The Singing Swinging Banjo
Sour Grapes

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.



Thanks for this insightful writeup. It's a shame the audience than can appreciate it is so small. Keep up the good work.


enjoyed this, thanks.

Charlie Mike

And live through lives in between
And live through life's in-between

I really hear this as:
And live THEIR lives in between

I have a clear copy of this song, so I really hear it clear, plus I think it scans perfectly with the previous lyrics


It's a shame the audience than can appreciate it is so small.

Judith S. McGill

I loved the song for the feeling in it, but had no idea at all what it was about. My son did a little research and found this. Thanks, it clears it up for me. Wouldn't want to be handcuffed to McCarthy on the day of judgement. Talk about a trail of ruined lives!

Antonio Feitosa

I love this song, and use to hear the kris kristofferson´s cover on "live at the philharmonic" album. And I am always trying to figure out what are they in fact singing about...

Great to see I am not alone and others were also in the blue...

Thanks for sharing your point here

Nick Foglia

I have been a fan of John Garfield for over 45 years, never heard this song before, just happened on it while surfing the net. It's strange that Garfield has not become an icon to the young like James Dean. Garfield wad way ahead of his time he had so much youthful angst even before the word came into vogue. A true rebel and if he had lived and gotten through the WITCH HUNT, I believe the 50's would have been his greatest decade as an artist. He was of my parents generation so I didn't know of him when he was alive, but you just have to look deep into his face to see all the dissolution of youth that comes from a true rebel.


I have been a John Prine fan for decades, seen him live several times and met him back stage once. This is my favorite Prine song and I have always wondered about the meaning even though I had all of the correct words. I guess you don't need to know the meaning to still get the feeling right.
The lyric "Old man sleeps with his conscience at night, your kid sleeps with his dreams" may be one of the best ever written.
Thnks for this summary.


I have a friend who says I should listen to John Prine. I ask for a good title- I want to get the best, to make a good impression. My friend say The Late John Garfield Blues. I really loved this song especially the joke part. Thank you for furthering my enjoyment with your summary.


the line "From winos to dime-store Jews" leaves me wondering. what exactly is a "dime-store Jew"?

Julie Garfield

Beautifully said.
Julie Garfield,
Daughter of John Garfield


I believe the line is:

The horses scream, their nightmare's dreams

Mitch Ritter Just reviewed the most recent Prine In Person & On Stage along with the Oh Boy Records tribute CD to the songs of John Prine. Both contain versions of "The Late John Garfield Blues." While I've felt at least back into the last decade that Prine was getting at something about the inadequacies of a "melting pot" metaphor when so many who maintain ethnic ties in the USA can be left behind by mainstream success (hence a young Jewish Ukranian poor immigrant's kid taking his ambition to Hollywood with adopted 'non-ethnic' name)and
the song feels like a wistful glance back at what is lost in the trade-off of one's family roots for mainstream acceptance, this new gloss on Prine's entering Dylan's
expanding frame of the pop song to include modernistic blurring of mulitple viewpoints & narrative voices adds a new dimension to listening with fresh ears and imaginative eyes. The chiming church bell thread from Blind Lemon Jefferson's thumbing of his bass strings down to Dylan's debut and further down to Steve Goodman and early 70's use electric guitar to accent the tolling church bell may or may not be plausible, yet as a recording technique it just about became a cliche (hear early Byrds and McGuinn's 12-string electric Rickenbacker from "Turn, Turn, Turn" onward. Garfield's issues as they play into this Prine song remain open to intuition and interpretation. I don't hear any of either in Sara & Sean Watkins version on the Prine tribute disc.

Richard Clayton

why must every folk song be compared to Dylan, don't get me wrong Dylan is Dylan and I love his craft, I walked out of more Dylan shows after only 3 songs than I care to remember and I still pay to see him but he really should retire the stage act... I spoke to John Prine once back in the 70's and asked him about Dylan and he said he couldn't listen to him because of his influence on his writing. Great essay I just discovered your site and I will be back often... I think Dylan is probably the most prolific and influential writer since Shakespeare but I'm tired of all the song writers in the world being judged against him.

The Celestial Monochord

Hi Richard - welcome!

Well, I think you've answered your own question - Prine himself acknowledges Dylan's huge influence on him. One confusion here is that I'm a very cold-hearted music fan. I bring up Dylan not to praise him, or judge Prine against him, as you say (Judge not, lest ye be judged ... I think Bob Marley said that), but because Dylan was so important to what made early Prine tick. Whether you are, or I am, sick of it or not, we have no say in the matter. If you re-read the post, I think you'll find I'm not judging Prine against Dylan, but trying my best to make sense of why the song was written and performed the way it was, instead of some other way. I agree Dylan has made some crappy music (so has Prine)!

I do have to say that Dylan is the go-to guy for another reason. Writing seriously about unserious music - popular, young people's, vernacular music - was invented specifically to come to grips with Dylan. (I know, this is a slight overstatement, which I do for emphasis.) Dylan is where the first and best writing is, and it helps to pass through writing and thinking about him to know how to approach the next subject - say, Prine. I think of it like piano - every classical musician knows some piano, even if their instrument is violin, for example. Because the piano is where it's all laid out, and serves as the watering hole where all the different species meet, and eye one another suspiciously. That's Dylan, for people who write about vernacular music.

Don Skoller

Celestial Monochord's commentary on"The Late John Garfield's Blues" is brilliant and beautiful, one of the best elucidations of a piece of song writing and the writing of songs I've ever read. Thank you!

j. michael combs

wow, this was great! thx --> author & all of you add'l. commentors. American Routes did a 2-hr. Kristofferson radio show that so impressed me that i found the archives & listened to it a second & third time. KK's rendition of this song = what persuaded me to copy out the verses & attempt adding it to my repertoire. i really appreciate so many perspectives and viewpoints and experiences shared here ~ thx once more!

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