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The Great Compromise

Gulf_of_tonkin_resolution
(The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)

 

(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

 

The Great Compromise seems designed to be the climax of Diamonds in the Rough, to demand our fullest attention. It's the album's longest cut (4:57) and brings the album to a kind of halt with its slow, firm waltz-time and its deliberate gravity. Besides Sour Grapes, it's Prine's only solo performance on Diamonds — just Prine and his guitar, as if he intends to take full and sole responsibility for the song.

The Great Compromise is built around a conceit — an elaborate and startling analogy. The singer's love for an unfaithful girlfriend is like his patriotism during the Vietnam War:

I knew a girl who was almost a lady
She had her way with all the men in her life
Every inch of her blossomed in beauty
She was born on the fourth of July

Well she lived in an aluminum house trailer
And she worked in a jukebox saloon
And she spent all the money that I gave her
Just to see the old man in the moon

Chorus:
I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory
And awaken at dawn's early light
But much to my surprise, when I opened my eyes
I was the victim of the Great Compromise

My literal-mindedness long kept me from really giving myself over to the song. The metaphor seemed stretched beyond its limits. Yes, America certainly lives in an aluminum trailer, and yes, it's got a juke-joint economy. I'd give you that. But even today, to my ears, the conceit struggles during story's action — the events causing the singer's disillusionment:

Well we'd go out on Saturday evening
To the drive-in on Route 41
And it was there that I first suspected
That she was doing what she'd already done

She said Johnny, won't you get me some popcorn
And she knew I had to walk pretty far
And as soon as I passed through the moonlight
She hopped into a foreign sports car

I mean, if we accept this metaphor, what does the popcorn represent? The various demands that distract Americans from the infidelities of their government? It's a true enough idea, I guess, but is it really in the song? And whose foreign sports car did America jump into during Vietnam, exactly?

Look, the Great Compromise of 1787 established both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, instead of just one or the other — hence, the compromise. But how is Prine a victim of it? Maybe through the joint congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which more or less initiated the Vietnam War? Is that what Prine was hinting at? Maybe Prine's girlfriend had a constitution that was hard to negotiate?

It turns out my resistance to the song is really part of a larger issue — how meaning works, or should work, in popular song. Prine, as I've said before, learned from Bob Dylan to share the job of meaning with his audience. Leave the meanings open-ended, Bob teaches us, so the listener can participate in the making of sense.

But many of Dylan's — and probably Prine's — listeners think they're hearing an encoded message, a hidden song that could be exposed if only you knew the code. The listener participates, but only in trying to figure out what everything "really" represents.

I think The Great Compromise's writing hasn't yet settled on one or the other. It's caught in a twilight hour between these two approaches to meaning — it's somewhere between Don McLean's American Pie and Dylan's Idiot Wind.

But much like Souvenirs and Billy The Bum, I've warmed up to this song over the decades, and particularly during the Bush years. Like Take the Star Out of the Window, The Great Compromise introduces us to a good, patriotic American forced to live in his head, estranged from himself. It's about that agony:

Well she writes all the fellas love letters
Saying, Greetings, come and see me real soon
And they go and line up in the bar room
Spend the night in that sick woman's room

But sometimes I get awful lonesome
And I wish she was my girl instead
But she won't let me live with her
And she makes me live in my head

Since the song was written, we've seen so many "celebrities" publicly "pick sides" on so many issues. It's easy enough, if you're so inclined, to shrug them off — to dismiss the patriotism of former Canadian Neil Young, or the seriousness of pretty superstars The Dixie Chicks. But Prine seems like a different animal entirely. He consistently reminds us that disillusionment is a more potent political force than mere disagreement with others.

No matter what I said earlier about meaning, the real job of the listener, here, is to contend with what it must have meant to Prine to write this song — to compare love of country with spending "the night in that sick woman's room" — to write that down on paper. Prine is a US Army veteran — he was stationed in Germany in the early days of the war. After his military service, he spent five years employed by the Federal government as a postal carrier. His grandfather was a country musician and played with Merle Travis. According to Prine (see the bottom of this page):

My dad was a huge Hank Williams fan and I think, at the same time, that I was trying to learn songs — Hank Williams songs — so I could sing them for my dad, so he'd know I could sing. And then when I started writing songs, I wanted to write songs like Hank Williams so my dad would know I was a songwriter.

So I wrote about something he knew about and I put his name in — "Daddy, won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County." And it got his ear, you know, he was ready to listen to me, just like he listened to Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. You know, this was his, his son Johnny who was singing him songs. And he knew where I was coming from in the songs.

My father died before my first album came out, but I brought a tape of it home, a reel-to-reel, and borrowed somebody's tape recorder and played him the record. It's a good thing I did, cuz he wouldn't have heard it otherwise. And when "Paradise" came on, he went and sat in another room, in the dark. That was the last cut on the record, and when it was done, he came back into the room and I asked him how come he left the room when I was playing this song. He said he wanted to pretend it was on a jukebox.

 


Sidewalk Fulgurite

Fulgurite_segments_1

While taking a walk two weekends ago, a strange scar on the sidewalk caught my eye at Colfax and 24th in Minneapolis.

