John Prine, Singing Mailman and Bad Boy


By way of Kate, this note from The Writer’s Almanac: John Prine‘s birthday was Saturday (he turned 64). The almanac contains an anecdote I’d never heard before about how a well-known Chicago movie critic discovered him:

“[Prine] got a job working at the post office in his hometown, and he started playing in coffee shops, but no one paid any attention to him. Then one day, the film critic Roget Ebert went to see a movie that he didn’t like very much, so he walked out of the theater early and headed down the street to get a beer instead. He happened to go to the bar where Prine was playing as background music. And so instead of writing a movie review that week, Ebert wrote a review called “Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,” and suddenly John Prine had a full house every time he played.”

Which is a great story. In fact, here’s the transcript of a long and wonderful live interview Prine gave in which he recounts Ebert’s appearance. But as luck would have it, someone from a music rag called No Depression came along and checked some “facts” and came up with a tale that’s a little different than the one above:

“Movie critic Roger Ebert, who also did some music writing back then, was among the first to call attention to Prine after catching him in October 1970. Legend (with help from Prine) has rewritten the details a bit: Ebert didn’t walk out on a movie to get some popcorn and overhear people talking about this guy from Maywood singing and so headed over to the Fifth Peg. He had heard about Prine — and, he conjectured recently, probably had seen him — before. And the headline over Ebert’s column in the Sun-Times wasn’t the Variety-worthy ‘Singing Mailman Delivers the Message,’ but rather the awkward ‘Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.’

” ‘He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,’ wrote Ebert. ‘He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.’ ”

I was hoping to find the original Sun-Times article online, but this is as close as I got. The writing reminds me a lot of Mike Royko’s. Anyway, happy birthday, John Prine, from Berkeley. And in honor of the occasion, here’s the lyrics from “Bad Boy.” It contains one of my all-time favorite lines: “I never thought that now would ever catch up with then.”

I been a bad boy

I been long gone

I been out there

I never phone home

I never gave you not one little clue where I’d been

I’ve been a bad boy again.

I got a way of

Fallin’ in love

With angels that don’t shove

You into thinkin’ that you are committing a sin

I’ve been a bad boy again.
I’ve been a bad boy again
Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

I must have walked ’round

In a real fog

I was your best friend

Now I’m a real dog

I never thought that now

Would ever catch up with then

I’ve been a bad boy again.
I’ve been a bad boy

I sung a wrong song

I took a left turn

I stayed too long

As you were thinkin’ that I wasn’t

Just like all other men

I’ve been a bad boy again.

I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again

And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

I’ve been a bad boy again

Now I’ve been a bad boy again
And all the trouble that I’m in

Makes me a bad boy again

That’s copyright John Prine. Used without permission, but in an honest, non-commercial spirit.

Guest Observation: Jesse Winchester

From “The Only Show in Town“:

“Maybe life is just put on for show,
Oh, but it’s the only show in town.
It don’t cost a nickel to get in,
Oh, but you pay dear to hang around.

“And maybe love’s a joke you heard before,
Still it makes you laugh until you cry,
Laugh until you’re rolling on the floor,
Until the tears are streaming from your eyes.”

©1976 Jesse Winchester
From the LP “Let The Rough Side Drag

Guest Observation: ‘On the Road Again’

A Tom Rush song for which I can’t find the lyrics online. If memory serves, it starts like this:

“Well, I locked my door as the sun went down
And I said goodbye to Boston town,
Took the Mass Turnpike down to Route 15,
That’ll take me on down to the New York scene.
Humming of the tires sure is pretty,
Think about the women in New York City,
On the road again.
Take the Harlem turn to the Jersey pike
And you roll through Philly in the middle of the night,
On the road again. …”

Me? I’m flying to the Midwest and then making stops along Lake Erie and points east. See you out there.

‘Walk Away’: Two Takes

First, the James Gang, in an old video that’s found its way onto YouTube (this version from some Japanese fans of Joe Walsh, apparently):

Second, by way of Disarranging Mine, an actual guy actually “walking away.” In Springfield, Illinois, no less.

Sailor’s Tango

Growing up, there were a few musical staples in our house. I mean in my pre-teen years, before I discovered WLS and what was playing there. The station we listened to–the only one, except on snow days when we had a local AM station on to see if our school was closed–was WFMT. I think it’s tag line was “Chicago’s fine arts station.” It carried, and still carries, classical programming, soberly read news headlines, and, on Saturday nights, “The Midnight Special.” That show was a weekly fixture for me for years. It started with a recording of Leadbelly singing the song from which the show took its name and ended with Richard Dyer-Bennett singing “You’ve Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley.”

