The Illinois-Wisconsin Border

St. John's church, Christmas Day 2000
Johnsburg, Illinois

Tom Waits doesn't release songs like Day After Tomorrow, which is one reason people listened so closely when it appeared on his 2004 album, Real Gone.

The song's narrator is a 21-year-old combat soldier on a battlefield where he sees himself like "the gravel on the road," like an expendable resource in someone else's project.

It's what we might call a protest song, which is not Tom Waits' style. When the morning newspaper appears in a Tom Waits song, it's usually to complete a still life with eggs and weak coffee. But Day After Tomorrow is a beautiful anit-war song — politically disheartening, spiritually uplifting, and about as moving as anything Waits has ever done.

Like me, the narrator-soldier of Day After Tomorrow is from northern Illinois:

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much here
I can't wait to see you all
And I'm counting the days, dear
I still believe that there's gold
At the end of the world
And I'll come home to Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it's cold here
And I'm tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won't believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow

On my first listening, the "Wisconsin border" passage clunked in my ears. For one thing, "Rockford-town" isn't an expression I'd ever heard, and the song doesn't tell us anything about Rockford beyond what can be guessed from Google Maps.

So, the soldier's hometown seemed to lack credibility, a little as if a blues song had referred to Avalon, Mississippi as "an unincorporated community in the extreme northwest corner of Carroll County, part of the Greenwood Mississippi Micropolitan Statistical Area." The soldier seemed to have a wikipedic knowledge of his own hometown.

Of course, on my second listening, I remembered that Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois, which is close to Rockford and even closer to my own home town. Since the early 1980's — and increasingly, as time goes on — Waits and Brennan have worked as a team under the name "Tom Waits," much as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have said that they are a band called "Gillian Welch."

Thinking of the lines as having been written by an Illinoisan subtly changes the meaning of the words. If I and my family are any measure, referring to a town "up by the Wisconsin border" carries a meaning and significance you can't read off a map.

When I was a college boy in Tucson, Arizona, I went to at least a hundred poetry readings, including perhaps a half-dozen readings by a poet named Alberto Álvaro Ríos. Each time, he would tell the same old story about growing up in Nogales and playing a childish game of walking in two countries at once — literally, one foot in the USA, one foot in Mexico.

I quickly grew tired of the story. So what? So you grew up in a town that straddled the border! Today, of course, I'm able to see a significance I'd mostly missed as a callow youth. The border really does matter, even if it hadn't mattered much to me at the time.

Kathleen Brennan is from just this side of a border, a place where someplace else is always just over the horizon. Maybe such people know exactly where to locate their mythological worlds — over on the other side. Maybe they also tend to know exactly where myths are sorely lacking — here on this side.

In Day after Tomorrow, Waits and Brennan's soldier suddenly finds himself thinking of his hometown, old Rockford town, as if it were that mythical world on the other side of the border. He's displaced alright. His folks back home wouldn't believe how shoveling snow and raking leaves now seem to him like that gold at the end of the world.

It might seem funny that anyone would think of Wisconsin as a default location for some kind of Valhalla. I can't speak for Kathleen Brennan, rather obviously, but when I was growing up in Illinois, my family always had Wisconsin on its mind in a way. Not Indiana or Iowa, but Wisconsin.

For one thing, my parents were from there — they met during WWII while bowling in downtown Milwaukee. They still had siblings in Wisconsin towns both very large and very small. Even for those of us born in Illinois, going to Wisconsin was driving "back" as much as driving "up."

Mostly, we went back for holidays, weddings, and funerals. As a result, my parents' respective home towns seemed like bizarro worlds where people spent every day of their entire lives wearing clip-on ties, going to lengthy Catholic services, and then getting ecstatically drunk. In my mind's eye, John Prine's Wedding Day in Funeralville is always obviously about those places.

It's wedding day in Funeralville
Your soup spoon's on your right
The King and Queen will alternate
With the refrigerator light
There'll be boxing on the TV show
The colored kid will sing
Hooray for you
And midnight's oil
Lets burn the whole damn thing

Wisconsinites know about Illinoisans crossing the border to party. They were called FIBs (F**king Illinois Bastards). FIBs were known for driving drunk, littering, and being loud and disorderly — even more so on all counts than native Wisconsinites.

Once, a relative was bitterly complaining about FIBs, so I pointed out that the airwaves in Illinois were fully saturated with appeals to Escape to Wisconsin — constantly. Every Illinoisan who crossed the border was awarded an Escape to Wisconsin bumpersticker and encouraged to hurry back. He should, I said, contact his own state government about their success in attracting us FIBs ... his face took on a vivd expression of disillusionment.

I felt very uncomfortable about being seen as an outsider when my veins flowed with so much German-Catholic Wisconsin beer ... I mean, blood ... and when my mind was so invested in my Wisconsin roots. Like Alberto Rios, my family and I never quite got beyond straddling that border, growing up in two places at once.

John Prine's song "Lake Marie" is about a character like that — his body on the border, his mind so swimming with that border's past and present that it orders his world. It's a very weird song, almost a nonsense song, that makes sense on a level no other song makes sense.

The song has a mysterious power to make you hit the repeat button over and over and over again, endlessly. I suspect that power might derive from the song's evocation of place — it conjures the experience of occupying that particular borderland in a way you never thought possible.

For one thing, it confuses its facts as only someone thus conflicted can confuse them. Its inaccuracy is authentic.

Many years ago along the Illinois-Wisconsin Border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
— white babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
— and living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes —
They named the larger and more beautiful lake Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

I see now that the song is apparently about Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which was founded by a family that did indeed have twins — Elizabeth and Mary. But the twins were never abandoned to the Indians.

But two white sisters were held by a group of Potawatomi Indians in 1832 — one of the most famous and influential incidents in the nasty, confused series of massacres and skirmishes known today as the Black Hawk War. Both pairs of sisters lived within about a 10-mile radius of Johnsburg, Illinois.

It's troubling how little the schools I attended taught me about the pre-European history of this place so full of Native-American-derived place names, as well as cigar-store-Indian kitsch. But those place names and that kitsch and the beauty of the Wisconsin landscape swam around in my head my entire life.