The scar was something like 3 meters long and in about 5 segments, each about 2 cm deep and up to about 5 cm wide. It was as if a steamshovel had been carelessly dragged along the sidewalk. But the scar was strangely branched. It was hard to imagine what kind of tool could have carved it, even intentionally.

Fulgurite_branches_1

On closer examination, I found the edges of the scar almost completely encrusted with black glass, some of which was easy to pick loose. (The photos below were taken the following weekend, when the scar was filled with organic rubbish.)

Fulgurite_lining_1

Fulgurite_pieces_1

It took me ten minutes of standing around staring at the sidewalk — sometimes peering at it very closely on my hands and knees (much to the puzzlement of passersby) — to convince myself that this was created by lightning. It's fulgurite. Whatever made it not only dug a small trench in a municipal sidewalk, it also burned the sand in the sidewalk's concrete into glass.

The scar is immediately below an ordinary city powerline pole, and I can't completely discount the possibility that the scar was created by a downed powerline. I did poorly in the electricity sections of my college physics classes, but my sense is that there's a number of problems with a powerline origin for the scar — not the least of which is that powerlines just don't have the juice to do the job. More likely, the pole attracted the lightning.

Fulgurite is usually found on sand beaches, and online photos of it make it look a little like coral. I think the loose quality of sand eases lightning's path and allows for the dramatically-shaped objects usually associated with fulgurite. Sidewalk fulgurite is not unheard of, as this PDF reprint of a 1947 article in Rocks and Minerals attests.

 


Miniature "Interview" with John Cohen

Fullcircle

(John Cohen — photo by Howard Christopherson)

 

Last night, John Cohen was at the opening of a new exhibition of his photographs in Minneapolis (at the Icebox until November 4). The lines to have Cohen sign his books for you were short and occasionally non-existant, so you could sit down with him for a minute or two and chat before somebody started hovering nearby.

When I sat down at his little table in the corner, the Icebox's Howard Christopherson was making sure Cohen had a fresh round of hor d'oeuvres. Cohen seemed in good spirits — although I fired questions at him like a drunken Jack Webb, he was very patient and performed, like an actor, the emotional content of his answers.

Below is a pretty close transcript of what we said, furiously scribbled down immediately after the conversation. My apologies for any serious misquotes, and note that I did not identify myself as a blogger. Some clarifications follow the "interview."

 

The Celestial Monochord: I think the photos I'm noticing most are the ones I've never seen before — the one with Dylan and the chicken, and especially the one with [ Rambling Jack ] Elliott and ... and ...

John Cohen: And Woody [ Guthrie ]. Can you believe I missed that? I didn't see it until this show, and I'm so glad that I ...

Monochord: YOU'RE KIDDING! I thought you held it back until now. It's very intense, hard for me to look at ... I couldn't really, um ... I got very ...

Cohen: Yes, it is a very emotional picture. I just didn't know it existed until I got ready for this show. It's way over-exposed so I must have passed over it on the contact sheets until now.

Monochord: Oh, I see. I figured it was too personal so you didn't use it until now.

Cohen: Well, there was a lot of emotion then about Woody and what was happening with him, but on the other hand, I did use that one on the cover of "There is No Eye". [ he points at the book nearby on the table ]

Monochord: Yeah, that's true. Hey, who are these two guys here and here. [ pointing at the two musicians playing for Woody Guthrie on the cover of the book ]

Cohen: They're from The Tarriers — it's Bob Carey and Erik Darling [ more pointing — and I'm not 100% sure I remember this info correctly. ]

Monochord: Ok, I have a question, and I wouldn't ask you this question if I wasn't somewhat eppifficated. In the DVD that came with Dark Holler — the Dillard Chandler documentary — was that a drag queen? Was that a guy in a dress? What was that about?

Cohen: That was the same guy who was in the cafe before — Dillard's friend. Same guy. They knew I'd be filming at this party and they were putting one over on me. When I saw them coming through the door and he was wearing women's clothes, I thought, MY GOD, what joke are they pulling on me? So I just thought, well ...

Monochord: But he seems to be really into the clothes — he's so meticulous, he keeps adjusting himself, he's very into how he looks and making sure he's ... [ here, I'm pantomiming the guy in the film ]

Cohen: Yes, well, his wife is right there and his kids are there ...

Monochord: Ok, I'll leave you alone here, I'm taking up your time. I want to thank you for coming to Minneapolis and for everything you do. There are certain heroes of mine that I never got the chance to thank for what they did for me in my life, and I'm just glad I got to ... like Carl Sagan ... Oh I know — hey, just one more question! What was it like when you got that phone call saying, "Mr. Cohen, we want to send your recording of a Peruvian wedding song on a rocket ship into outer space." What did you think?

Cohen: [ before answering, he squeezes his eyes closed, turns his head to one side, and presses the tip of his index finger to his right temple for a good four seconds ] No, it wasn't like that. I found out about it in the New York Times.

Monochord: What, afterwards? When it was a done deal?

Cohen: Yes, I only read it ... I found out about it reading the New York Times.

