(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
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.