John Prine's "this Indian tribe," who named lakes according to how well they could be seen from the highway, gets it exactly right. There was no telling how long ago any of this history happened, or whether it really happened at all, or whether it ever even stopped happening.

Later in the song, the Black Hawk War is somehow seen, if not quite recognized, on the evening news in the work of European settlers like Illinoisan John Wayne Gacy and Wisconsinite Jeffry Dahmer.

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking, the narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay! Naked bodies!
Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sssssharp object
Saw it on the news
In the TV news
In a black and white video —
You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. SHADOWS!
That's what it looks like

It's already been a quarter century since Tom Waits wrote the song "Johnsburg, Illinois". Back then, Brennan and Johnsburg were new to Waits, comparatively, and Brennan didn't yet have the kind of intimate involvement in the writing that she does today. Well, that's what I gather anyway.

Waits seems to have deliberately painted Johnsburg as a place that exists mostly in his imagination — the kind of Midwestern farming community any Californian might imagine. He plays a character who can't tell the woman from the photo, the community from the Rockwell painting.

She's my only true love
She's all that I think of
Look here, in my wallet — that's her

She grew up on a farm there
There's a place on my arm where
I've written her name next to mine

It's almost a joke, inviting us to say "No, that's not her — that's a PICTURE of her." The song, just like the photo in his wallet, is how he shows us the image of her that he carries around with him.

Of course, it could very well be that this confusion between the person, or town, and their image is what romance is all about. Who the hell wouldn't want such a song written for them? And what chamber of commerce wouldn't thank a writer for naming such a song after its town?

At that stage in Tom Waits' career, Johnsburg is not yet really recognizable. It's not Brennan's Johnsburg — the sleepy little grid of streets, the town here on this commonplace side of the border. After all, she didn't write the song. For that matter, she hasn't tattooed HER OWN name into his body. He has marked himself with his own understanding of her.

In a sense, the soldier in that oversees war in Day After Tomorrow has gone from thinking of his hometown as a resident would to thinking of it as an outsider might. The war experience has transformed him from a resident of the border town, like Brennan, to a dreamer of a mythical place, like the Waits of 25 years ago.

Achilles Is In Your Alleyway


When I first started hitting the old stuff hard, I mostly listened to blues from the 1930's through the 1950's. And some of my favorite recordings were things like Memphis Minnie's "Keep On Eating":

Every time I cook, looks like you can't get enough
Fix you a pot of soup and make you drink it up

So keep on a-eating
Oh, keep on a-eating
Keep on eating
Baby till you get enough

I know you're crazy about your oysters and your shrimps and crabs
Take you round the corner and give you a chance to grab

I've cooked and cooked till I done got tired
Can't fill you up of my fried apple pie

I know you got a bad cold and you can't smell
I ain't gonna give you something that I can't sell
And then there was another favorite, Sonny Terry's spirited rendition of "Custard Pie":
I'm gunna tell you something, baby, ain't gunna to tell no lie
I want some of your custard pie.

Well, I want some of it
Yes, I want some of it
You gotta give me some of it
Before you give it all away.

Well, I don't care if you live across the street
When you cut your pie please save me a piece
Now, when you listen to such songs metaphorically and creatively, if you read between the lines and against the grain, as it were, if you try to catch their double meaning ... it's almost as if these songs could also be about FOOD! And actually, they're kind of sweet as food songs. Maybe it's me.

Of course, my joke here is how these raunchy blues tunes supposedly fooled somebody at some point (who or when, I don't know) into thinking they were only about food (or deep sea divers, or horse jockeys), when in fact they were also "secretly" about sex. Today, anyway, most of us have to use our imagination and concentrate to hear them literally. The literal and figurative meanings have switched places — the "vehicle" has become the "tenor," as I'm supposed to say, sitting here with my masters degree staring down at me.

There's some old songs about sex that are on the other extreme. They do such a good job of hiding their meanings that the metaphors barely take place at all. The literal (non-sexual, tenor) images and the figurative (sexual, vehicle) meanings are connected by gossamer threads so tenuous, thin, and indirect that they almost snap. You're left with a set of nearly free-floating, abstracted images with little particular connection to anything — you're left with something like modern poetry:

The Old Man At The Mill

Down set an owl with his head so white
Lonesome day and a lonesome night
Thought I heard some pretty girls say
Court all night and sleep next day

Well, the same old man sittin' at the mill
Mill turns around of its own free will
One hand in the hopper and the other in the sack
Ladies step forward and the gents fall back

I spied a woodpecker sittin on a fence
Once I courted a handsome wench
She got saucy and she from me fled
Ever since then, well, my head's been red

"Well," said the raven as he flew,
"If I was a young man I'd have two.
One for to get and the other for to sew
I'd get another string for my bow, bow, bow."

Well, my old man's from Kalamazoo
He don't wear no yes-I-do
First to the left and then to the right
This old mill grinds day and night
Like a lot of other 20th Century modern art, Bob Dylan's poetics were inspired by "primitive" folk sources. Just as Picasso and T. S. Elliot and Brancusi and Stravinsky were inspired by folk art around the world (African masks, etc.), Dylan figured out the trick of modernism from folk music. He cracked the case of how to make a popular music (I mean music very large numbers of people wanted to hear) that was also modernist art -- abstract, with unstable and open-ended, shared meanings. Set the raunchy "Old Man At The Mill" beside Dylan's raunchy "Temporarily Like Achilles," for example:
Well, I rush into your hallway
And lean against your velvet door
I watch upon your scorpion
Who crawls across your circus floor
Just what do you think you have to guard?
You know I want your lovin'
Honey, but you're so hard.
But to give credit where credit is due, the idea really settled itself into my head while I was thinking about John Prine's "Forbidden Jimmy." It's a bawdy song in which the sexual symbols are so unattached to their literal meanings that they're free-floating, they operate as modern poetry:
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got a mighty sore tooth
From biting too many dimes in a telephone booth
He's got half of his bootlace tied to the dial
Thank you, operator, for getting Jimmy to smile
"Call out the Coast Guard," screamed the police
Forbidden Jimmy, he's got three water-skis
He put two on his wavelength and gave one to his girl
She's a mighty fine person, it's a mighty fine world
I got caught cooking popcorn and calling it hail
They wanna stick my head inside a watering pail
Ya know, they're gonna be sorry, they're gonna pay for it too
Forbidden Jimmy, he's coming straight at you
John Prine and Tom Waits were from that first generation of songwriters to learn the trick of modernism from Dylan. Of course, both have also reached around Dylan ... let me rephrase that ... both have gone directly to the same source Dylan did, by listening to and responding to the old American blues and country.


