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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.