Monochord: Ok, thank you. Please sign my book. My name is Kay You Are Tee — Kurt.

Cohen: [writes "To Kurt, John Cohen" on the title page of "Young Bob: John Cohen's Early Photographs of Bob Dylan"] Thanks.

Monochord: Thank you again. Nice to meet you.

 

Editor's Notes: As of this writing, the Icebox has posted the three photos we discussed — the one with Dylan and the chicken and the one with Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from Parkinson's Huntington's Disease (thanks Bill B.!). Here's the one with Woody and who I think are the Tarriers.

You get a free DVD of the documentary about Dillard Chandler, "The End of an Old Song" — with a cameo by a guy in drag — when you buy the Dark Holler CD.

For more on Cohen and Carl Sagan's Voyager record ("a Peruvian wedding song on a rocket ship"), see my previous post at the Celestial Monochord. Among the best moments in the book about the Voyager Record are those in which the team assembling the photos and music for the record seek permission from puzzled copyright holders.

I had him sign "Young Bob: John Cohen's Early Photographs of Bob Dylan" but unfortunately forgot to bring my copy of There is No Eye.

 


Jolie Holland and Elizabeth Cotton

Jolie_holland
Jolie Holland's new album is released May 9

Elizabeth_cotton
Nearly all Elizabeth Cotton's work is on Folkways

 

Guitarist and banjoist Elizabeth Cotton was one of the most beloved figures of the 1960's folk revival. Like Mississippi John Hurt, she played — and she somehow personally embodied — what Mike Seeger has called "black parlor music." As a lot of folks know, she was "discovered" by the Seeger family while working in their home, a story which entirely loses the whiff of exploitation the more I learn its facts. I'm now more curious about whether Cotton seemed to take on a little of the role of mother to Penny, Peggy and Mike Seeger after their own mother died at the age of 52.

The best written account I happen to have seen of Cotton's life is John Ullman's moving liner notes to Shake Sugaree. Another great account, available as an mp3, is Mike Seeger's early recollections of Cotton, which ends with one of the very first home recordings ever made of her. (The file is from "The Telling Takes Us Home.")

Back on February 8th, the New York Guitar Festival held an event in honor of Elizabeth Cotton, featuring Mike Seeger and Taj Mahal — two of the world's leading exponents of the African American banjo tradition, both of whom worked closely with Cotton. Also performing that night was singer-songwriter Jolie Holland.

It's not clear what Holland knows about Cotton — no published information exists other than her mere presence on February 9. Holland's manager informs me that Daniel Lanois introduced Holland's work to the Festival director, David Spelman, over two years ago and a chance to have her at the festival has been sought ever since.

In any case, whoever decided to associate Jolie Holland with Elizabeth Cotton knew what they were doing. As a devotee of the indispensably obsolete, Holland has the soul of a folk revivalist and is a musical heir of the New Lost City Ramblers and the Seeger family. More directly, Holland and Cotton are both parlor musicians, through and through. Their work is native to the living room — very small, close, antique, and feminine.

It's common to associate privacy with concealing the truth. But Holland and Cotton remind us that it's behind closed doors that the real disclosures are made. And when they sit you down in their parlor, we're reminded that the supposedly traditional domain of women is at least as hard and gritty as the world outside.

That's particularly surprising and endearing coming from kindly old Elizabeth Cotton. It's bizarre that her best-known composition, Freight Train, came to be thought of as a "nice" child's folksong:

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
So they won't know what route I've gone

When I'm dead and in my grave
No more good times here I'll crave
Place a stone at my head and feet
And tell them all that I've gone to sleep
In a very similar song, also structured as a Girl Scout Camp sing-along, Holland has similar requests for the listener:
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
It's good enough for me

Well, it was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It's good enough for me

Sister, don't get worried
Sister, don't get worried
Sister, don't get worried
Because the world is almost done
Cotton once oversaw her grandchildren as they composed a song, using the writing of each verse or two as a bedtime activity. The result is certainly a "rounder song," and I even think of it as being about selling your ass once you've got nothing else left:
Pawned my buggy, horse and cap
Pawned everything that was in my lap

     chorus:
     Oh Lordy me, didn't I shake sugaree
     Everything I got is done in pawn

Pawned my chair, pawned my bed
Don't have nowhere to lay my head

     chorus

I have a little secret I ain't gonna tell
I'm goin' to heaven in a ground pea shell

     chorus

Chew my tobacco, spit my juice
I'd raise Cain but it ain't no use

     chorus
This strange, hardass domesticity is in everything Jolie Holland does. Here's another sing-along, sung with one of the softest, sweetest, most intimate arrangements on her album Escondida:
The smell of burnt exhaust drifts into the bar
It’s midnight in California, it’s high noon where you are
Motorcycles and booze and this dirty old perfume
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Is what it is
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame

I tried to go to sleep in my haunted little room
The shadows are churning in the passage of the moon
It’d break my heart to tell you I couldn’t come so soon
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Is what it is
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Holland's next album, Springtime Can Kill You, is due out on Tuesday. The reviews I'm seeing are positive and seem to promise more of the same, at the very least.