Editor's Note: This is the sixteenth installment of my frenzied attempt to post something or other to The Celestial Monochord every day for the entire month of February without winding up like Katerina Ivanovna. This thing is more than half done! It's supposed to get up above 10°F in Minneapolis this weekend! There is light at the end of the tunnel! Go towards the light, Celestial Monochord!


Rocky Mountain Time

(Watch photo from Watchismo.)


(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


We begin with ringing, declarative chords as if introducing a rock anthem, but by the song's first words the mood has already quieted:

Station's empty
Trains were all gone
Reached in my pocket
Waited for dawn
It seems to be in waltz time, but it doesn't feel like it — its rhythmic sense is more the ebb and flow of breathing or thinking. And gets that effect mostly from such changes in dynamics, loud here and soft there.

Those dynamics have a purpose, of course. They mirror the song's emotional roller coaster, a volatility that rises in the narrator, but is unprovoked by the action in any plot. Literally, the song is just a description of the loneliness of a musician on the road. He even has to fantasize his own back-up band:

The clock played drums
And I hummed the sax
And the wind whistled down
The railroad tracks
In its own way, "Rocky Mountain Time" is a bit John Prine's version of Langston Hughes' famous poem, "A Dream Differed" — it's a psychological study of what becomes of dreams and desires when they're isolated, frustrated, and finally strangled. Emotionally, the song is as direct as anything else on Diamonds in the Rough. It almost seems to be Prine's last chance on this album to look us right in the eye and connect with us directly — seeing as it's the penultimate cut, and the album's last Prine composition.

But in terms of its ideas, the song has always kept me slightly distracted by little logical puzzles, trivial calculations. Maybe it's trying to keep me off guard while it prepares its punch. Consider the chorus:

Hey, three for a quarter
One for a dime
I'll bet it's tomorrow
By Rocky Mountain time
So ... if it's tomorrow according to Rocky Mountain Time, Prine's narrator must be east of the Mountain Time Zone. Right? If you're in New York and it's 1:00 AM, it's only 11:00 PM the day before in the Rockies. It's tomorrow by Rocky Mountain Time. Unless he means tomorrow IN Rocky Mountain Time, in which case he's WEST of the Rockies, in the narrow wedge of the planet from California to the International Dateline.

Time zone calculations — they're the kind of thing your mind does when you're far from home. Let's see, three for a quarter and one for a dime, so if you get three, they knock a nickel off the price. You can see how it would get alienating after a while.

The waitress yelled at me
And so did the food
And the water tastes funny
When you're far from your home
But it's only the thirsty
That hunger to roam
In a way, these puzzles in logic alienate me from the direct emotional impact of the song. But that's what the song itself is about — being stranded out there beyond your own emotions, trying to work out the logistics of getting along in a strange land. Again, it's a traveling musician's song.

Of the few cuts Henry Thomas recorded in his lifetime, a lot of them play this same magic trick on me, keeping me distracted with calculations while they prepare to hit me in the gut. Like most magic tricks, they use misdirection — Henry Thomas will sometimes keep me puzzling over celestial navigation until he's got me in tears.

In Lovin' Babe, a song that starts fast and accelerates, everything seems to be coming and going in every direction, while in the meantime, one of music's most painful psychological portraits is taking shape:

Look where that evening sun has gone
Look where that evening sun gone
Look where that evening sun done gone
Gone, God knows where

The longest day, darlin, ever I seen
Yes, the longest day I ever seen
Well, the longest day ever I seen
The day Roberta died

That eastbound train come and gone
That eastbound train come and gone
That eastbound train come and gone
Gone to come no more

Got the blues, God I'm feeling bad
Yeah, I got the worried blues, feeling bad
Got the blues, I'm feeling bad
Feeling bad, God knows why

That eastbound sun come and gone
Now, the eastbound sun come and gone
Yeah, the eastbound sun come and gone
Now, babe I'm all out and down

Roberta, babe, gone away
Yeah, Robert has gone away
Roberta, babe, gone away
She's gone to come no more
The most vexing question is "that eastbound sun," given that the sun travels west every day. It would be a great name for a train, but I find no evidence of an Eastbound Sun. Besides a slip of the tongue, or bad information, the only explanation I have is that the sun DOES move eastward — through the constellations, slowly, from one season to another. It takes a bit of slightly arcane knowledge to know that it does, but it does.

I wouldn't put such knowledge past Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas, as he must've been pretty experienced in navigation. Every song of his entire recorded career is about moving from place to place — the freedom and hazards of traveling through America as a black musician during Jim Crow. The Road plays the same role in his music that the Gospels play in Blind Willie Johnson's. It's his grand theme, the concept through which his music is in conversation with the previous 4000 years, and the subsequent 80.

Songs like "Lovin' Babe" and "Red River Blues" are easiest for me to understand when I hear them in the context of the Underground Railroad — they are urgently, desperately focused on celestial navigation and the clock, the technical cornerstones of both freedom and imperialist empire. And while Prine is of a different time and race (this is a hillbilly blues, after all), "Rocky Mountain Time" is part of a long lineage that passes back through and before Henry Thomas.

"Rocky Mountain Time" is Diamonds in the Rough's way of beginning to say goodbye to us. With it, I find myself feeling a bit raw emotionally and alive intellectually. And I find Prine out there, fading, disappearing, puzzled and lost on the road, without a lot of hope of ever coming back.