My parents didn’t have a big record collection, and I don’t remember their LPs including anything at all that would have been considered popular music. Well, maybe there was a Mitch Miller record in there. But mostly the discs included a few of my dad’s classical favorites, including an early ’50s recording of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” and “The Fountains of Rome” (the only side I ever played was “The Pines,” which ends with a stirring, bombastic passage meant to evoke the march of returning Roman legions; I’ll bet Mussolini just loved it). Others I remember hearing often, and still listen to, featured the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Fritz Reiner conducting Wagner overtures and Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.” My mom’s tastes, as I remember them, were more in the vein of classic musicals. I remember hearing “My Fair Lady” a lot when I was little. Hours of “Camelot.” “West Side Story.” “Man of La Mancha.” “Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris.” And my parents seemed to share an enjoyment of recorded comedy and folk music and the way I recall it went out of their way to introduce us to performers like Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Joan Baez, and Burl Ives.

One record they had that got played over and over and over and that my siblings and I adopted as our own was by Will Holt, an interpreter of the Brecht-Weill canon. I can’t say I understood the songs (or that I do now, for that matter), but the music and lyrics were peculiar and fascinating. On a driving trip once, my brother John, about 10, surprised my parents by coming out with the lyrics of “Kanonen Song” from “The Threepenny Opera” (the refrain goes: “Let’s all go balmy, live off the army,/See the world we never saw,/And if we’re feeling down,/We’ll wander into town,/And if the population/Should greet us with indignation/We’ll chop them to bits/Because we like our hamburger raw”). I think the surprise was occasioned by the sudden realization that we actually were listening to and absorbing this music to some degree.

Online, you can still find used copies of the album, “The Exciting Artistry of Will Holt.” I’ve got a copy that I found in a record store out here, though I don’t have the equipment set up to play it. One side consists of original interpretations of standards like Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris.” The other side, with the Brecht-Weill numbers, made a deeper impression. In addition to “Kanonen Song,” they include “Mack the Knife,” “Alabama Song,” “Bilbao Song,” and “Sailor’s Tango.” They all contain a blend of irony, cynicism and world-weariness. Holt translated lyrics for two of the tracks–“Bilbao Song” and “Sailor’s Tango”–and those contain an element of frank sentimentality that seems to be absent in the hard-edged German originals. The Brecht-Weill “Matrosen-Tango,” from the show “Happy End,” is a woman’s observations about the selfishness, arrogance, and machismo of seafaring men; of course, they’re bound for a fall. The Holt “Sailor’s Tango,” is in the voice of the selfish, arrogant sailor. Both versions include an interlude that talks about the sea: in the Brecht-Weill version, the ocean is calm on the surface but ultimately ominous and annihilating. In Holt’s version, the ocean and night are depicted as peaceful and welcoming–but still annihilating.

I started thinking about “Sailor’s Tango” a couple weeks ago and tried to reconstruct all the Holt lyrics. I feel like I missed something, but here’s most of them, anyway.

Hey, there, we’re setting sail for Bremen,
The seamen are loading up with booze because it’s a long way home.
Just bought a box of cigars–Henry Clay–
and I’ve got a dollar saved for one last woman.
So excuse me please but don’t get in my way,
Excuse me please but don’t get in my way.
It’s your last night on shore and you can’t get enough
Of the sight and the sound of the city.
Every bar is crowded with all your friends,
Every moment you hope it never ends.
Then it’s OK, goodbye,
All you feel for those poor slobs is pity.
Because nothing can make you feel more like a man
Than when you’ve got that ocean in the palm of your hand.
Then it’s OK, goodbye.
Don’t get caught praying down on your knees,
Don’t spoil your life being anxious to please,
Because who’s got the need
To beg and to plead
Because if they don’t like it, so what?

Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
And everything is going to be all right,
And when the day is over, then welcome to the night.
Oh, that sea is deep and blue
And when the moon is shining bright,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
So deep and blue.

As luck would have it, we hit a bad storm,
The engines stopped, we hit the rocks, and so it ended.
Hey, there, who ever thought we’d end up by drowning
Just a few miles from Bremen but a long way from home?
Yeah, keep on shouting, there’s nobody near–
There’s no one can hear you.
Oh, we only had a few miles to go,
Oh, we only had a few miles to go.
Now the sea’s coming up,
And the ship’s going down,
Gee don’t those harbor lights look pretty?
I’ll bet every bar is crowded with all our friends,
I wonder what they’ll say when they hear how it ends.
They’ll say OK, goodbye.
And you never can tell when that moment will come
When he says up above, here’s your pity.
Where’s my box of cigars–Henry Clay?
Well, I’ve just got to say …
Yeah, we were bragging, our feet on dry land
But standing in water, then you’ll hold out your hand,
And know that you need
To beg and to plead,
Oh, Christ, I’m scared of the dark.

