by Robert Hass. The poem says, in part:

The child is looking in the mirror.
His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump.
He is practicing sadness.

At this point, the professor interrupted, saying — either to the child in the poem, or to me — "You'll get plenty of practice in that, kid." He made me understand these lines of poetry for the first time ... he was a good professor, it turns out. In my 40's, I've now begun to suspect that the young Prine somehow got it right after all. As the late Steve Goodman once sang, "Those old folks are wiser and sadder."

Souvenirs — both the version on Diamonds in the Rough and the one on Great Days — is a guitar duet between John Prine and Steve Goodman. It's hard to think of the song as anything else. And it's a perfect example of why fans of Prine and Goodman treasure their collaboration so, why it's the focus of so much nostalgia.

The fit between their guitars is so snug that figuring out who's playing what is exceedingly difficult — thank god for stereo, which helps separate the two instruments. The core of Prine's part is his alternating between the bass notes natural to each chord and the higher strings, creating a complex version of his trademark boom-chick meter. The whole song drapes itself around this.

During his recent interview with Ted Kooser (about 27 min, 25 seconds in), Prine said Goodman "used to play the heck out of this song and sing it with me. And he had a way of doing it that always made it sound like I was playing the really good, the really fancy parts. You know, it was always him." In Souvenirs, Goodman's part is, it sounds to me, mostly bluesy flatted 3rds and 5ths that he gets using hammer-ons, slides, and bends. In this way, Goodman fills in the comparatively spacious meter Prine has set.

The overall effect is a light, frilly embroidery that would be in danger of becoming "too many notes" — monotonous and hard to follow — were it not for well-chosen moments of relief that restore a sense of anticipation: (1) Prine's resting heavily on the bass notes between the 1st and 3rd lines of every verse, (2) the simple but interesting intermissions between each verse, and (3) both Prine and Goodman simply strumming during the chorus.

Souvenirs, of course, is itself a souvenir of better times. It could just be an uncanny coincidence that this song, so indelibly rendered as an act of friendship and intimacy between Prine and Goodman, happened to be about nostalgia, loss, the robberies committed by graveyards. Then again, Goodman had already known of his leukemia for several years when the song was first recorded. In any case, when Prine performs it today as a solo, it sounds fine, but it's hard not to hear the song as a bit orphaned, as if it were a souvenir waiting on some pawnshop shelf.