Christ I'm so mixed up and lonely
I can't even make friends with my brain
I'm too young to be where I'm going
But I'm too old to go back again
That's yet another navigational paradox ... the final cut on the album could easily be construed as resolving it, through Christ's salvation. I haven't written about that final cut yet, so I don't know, but it's never been in Prine's character to offer an easy out. As he wrote about another song on Diamonds in the Rough, "I really love America. I just don't know how to get there anymore."


Editor's Note: This is the 15th installment of my 28-day marathon. The Celestial Monochord is trying to post something every day for the entire month of February.


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.


Arif Mardin, 1932-2006

Arif Mardin

(Arif Mardin and Louis Armstrong)


Readers of my series on John Prine's second album ("Diamonds in the Rough") may want to know that Arif Mardin died yesterday. Mardin produced Prine's first two albums, and his other credits are astonishing in their variety and notoriety.

Mardin gets the very last word on "Diamonds in the Rough." If you turn up the volume quite loud just after the last note is sung in the album's last song (the title song), you'll hear Mardin turn on the loudspeaker in the studio and say to the assembled singers -- John Prine, Dave Prine, and Steve Goodman: "Fantastic."

Read about Arif Mardin in all the usual places -- Wikipedia, Google, and NPR.


The Great Compromise

(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.


Take the Star Out of the Window

(from Military Sheet Music)


(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


Take the Star Out of the Window seems to have a public face and a private life, and they're fiercely at odds with each other.

On its face — that is, its overall sound — the recording is a catchy sea chanty, among the most gleeful and snappy guitar-mandolin duets I know of. But inside its head — that is, in the text of its lyrics — it's a grim portrait of what the Vietnam War had come to feel like in America by 1972.

Take the lyrics first. The verses are written in the third person and in past tense. Prine's narrator is a distant observer telling us a fairy tale or parable — but in telling it, he can't hide his rage and grief. And if you can clear your head of the melody, this narrator has a very bitter sense of humor indeed:

Robert was a sailor for the best years of his life
His captain was his mother and the ocean was his wife
Only fresh out of the cradle, life's one and only spring
He was sworn to do his duty and got blood on his high school ring
On the other hand, the chorus is written in the present tense, first person — Robert the sailor himself is speaking, and he has an problem. He's faced with the soldier's age-old dilemma of having to confront that blue star in his family's window — that is, of trying to reassure a relieved family that its son is back safe and sound, while knowing that the son they raised didn't really survive the war after all:
And it's a hello California, hello Dad and Mom
Ship ahoy, your baby boy is home from Vietnam
Don't you ask me any questions about the medals on my chest
Take the star out of the window and let my conscience take a rest
So the Vietnam War divides this sailor from his family and from himself — it even puts the song's verses in another world from that of its chorus. I was a child during the Vietnam War, but Prine's songs (and my own feelings about Iraq) suggest that a lot of people must have felt agonizingly estranged from their own country — which is to say, from themselves.

Most striking to me is that the SOUND of the song is at odds with its SENSE. The recording has the soul of sea chanty, played in up-tempo bluegrass time — it's deliriously fun to hear, even if the lyrics are among Prine's more bitter social commentaries.

But this public/private split is exactly what attracted me first and most to the old southern music of the 1920s and 1930s — like the stuff on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. Its public face rarely matches its private thoughts. The first words Sara Carter ever recorded were "My heart is sad and I'm in sorrow," but the song was an irresistibly jaunty jingle. Whether Prine knew it or not, Take the Star Out of the Window taps into the estranged character of American folk music to portray America's mindset during Vietnam.


One reason for the long pause in this series on Diamonds in the Rough is that it's taken me a while to decide what Take the Star Out of the Window really is, musically. Is it bluegrass stripped down to just John Prine's guitar and David Bromberg's mandolin? Jazz in the style of Django Rhinehart and Stephan Grappelli with the fiddle transcribed to mandolin? The closest recording I could think of was "Is It True What They Say About Dixie," recorded by Steve Goodman and Jethro Burns five years later. Did Prine, Goodman, and his running buddies invent their own fully-developed genre of duet?

Reading Neil Rosenberg's "Bluegrass: A History" has been the right thing to do. I now think Take The Star Out of the Window is in the tradition of the early country brother acts of the 1930s — The Delmore Brothers, The Dixon Brothers, The Rice Brothers, etc. Homer and Jethro inherited this tradition, making Jethro Burns a direct link from Prine and Goodman back to its beginnings in, I suppose, acts Burnett and Rutherford in the 1920s.

Ultimately, the most influential of all the brother acts was The Monroe Brothers, whose junior member would "invent" Bluegrass during and after World War II. But back in the 1930s, what mattered most about Bill Monroe was his fiddle-influenced handling of the mandolin, which almost immediately revolutionized the status of the instrument:

They sang higher and played faster than the others. Charlie's bass runs on the guitar were snappy and attracted attention; Bill's mandolin playing, with its speed and dexterity, was unique. He showed how versatile and potent it could be as a lead instrument. Bill Bolick, then just beginning his career with his brother Earl as the Blue Sky Boys on WWNC in Asheville, recalled: "People kept writing in and wanted me to play the mandolin more, so in a very short time, I discarded the guitar entirely and we did practically all the numbers with the mandolin and guitar. This I attribute to the popularity of Bill Monroe's mandolin ... Bill Monroe was making the mandolin a popular instrument." [Rosenberg, pages 34-35]


Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You

Ebony hillbillies
The Ebony Hillbillies in front of Astor Wine & Liquors, Manhattan


(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


What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

Everyone who takes up either instrument quickly gets tired of being asked the question. The best answer I've heard so far was from Rique, the fiddler for the New York oldtime stringband The Ebony Hillbillies. He was asked the question at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC.

"How it's played," Rique answered. "A fiddler keeps the bow on with the strings at all times, but a violinist lifts the bow off the strings — or bounces it off." And with this, he bounced his bow against the strings of his fiddle, drumming out the first few notes of the William Tell Overture / Lone Ranger theme: badda-bum, badda-bum, badda-bum-bum-bum!

"Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You" spotlights Dave Prine's fiddling just as the previous song, The Frying Pan, did his banjo-playing — and his fiddling is a fine example of Rique's lesson. After starting the recording with a quick little solo shuffle before the whole band jumps in, the rest of the song is Dave's demonstration of lazy-sounding, long-bow, honky-tonk fiddling that never rests.

I wish I knew enough about country music to say whether this fiddling is more Hank Thompson than Bob Wills, or whomever. It won't be long, though — I'm about to read a book by Bill C. Malone and get some reissues of some people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzel and so forth.

But the thing is ... I'm writing NOW.


According to David Fricke, John Prine says of "Yes, I Guess ..."

I was going for a Hank Williams kind of song. Steve Goodman always told me that if I'd taken another couple of minutes and put a chorus to the song — there isn't any, just a tag line to every verse — that it would have been a hit country song. And I was set in my ways. Once a song was done, it was done. But Steve was probably right; he usually was.

The song is another of Prine's border-line parodies, this time of a honky-tonk jukebox record. From the point of view of the guitars, it's a duet between John Prine and Steve Goodman — but with nothing of the delicate complexity we expect from them. Steve Burgh's upright bass falls right on the beat, as do Prine and Goodman, strumming away, never striking any less than all twelve strings they have between them.

Being a honkytonk record, after all, the beat has to come down heavy, so you can feel it in a noisy juke joint even if you can't actually hear any music. This is the kind of country-western beat that might make you want to keep time by alternately jutting out and drawing in your chin. (Which reminds me ... they say the origins of the term "honky" are unclear, but it must be a close relative of "honky tonk.")

The lyrics, too, are so conventional for this kind of music that they're funny. His woman drives him to drink. And that's about it. But it's always seemed odd to me — if nevertheless appropriate — that the relationship between the singer and his woman develops during the course of the song. It takes twists and turns:

Looks like I had my fill
Guess I better pay my bill
When I started out I only meant to have a few
Someone just said that you left town
I better get a double round
And yes, I guess they oughta name a drink after you
But how is this possible if she's not at least there with him, sitting on the next bar stool? No doubt, his sitting alone in the bar getting ever more drunk is itself the development, the twist in the relationship that happens during the course of the song.


The Frying Pan

(from Tijuana Bibles)


(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 writes a song like The Frying Pan now and then — strong shades of parody, joyously silly (even stupid), and irresistibly appealing. "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" and "Aw Heck" and the next song on Diamonds in the Rough, "Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You," are like that. Should we think seriously about a song that couldn't even get recorded with a straight face?

The lyrics to The Frying Pan are wildly unambitious and seem like they may have been made up on the spot. They relate the tragic tale of a man who comes home from work to find that his wife has left him. He grieves. And that's about the extent of it.

There are a few telling details. The wife leaves her goodbye note in the frying pan, presumably to make the point that she was appreciated neither very deeply nor for the right things:

I come home from a-work this evening
There was a note in the frying pan
It said, "Fix your own supper, babe.
I run off with the Fuller Brush man."

The song doesn’t say whether he actually makes his supper in that pan –- a bitterly seasoned meal inDEED! Prine's character then "commenced a carrying on":

And I miss the way she used to yell at me
The way she used to cuss and moan
And if I ever go out and get married again
I'll never leave my wife at home

So the character grows, and his future wives may find him somewhat more attentive.


John Prine understands that the ordinary details of everyday life are where all the drama and meaning are. But the details of everyday life keep changing with surprising speed –- you realize this more the older you get. I think this is why the songs on Diamonds in the Rough seem so meaningfully, precisely, poignantly located at a specific point in the past.

The last door-to-door salesman I remember seeing was an actual Fuller Brush Man who came to our door when I was around nine. I dimly remember his case full of brushes, as well as the feeling he created that buying some brushes was absolutely inescapable. I very distinctly recall my mother once asking me to tell him I was home alone while she was, in fact, hiding nearby. I guess I may be from the last generation of John Prine listeners who will have direct experience with Fuller Brush men at the door.

Appreciating a Prine song –- or any song –- requires more and more research, explanation, and imagination the older the song gets. It requires more and more of the listener’s participation and knowledge to make the full meaning and pleasure happen. That’s why it makes sense to me, at least, that popular song first became high art in the context of a Folk Revival.


Bluegrass is lurking in all the arrangements on Diamonds in the Rough, but only The Frying Pan puts it at center stage. Everything is there, except maybe a fiddle.

David Bromberg's mandolin "chops" the rhythm and then does lightning-fast runs. Steve Goodman provides the requisite smokin' bluesy guitar solo and high-lonesome backup vocals. Steve Burgh provides standup bass. And Dave Prine plays the most recognized of all bluegrass signatures — a 5-string banjo with a resonator back, played with three fingers and finger picks. The solo spot after each chorus is taken by another instrument, passing the spotlight around from one bandmember to another. It’s bluegrass.

There’s just one thing. I’m used to thinking of bluegrass in a smooth, fast 4/4 time — each beat in the measure emphasized (or de-emphasized) the same. This open, spacious, adaptable meter is what allows the complex, synchopating, polyphonic, collective noodling of a bluegrass band — and it also allows that band to “stay together,” to remain in close conversation with itself. The 4/4 meter was Bill Monroe’s main and final insight, learned from the jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and it completed his creation of bluegrass music.

The Frying Pan, as I hear it, is in the meter Bill Monroe finally left behind –- the 2/4 time that's closely associated with oldtime stringband music and that gives it an easy, front porch, loping feel. Instead of the banjo skittering, independent as a hog on ice, across the surface of an open 4/4 time, Dave Prine's playing sounds cramped inside the ONE two THREE four oldtime beat. The result is a banjo that sounds simple, old, and sincere, if somewhat bound by circumstances. It also sounds like the banjo-playing that David Akeman and Earl Scuggs did in Monroe’s band in 1945 and 1946. The Frying Pan sounds like a portrait of bluegrass represented exactly at the moment it became itself.

