KFAI covers Frank Cloutier
Battle of the Jug Bands, 2006

Clocks and Spoons

Edward Hopper's Automat, at the Des Moines Art Center


(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


Clocks and Spoons is a worksong, not for the prison work crew or plantation field hand, but for the office worker. Its rhythms don't match John Henry's hammer, they're the lonesome rhythms of the cube — your own heartbeat, your own breathing, the ticking of The Clock.

What the song's rhythms tell us, its lyrics confirm, yearning for the body and the mind to finally be able to escape, together, to the same place:

Don't know how I did that now
Wonder where it's gone
Must've spent the way I went
Waiting for the dawn
Shoot the moon right between the eyes
I'm screaming
Take me back to sunny countryside
Here it seems the singer is at work, and there the lyrics have the singer at home, singing at night:
Clocks and spoons, empty rooms
It's raining out tonight
What a way to end a day
By turning out the light
Shoot the moon right between the eyes
I'm sending
Most of me to sunny countryside
The contradiction confused me for a while — the domestic, night-time moments seem strange if this really is a worksong. Where are we? Is this a song about the home or the office?

In Clocks and Spoons, Prine is still tackling the problem he's been working on for much of the album — how to capture, like a fly in amber, what night feels like to him. Prine has practically said as much in regard to John Garfield. Songs like John Garfield, Torch Singer, and Billy the Bum try to convey what night is like, what afflictions and freedoms it entails — what's at stake in nightfall.

That's how Clocks and Spoons can be both a white-collar worksong and a night-time reverie. Our days cast a shadow on our nights, and visa versa. Day jobs, for example, can make night seem so hectic, short, and sad — its no wonder the light-deprived mind of Clocks and Spoons fantasizes a countryside perpetually bathed in sweet sunshine:

Running through sky of blue
Rolling in the sun
Every day has a way
Of overflowing one
Shoot the moon right between the eyes
I'm keeping
Most of me in sunny countryside
Clocks and Spoons wasn't the first John Prine song to indulge in this kind of back-to-the-land fantasy — the first album's Spanish Pipedream ("blow up your TV ... move to the country") and Paradise both entertained the idea. In them, Prine inhabits one world but lives in another.

These first two albums show the marks of having been recorded at the height of an old-time string band revival — a late-1960's and early-1970's phenomenon that seems almost totally forgotten today. And a good reminder, among other things on these albums, is this back-to-the-country theme. Writing about this old-time revival, Thomas Carter writes:

The music was the first step back to the land. The idea of living in the country was a fundamental part of the music's attraction, and many revival musicians eventually moved to farms and small towns. Most of us at one time or another dreamed of living in the country — whatever that meant — and our world was dominated by powerful if dimly understood symbols like the woodpile.

("Looking for Henry Reed: Confessions of a Revivalist" in
Sounds of the South, edited by Daniel W. Patterson)
In terms of its arrangements, Diamonds seems to embody this old-timey, nature-fantasy more than the first album, which was recorded with Nashville studio musicians. Even though Clocks and Spoons uses instruments forbidden in "strictly traditional" old-time stringbands — Steve Burgh's bass and David Bromberg's electric guitar — the arrangement strongly evokes much older styles.

At least to me. To me, Clocks and Spoons is clearly an old-time banjo tune. Prine's guitar-picking pattern has the tick-tock syncopation of banjo styles like that of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. The main guitar figure has the soul of a fretless banjo, evoking that instrument's long slides, hammer-ons, and snappy pull-offs.

In 1949, wonderfully introducing his equally wonderful recording of The Last Gold Dollar, Bascom Lamar Lunsford calls Gold Dollar "rather an elusive banjo tune." By now, I've come to think of Lunsford as having coined a name for a sub-genre — The Rather Elusive Banjo Tune. They're easy to listen to, hard to play, and their lyrics, if any, are disjointed, mysterious, require the imagination of the listener. Clocks and Spoons is such a tune.

On the other hand, the back-to-the-land theme and with the hybrid rock-folk arrangement also remind me of other developments in music in the early 1970s. And they're probably even more important to this song, this album, and John Prine's early career, but I know much less about them.

I'm thinking of the laid-back LA singer-songwriters who had escaped to Laurel Canyon (Crosby, Stills Nash, & Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, etc.), and the parallel experiments rock musicians were conducting in Nashville (Dylan, Gram Parsons, the Byrds). Both trends are discussed a bit in Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History," and the Laural Canyon crowd has recently gotten some book-length treatments.

It would be worth someone's while to go at Prine's first two albums this way — as artifacts from a particular moment in the history of the American music business. A place to start would be with Kris Kristofferson, who's often said to have "discovered" Prine, and who had one foot firmly in rock, the other in country.

In any case, even if I could get it all sorted out — Nashville and Laurel Canyon in the early 1970s, Hank Williams of the 1950's, who Prine's father loved so much, the folk revival his older brother Dave seems to have been a part of, the folk it revived — I'd still be left to wonder how it could all somehow get folded up and be made to fit effortlessly inside the act of turning out the light at the end of a long day of delivering the mail.



Cowtown Pattie

Always enjoyed John Prine's stuff. Very interesting thread here on the "back to the Land" idea in his music.

It still speaks to me...we want so much to get out of the city and back to the country. Somehow.


Of all Prine's songs, "Clocks and Spoons" was always my favorite song to listen to--and the toughest to actually play as a solo musician. I'd always sensed its banjotic (to coin a horrid word) feel, especially considering Bromberg's lead guitar-playing, centering as it does up there on the high G to a drone-like effect on the cut.