Oh, the sea is deep and blue,
And everything will be all right,
And when the day is over, what happened to the night?
Oh, that sea is deep and blue,
And when the moon is shining bright,
Oh, the sea is deep and blue
Oh, the sea is deep and blue
So deep and blue.

Wrecks, by Numbers

Apropos of nearly nothing, a brief from the June 22, 1908, edition of The New York Times:

Umpire Assaulted and His Leg Broken

Two nines, one composed of Americans, the other of Italians, engaged in a game of baseball yesterday at Colden and Brunswick Streets, Jersey City. The umpire was Pasquale Carlo, 19 years old, of 173 Fifth Street. He gave a decision that did not suit the American players and several of them attacked him. He was knocked down and his left leg was broken. The police were summoned, but by the time they arrived the ball players had dispersed. Carlo was taken to the City Hospital.

What I was really fishing for when I came across that was information about old train wrecks that have served as fodder for folk ballads; especially ballads with train or engine numbers in the title. “Engine 143,” for instance (a song I remember hearing Joan Baez sing on her second album, not too long after steam locomotives were retired). “The Wreck of the 1256,” which is reminiscent of “Engine 143.” “The Wreck of the No. 9” And especially, “The Wreck of Old 97,” which I heard again while I was looking recently for train songs. (If you’re interested in the history of these songs, there is a definitive history and guide: “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong,” by Norm Cohen.)

You know “Old 97.” The most commonly sung lyrics:

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, “Stevie, you’re way behind time.
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97,
You must put her into Spencer on time.”

He looked ’round and said to his black greasy fireman
“Just shovel in a little more coal,
And when I cross that old White Oak Mountain
You can just watch Old 97 roll.”

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And the lie was a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.

He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.

What I didn’t realize was that “Old 97” is based on an actual 1903 wreck just outside Danville, Virginia. There’s a nice writeup on it, complete with contemporary news accounts, here: Blue Ridge Institute and Museum: The Wreck of the Old 97.” As the Wikipedia article on the song notes, a copyright dispute over the ballad’s authorship wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yes, you should see what a jump she, and/or he, made.

Guest Observation: Antonio Carlos Jobim

Just watched “Synechdoche, New York.” I need to/want to/will watch it again to try to see if I really did miss something–it’s a Charlie Kaufman movie, so less that straightforward. One memorable moment is the final credits, covered by a ballad called “I’m Just a Little Person.” That made me think about “The Waters of March,” by Brazilian songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim, which rolls at the end of Jerry Seinfeld’s movie, “Comedian.” Thinking back, I can’t remember how the end of the movie segued into this number, which combines a bossa nova jauntiness with a pointedly bittersweet flavor. The song has been done many, many times, but the version in the movie was by the late Susannah McCorkle, a Berkeley native and New York cabaret legend. The lyrics, as she sang them:

The Waters of March

A stick a stone
it’s the end of the road,

it’s the rest of the stump
it’s a little alone

it’s a sliver of glass,
it is life, it’s the sun,

it is night ,it is death,
it’s a trap, it’s a gun.

the oak when it blooms,
a fox in the brush,

the knot in the wood,
the song of the thrush.

the wood of the wind,
a cliff, a fall,

a scratch, a lump,
it is nothing at all.

it’s the wind blowing free.
it’s the end of a slope. …

Continue reading “Guest Observation: Antonio Carlos Jobim”

Now It’s Done

Last weekend, NPR aired a segment on the Depression-era ballad “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” I’ve heard the song forever; I think my mom and dad had a recording of The Weavers’ Eric Darling singing it. The melancholy in the tune and lyrics always made an impression; and I always felt that my parents had a direct connection to the song, that it was about a time they had lived through. Our very own economic crash prompted NPR to do its piece: online, the segment is titled “A Depression-Era Anthem for Our Times.”

They gave the subject 10 minutes of air time, and used it well. Rob Kapilow, a composer and student of popular song, deconstructed both words and music. His summary: “Lyrically, it’s the entire history of the Depression in a single phrase: ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ ”

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Go Cubs Go

Walking the dog this morning, we encountered a younger couple pushing a kid in a stroller. The guy had a Cubs T-shirt on. “They’re gonna clinch today, right?” I said. “Oh–you never know. They could still lose it.” Technically, it was true, but I thought it was an overly cautious, self-consciously Cubsy thing to say. As it happened, the Cubs did win this afternoon. They won the National League Central Division title. We’ll see what the next step is. While we let the suspense simmer, we can consider some of the team’s musical history