Billy The Bum



(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


About 15 years ago, a friend of mine wanted to cite an example of a bad John Prine song, so he chose Billy The Bum, calling it "a shambles of a song." At the time, it seemed like a good example to me, mostly because the song's shameless sentimentality made me cringe. But I've gone through a lot since then.

Around 1999, after I'd pretty much memorized the Anthology of American Folk Music, I was starving for more blues and hillbilly recordings from the 1920's. So I sought out recordings by many of the same performers Harry Smith had put in his collection. And there, beyond the Anthology, were many astonishing surprises for which the Anthology had not really prepared me.

Chief among them, initially, was how often these performers had recorded extremely sentimental 19th century "parlor songs," as I call them. These earnest, stiff numbers told tales full of pathos about drowning sailors, dying orphans, childhood cottages never seen again. Maybe Harry Smith had mostly ignored them because they weren't "folk songs" in a certain sense — most were relatively new compositions from the late 1800's, widely sold as sheet music for middle-class homes. In the late 1920's, white folk musicians made sound recordings of them for the first time, their original copyright status long forgotten.

Initially, I was a little impatient with them — a bit embarrassed, disappointed and amused by their commercialism and their hokiness. But after listening closely to dozens of them, researching the origins of several of them, and having a few conversion experiences with them (I guess you'd say), I've come to love them. There's Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire":

It was on a silver falls by a narrow
That I heard a cry I ever will remember
The fire sent and cast its burning embers
On another faded city of our land

Fire! Fire! I heard the cry
On every breeze that passes by
All the world was one sad cry of pity
Strong men in anguish prayed
Calling loud to Heaven for aid
While the fire in ruin was laying
Fair Baltimore, our beautiful city

There's Buell Kazee's "If You Love Your Mother":

In a lonely graveyard many miles away
Lies your own dear mother slumbering 'neath the clay
Or have you forgotten all her tears and sighs
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

She is waiting for you in that happy home
Turn from sin's dark pathway to no longer roam
Give your heart to Jesus, upward lift your eyes
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

And then there's the Carter Family, whose influence now seems to me ubiquitous in John Prine's music (and who provided the title song for Diamonds in the Rough). The Carters recorded these sentimental parlor songs more often and more movingly than anybody ever has. Their "Engine 143" did make it onto The Anthology:

Georgie's mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run
For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you'll get there just on time

Up the road he darted, against the rocks he crushed
Upside down the engine turned and Georgie's breast did smash
His head was against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I'm glad I was born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

I've come to appreciate these songs as beautifully written and recorded, often, but also as an important part of the roots of American music. In no small part through the influence of the Carter Family, country music is heavily based on them (what do you get when you play a country record backwards?).

Billy The Bum, which I've known for over 30 years, is today a completely new song to me. I hear it within a tradition that's well over a hundred years old and that I've taken deeply, if cautiously, into my emotional, intellectual, and maybe spiritual life.


Billy The Bum is another of Diamonds In The Rough's country waltzes. The first verse again establishes John Prine's firm flat-picking, accompanied by David Bromberg on a second acoustic guitar. Bromberg plays mostly bass runs, but strums often to help keep the beat. I'd say he plays "oldtime guitar" — an art that's been essentially lost to the upright bass, on the one hand, and bluegrass guitar on the other.

With the first statement of the chorus, Bromberg begins dubbing over (I assume, unless he's playing with his toes) the sliding dobro that gives the song much of its countrified twang. Also on each chorus Dave Prine enters, turned down very low in the mix, singing back-up vocals in a strained, high-lonesome wail, like a far-off cry in the wilderness.

As I understand the lyrics, Billy always fantasized about riding the rails as a hobo, but because his legs had been twisted by polio, he could only hop a train in his imagination:

Billy the Bum lived by the thumb
Sang of the hobo's delight
He'd prove he could run twice as fast as the sun
By losing his shadow with night

He loved every girl in this curly-headed world
But no one will know, it seems
For two twisted legs and a childhood disease
Left Billy just a bum in his dreams

It's interesting that even in the 20's and 30's — presumably the heyday of hobo culture — films and songs romanticized the lifestyle, seducing many young people into riding the rails. In other words, hobos were already a dream even back when they were still a reality. Billy was only one of millions who dreamed of riding the blinds. There's a sad irony and richness here — his polio made him a bum in his own eyes, unable to attain his dreams, which included being a real bum on the open road:

He lived all alone in a run-down home
Near the side of the old railroad track
Where the trains used to run carrying freight by the ton
And blow the whistle as Billy waved back

It seems fairly clear to me that John Prine has always believed in Jesus Christ, that he's a christian. But if this is right, his work presents us with a rare and fearsome portrait of a blazingly angry and disappointed, public-spirited, and wildly playful faith. Prine's first album is all about spirituality, if you look at it just so, and is big enough to contain everything from "Eat a lotta peaches, try to find Jesus" to "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes — Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose."

If Prine were an atheist like myself, it would be a different matter. But given Prine's long and powerful history of working out his thoughts about faith in song, I don't take lightly his portrait of the song's townspeople, whose children "seemed to have nothing better to do than to run around his house with their tongues from their mouths."

Now some folks'll wait and some folks'll pray
For Jesus to rise up again
But none of these folks in their holy cloaks
Ever took Billy on as a friend

For pity's a crime and ain't worth a dime
To a person who's really in need
Just treat 'em the same as you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed

It's easy enough, if you prefer, to hear easy platitudes and a certain self-righteousness in this indictment. But given Prine's body of work and the religious themes he's explored so frankly, I think we're bound to take this portrait seriously. Trapped among such people by his physical disabilities and his shame, Billy, a real fluorescent light, cried pennies on Sunday morning.

By this point, I've come to decide that it's a defense mechanism, this tendency not to really hear the lyrics of these old-style sentimental songs. If we took them literally, pictured them, read them over, took them at their word, they'd cut too close to the bone. They'd go places we've decided, as a culture, we don't want to go.