I thought the song would be a slam-dunk to render on the banjo. It never turned out that way. A Scruggs/ Kieth bluegrass picker, I could never find the groove in Prine's oddly-phrased little melody, which drifts around in the almost ragtime-y chord structure (G-B7-C-D7). I always wondered if some strong, rhythmic work by a good clawhammer player (which I am not) could more successfully coax this song out of the banjo. The song threatened to come apart unless held together by the steady bass 'chunk' that I could only get from fingerpicking it on a guitar. The two extra picking fingers also helped, for it needed as much orchestration as I could generate. A 12-string filled in those lonely, empty spaces of the melody even more.

It was as if the melody had a constitutional discomfort with being alone; it needed merry music playing in the background to keep it company, like someone trying to keep lonliness at bay by leaving the radio on as "white noise". Or, perhaps, it was "like the Sunday funnies after everything's gone off the air." It's a sad little Blanche DuBois of a tune; delicate, wistful, heartsick.

Prine is one of those songwriter/vocal stylists--like Dylan and Waits--whose lyrics are so arresting and whose singing is so effortlessly conversational that you can sometimes miss what gorgeous melodies they write.

Jerome Clark

I am perplexed by your remark about an "old-time string band revival -- a late 1960's and early-1970's phenomenon that seems almost totally forgotten today."

Do you mean to say (a) people have forgotten the OTSB revival of those years or (b) OTSB has all but slipped from memory and performance?

If (b) -- the only reading I can infer -- you are pretty seriously out of the loop. The OTSB revival of the early 21st Century dwarfs the previous one. The music is more interesting, more diverse, as well. It ranges from bands with soulful takes on the purely traditional (Hunger Mountain Boys, Foghorn, Troublesome Creek) to mixed new-and-old (Reeltime Travelers, Crooked Jades, Old Crow Medicine Show, Uncle Earl) to wildly adventurous approaches (Duhks, Bills). Even more amazing, a good number of these outfits are playing as much for rock crowds as for folk audiences.

Moreover, many young pickers seem more interested in forming OT than bluegrass bands -- a rather remarkable phenomenon in itself. Speaking as an experienced listener and a record reviewer who is regularly at the receiving end of discs from OT bands even I haven't heard of, I can assure you that this is the happiest, most creative era for OTSB that anybody's seen since the 1920s. Far from being forgotten, OTSB music is roaring with fresh life and vigor.

Editor's Reply: Hi Jerome -- I've been meaning to write you to thank you for your encouragement during the run-up to my appearence on Dave Hull's show. You really did help settle my nerves.

I agree with everything you've written, of course, and no, I certainly don't mean people have forgotten Old Time music. The fact that there is a revival happening right now is the one of the reasons for the existance of this blog. Heck, I started to play clawhammer in late 2002. I'm PART of the phenomenon you've described!

What I mean is that there was a distinct explosion in interest in Old Time around the early 1970's, and that particular event does not appear to be widely discussed. It's not part of the standard history of Old Time music that you typically hear. It hasn't been presented as a watershed moment very often.

What happened around the early 1970's -- the Chapel Hill scene that centered around the Hollow Rock String Band and Alan Jabbour's work with Henry Reed, the success of the Highwoods String Band, the popularity of the "Clawhammer Banjo" series of records put out by County Records, etc. -- this seems to be fairly rarely talked about or known about outside of those old enough to have experienced it. It took me about eight years of reading intensive about "roots music" before I even started to slowly piece together my own dim awareness of it.

Of course, one can bum-ditty oneself silly all day and have no need to know about any of this, but I'm saying that if you want to understand the historical context for the recording of Prine's Diamonds in the Rough, it's good to remember the Old Time revival of the early 1970's.


dakota dave hull

I guess I'd better toss my two cents worth in here, too. The Red Clay Ramblers would have to be on any list of '70s old-timey bands, somewhere near the top. Deeply rooted in traditional music, they certainly were the most innovative band of that era. It didn't always work, but it was always interesting. Bum-ditty.


Jeremy Stover

I've only just discovered John Prine over the past few years, and he's become my favorite songwriter in short order. I always used to hate it when friends would latch onto a new favorite band or musician and pester me incessantly until I listened to their stuff, but that's exactly the torment I'm currently inflicting on my loved ones. I feel it would be offensive of me NOT to force Prine's music on them.

In the course of this, I find that the song that immediately catches their interest and wins them over is not "Paradise" or "Hello in There" but little ol' "Clocks and Spoons". That's a pleasant surprise, just like this series. It's a beautiful song from a fascinating album, and I thank you for your insightful writeups on a work that few people discuss.


I always thought Clocks and Spoons might've been about heroin addiction because the first thing that grabs me is the song's sad tone ... Not to mention the metaphors and word choices. Spoons, turning out the light, shoot the moon between the eyes, sending me to the sunny countryside. The empty room metaphor is in Sam Stone, too, I think. The next stanza has shooting the moon keeping the narrator in sunny countryside. Then ... the last has the narrator wondering how he did that then ... waiting for the dawn ... screaming take me back to sunny countryside. It sounds like a person escaping pain .... I'm sure John saw lots of musicians back then turning to heroin. Sad ...

Jeff Varda

Always imagined this was about being on the road...the dullness of tourning after the excitement stops, Even the joyful becomes tired after continued routine. So it is a workmens song....but his work.
I ran into John and his brother Billy, who was basically his one man roadie, must have been back in the 80's after John performed at the Woodstock Opera House and we basically stalked him to a little bar where he was drinking with his brother. I remember enthusiastically asking him " how ya doing?" His response "tired....how bout you". A little bit of same theme in Everybody Needs Somebody

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