Growing up in the Chicago area–the far south suburbs, in my case–baseball was a summer fixture on WGN. The station had a heavy schedule of both Cubs and White Sox game. Back then, WGN didn’t have an ownership connection with either team (that would come in 1981, when WGN’s owner, the Tribune Company, bought the Cubs from the Wrigley chewing gum dynasty). The fact you could count on seeing 150 or 160 games a year, including all those weekday afternoon games from lightless Wrigley Field, had something to do with creating a pretty avid fan population that followed both teams. At least I know I and most of my friends did. Eventually, the Sox went to WFLD, on Channel 32. Their games were fun to watch because Harry Caray, who had alienated his bosses in St. Louis and Oakland, took up residence on the Sox airwaves. Many commercial breaks featured Harry and Falstaff beer, and Harry delighted the fans at Comiskey Park by doing his play by play from the barren bleachers in center field, his booth perched about 500 feet from home plate. On hot days, the Sox set up an open-air shower out there for fans to cool off.

When the Sox left WGN (Channel 9 in Chicago), the station responded by adding Cubs games to its broadcast schedule–more than 150 a season. Maybe that was part of developing more of a Cubs-centric fan base. More important was that the long-comatose franchise woke up and started a run of about seven seasons or so in which the team went from a horrifying 10th place finish in 1966 to challenging for firstt in ’67; the following seasons ranged from very good but heart rending (1969) to decent and unembarrassing (1973, when the Cubs and several division foes wallowed around the .500 mark until the final week of the season). Needless to say, the notion that the Cubs could make what was never back then called “the post-season” was a theory we never saw proved.

I did mention music up there. WGN’s telecasts in the late ’60s featured Mitch Miller-like choral numbers that a music salesman in a plaid blazer might have pushed as “peppy.” One had a line that went “Hey, hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it/The Cubs are on their way.” “Hey, hey” was WGN announcer Jack Brickhouse’s signature home-run call; it’s now enshrined on the Wrigley Field foul poles. In due course, that sappy number was supplanted by a mindlessly cheerful ditty that started out, “It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame, for a ballgame today.”

Eventually, I moved away from Chicago, well beyond the reach of WGN’s signal and then, when it became a national “superstation,” into austere Berkeley households with no cable TV. In 1984, the Cubs did what they had never done in my lifetime and played well enough long enough to get into the playoffs. No need to go into how that turned out. By that time, though, Steve Goodman had written the best Cubs song ever: “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” That’s wrong, actually. It’s the best baseball fan song, ever–unique for its combination of humor, poetry, and rueful but affectionate disdain for the home team.

Goodman died a few days before the Cubs clinched their playoff spot in ’84. But by then, he had already composed and recorded the song that the team now uses as an anthem after a home win: “Go Cubs Go.” A year ago, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote a great piece about how the song came to be written. The best part is that some of the team’s execs disliked Goodman because of “The Dying Cub Fan.” I don’t know where any of those guys are now. But today, when the Cubs won, Goodman’s voice was ringing out over Wrigley Field, and it sounded like every fan in the place was singing “Go Cubs Go.”

(Lyrics after the jump.)

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Continue reading “Go Cubs Go”

Troubadour Moment

I rode up to the Peet’s at Vine and Walnut to buy a pound of coffee early this evening. I got a free cup of coffee and sat at an outside table. A guy with an acoustic guitar, and an open guitar case to receive the offerings of passers-by, had taken up a position on the corner. He played halfway decently. I heard a couple of lines from a song he was singing in sort of a scratchy bass monotone and recognized it as “When You Awake,” an old favorite that The Band recorded in 1969 on a brown-covered album called “The Band.” It’s sort of a winsome remembrance of childhood. Rick Danko sang it in a pure, lonesome tenor that I could instantly hear when I realized what the streetcorner troubadour was playing. I got up, walked over to where he was standing, and dropped a bill into the guitar case. “I love that song,” I said.

Then I went and sat down. He started another song. “Time to Kill.” I got ready to leave, and walked over to him again. “You’re partial to The Band,” I said. “Yeah. Especially that brown album,” he replied. Then he said, “How about this one,” and started playing the song “Stage Fright.” I couldn’t help myself. Having sung that song thousands of times along with the record, I joined in. A couple strolled up the street, and I wondered how much I might resemble one of corner denizens hustling change (I’m convinced that in my well-worn shorts and flannel shirts I look more and more like a panhandler as I get older). Never mind. I kept singing. He took a short cut past my favorite part of the song–“Now when he says that he’s afraid, better take him at his word,/For the price this poor boy has paid, he gets to sing just like a bird”–because he said it was too high for him to sing. We got to the end. I thanked him, and he thanked me. As I walked away, he started into another favorite, a gloomy romantic number called “All La Glory.” I was tempted to try a duet on that, too, but went on my way.

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