It's no wonder that generation after generation of Americans experience a recurring "Folk Revival" in which young people rediscover acts like the Carter Family. And, regardless of what else might be said about them, it's no wonder that these Revivals are continually experienced by their participants as a burning away of some vast, heavy haze of sanitized corporate nonsense to reveal something that finally, at long last, matters.

Sour Grapes



(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)


Two songs ago, on Souvenirs, Steve Goodman's guitar work was very hard to peel apart from John Prine's. But Prine's guitar picking pattern here on Sour Grapes seems very close to that on Souvenirs, but without Goodman's embroidery. You can use Sour Grapes as a tool to get a better handle on what Prine's right hand is up to on Souvenirs.

More importantly, Prine's relatively unadorned, unsupported guitar work here also gives the song a spare regularity, like the lonesome ticking of an old mantel clock. Sour Grapes is mood song — in fact, it's remarkable how many songs from Diamonds in the Rough can be summed up as "a mood put across in lyric and melody."

The mood in Sour Grapes seems familiar enough, and that familiarity makes the song seem funny, like a silly little tune. Which I think is perfectly true.

But simply taking the words seriously and literally leads me to ask what else is happening. The speaker of the song has retained some friends solely to prevent other people from thinking he's mentally ill, for example. Is Prine's deadpan humor more funny than it is chilling?

I don't care if the sun don't shine
But it better, or people will wonder

Even when he writes a tossed-off song, Prine leaves you wondering ...



(illustration by Sally Minker)


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.


many thanks to Elvis The Fish for use of the photo


(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


I was a little embarrassed by Souvenirs in my 20s and much of my 30s — although, as Bob Dylan would say, I'm younger than that now.

Written when John Prine was about 25, Souvenirs is a very sentimental song about nostalgia, or rather, nostalgia as it appeared in the imagination of a young man. The young Prine imagines surveying the refuse left over from a long life of troubles — graveyards, pawnshops, dirty windows, broken toys — and finds an inexhaustible reservoir of tears and reasons to feel he's been robbed. I used to consider this to be a very improbable speculation.

I hate graveyards and old pawnshops
For they always bring me tears
I can't forgive the way they robbed me
Of my childhood souvenirs

Memories that can't be boughten
Can't be won at carnivals for free
Well it took me years to get those souvenirs
And I don't know how they slipped away from me

Today, I'm reminded of the time when, at the age of 20, I read to one of my professors (who was recently divorced and a recovering alcoholic) a poem by Robert Hass. The poem says, in part:

The child is looking in the mirror.
His head falls to one side, his shoulders slump.
He is practicing sadness.

At this point, the professor interrupted, saying — either to the child in the poem, or to me — "You'll get plenty of practice in that, kid." He made me understand these lines of poetry for the first time ... he was a good professor, it turns out. In my 40's, I've now begun to suspect that the young Prine somehow got it right after all. As the late Steve Goodman once sang, "Those old folks are wiser and sadder."

Souvenirs — both the version on Diamonds in the Rough and the one on Great Days — is a guitar duet between John Prine and Steve Goodman. It's hard to think of the song as anything else. And it's a perfect example of why fans of Prine and Goodman treasure their collaboration so, why it's the focus of so much nostalgia.

The fit between their guitars is so snug that figuring out who's playing what is exceedingly difficult — thank god for stereo, which helps separate the two instruments. The core of Prine's part is his alternating between the bass notes natural to each chord and the higher strings, creating a complex version of his trademark boom-chick meter. The whole song drapes itself around this.

During his recent interview with Ted Kooser (about 27 min, 25 seconds in), Prine said Goodman "used to play the heck out of this song and sing it with me. And he had a way of doing it that always made it sound like I was playing the really good, the really fancy parts. You know, it was always him." In Souvenirs, Goodman's part is, it sounds to me, mostly bluesy flatted 3rds and 5ths that he gets using hammer-ons, slides, and bends. In this way, Goodman fills in the comparatively spacious meter Prine has set.

The overall effect is a light, frilly embroidery that would be in danger of becoming "too many notes" — monotonous and hard to follow — were it not for well-chosen moments of relief that restore a sense of anticipation: (1) Prine's resting heavily on the bass notes between the 1st and 3rd lines of every verse, (2) the simple but interesting intermissions between each verse, and (3) both Prine and Goodman simply strumming during the chorus.

Souvenirs, of course, is itself a souvenir of better times. It could just be an uncanny coincidence that this song, so indelibly rendered as an act of friendship and intimacy between Prine and Goodman, happened to be about nostalgia, loss, the robberies committed by graveyards. Then again, Goodman had already known of his leukemia for several years when the song was first recorded. In any case, when Prine performs it today as a solo, it sounds fine, but it's hard not to hear the song as a bit orphaned, as if it were a souvenir waiting on some pawnshop shelf.

The Torch Singer

Prine torch singer


(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


In "The Torch Singer," John Prine provides a view of himself not as we usually think of him, as a songwriter and performer, but as an audience member — that is, now he's in our shoes. And it's a grim vision. Prine has always thought deeply about women's voices, and has even recorded an entire album of duets between himself and women singers. Here, in 1972, the torch singer's song leaves him in some kind of exquisite pain and self-loathing:

She sang of the love that left her
And of the woman that she'll never be
Made me feel like the buck and the quarter
That I paid 'em to listen and see

Maybe Prine's narrator is the torch singer's ex — that is, he's the love that left her — and her song leaves him guilt-ridden. Or maybe she reminds him of other women he's wronged. Or, most interesting to me, maybe he recognizes himself in her, and in her performer's servitude to the audience, which now includes him:

I picked through the ashes of the torch singer's song
And I ordered my money around
For whiskey and fame both taste the same
During the time they go down

Ultimately, what troubles the singer is intense but uncertain, like the unspecified troubles facing the characters in the album's previous song.

To me, this song has always been vaguely flawed in a way that only makes it more perfect. "The Torch Singer" is a waltz, which is just about the last meter I'd expect a torch song to use. But this isn't a torch song, it's about a torch song. It's not the torch singer's point of view, but the audience's — and their perspective requires a tragic country waltz.

The cut starts with a kind of a cappella cry from Prine, "The nightcluuuuuub was burning," With "burning," Prine's guitar and Steve Burgh's bass come in, thumping down on the first beat of the waltz-time measure (ONE two three). Two beats later, John's older brother and his strongest early influence, the versatile Dave Prine makes his first appearance of the album, on the dobro. The sliding, whining dobro gives this recording — or just about any recording — a strong country feel.

It's only after the second line of the lyrics that the arrangement finally declares itself as bluegrass, via David Bromberg's remarkable mandolin accompaniment. In the spirit of Bill Monroe's approach to the instrument, Bromberg uses the whole pig, squeal and all. As Robert Cantwell writes:

The shallow, metallic, sometimes toylike sound characteristic of the mandolin ... is the problem that Monroe solved by abandoning the effort to produce discrete, pure tones. Monroe's tones are not discrete: they come at us like meteors trailing the smoke and flames of ... tones, overtones, and sheer noise ... Its texture arises in part from the undercurrent of noise made by the washboardng of the pick itself on the strings and from the many complex overtones in the mandolin ... Whereas the jazz trumpet seems to take the smoke of the cabaret into its throat, the mandolin's sound, like that of a distant engine, is a noise that seems to resolve itself into a tone.

The song's storyline, if any, is left to the listener. The point of this recording is to convey a feeling and an atmosphere using John's almost yelling voice, the country waltztime, the whining dobro and noisy mandolin, and — most of all — John's hellish lyrics. They bring to mind the atmospherics of Heartbreak Hotel, which I once heard compared to Dante's Inferno:

The nightclub was burning from the torch singer's song
And the sweat was flooding her eyes
The catwalk squeaked 'neath the bartender's feet
And the smoke was too heavy to rise

The narrator's entire life seems drawn up into the atmosphere of this nightclub only to be burnt up by the torch song's grief and humiliation:

I was born down in Kansas 'neath the October sky
Worked the dayshift from seven to three
And the only relief that I received
Was nearer, my God, to thee
She constantly throws me off timing,
Leaves me standing both naked and bare
Makes me feel like the Sunday funnies
After everything's gone off the air
Air, everything's gone off the air

The intervening years have left this song not dated, but poignantly situated in time. Was there really ever a moment in history when the darkness and lonesomeness of nighttime could deepen to the point where even the media of radio and television exhausted themselves, leaving us alone with our own troubled minds?


Prine Diamonds in the Rough


(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


Steve Burgh's bass starts out the album "Diamonds in the Rough" with a rising lead-in, and then its first song, "Everybody" springs to life as a seriously toe-tapping 2-4 country juke box tune. David Bromberg, the great Chicago multi-instrumentalist, dances along the top with a clucking, snapping electric guitar accompaniment. His syncopation gives the recording a swing that I'm not sure you hear much in country music anymore. John Prine's accoustic guitar provides the percussion — Burgh's booming bassline frees John from his characteristic boom-chuck, allowing him to simply chuck with gusto. The overall effect is what an African American former roommate of mine lovingly called "chicken music." You'd need a heart of stone to not love it.

The song tells the story of a sailor who happens along Jesus taking a stroll across the water. It turns out Jesus is troubled and lonesome, needs someone to talk to. The singer has troubles of his own, of course, and might have liked to talk about them too, but Jesus won't shut up about his own problems long enough to do any listening. The singer just chalks it up as his good deed for the day.

In 2005, the lyrics are refreshingly blasphemous (as they probably were when they were written in 1972):

I bumped into the savior
And he said, "Pardon me"
I said "Jesus, you look tired"
He said, "Jesus, so do you"

A few years later, John would repeat the first joke more explicitly, in case we missed it:

Father, forgive us
For what we must do
You forgive us
We'll forgive you

It's a good joke — we pardon God. Maybe the Bible spends so much time teaching us to forgive because God knew there was gunna be a hell of a lot to forgive him for. The song doesn't really tell us what's troubling Jesus, but in the depths of the Vietnam War, it's not hard to believe he's feeling guilty.

This kind of "high concept" for a song wasn't so unusual in country music in those days — "Everybody" is a novelty song like "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life." But John Prine's approach is so sympathetic to the situation of the song that it comes off less as a joke than as a parable. You think about it when you're done laughing.

Humor is a funny thing. It can release a songwriter or arranger from the rules of the game in ways that mimic — or explain — real artistic innovation. I'm thinking especially of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa, who would be more widely thought of as surrealists if they weren't so widely thought of as silly. There might be a little of this in "Everybody." It's a novelty song, but it has a seriousness, maybe, that invites you to listen closely without listening literally. In this sense, maybe it gently prepares you for the flashes of modernist poetry that you'll hear in the rest of the album.

John Prine: Fair & Square

John Prine: Fair & Square
John Prine, 2005

"Fair & Square," John Prine's first album of new songs in a decade, was released today. I'm still absorbing it, but I like it just fine for an initial spin — I've hit "repeat" on several songs, which is a good sign.

A few years ago, Rolling Stone printed a story Prine told about running into Bob Dylan in a restaurant in Manhattan, if I remember correctly. They took a walk through the streets of Greenwich Village.

Prine doesn't say precisely why — what in the conversation inspired it — but for some reason, at some point, Dylan says to Prine something like, "Come here, let me show you something." He leads Prine over to a night club where the ID-checker outside the door is a woman about 25 years old. Dylan says, "Do you know who I am? Who either of us are?" The woman looks at them very intently and answers, "No."

John Prine at The Library of Congress

John Prine

Today, my wife met Ted Kooser, the current Poet Laureate of the United States. That was neat. Even better, he told her out that he recently brought John Prine to The Library of Congress for a discussion and concert.

I highly recommend the webcast of Prine's appearence, which is riveting — all 90 minutes of it. (You'll need the free RealPlayer to watch it.) Prine said of his appearence, "You can bet I'm looking forward to it — taking all these people in my songs to the Library of Congress and letting 'em look around a bit."

Prine's first album in ten years will be released on April 26. Last time I saw him in concert, he said he releases an album every ten years whether anybody asks him to or not.