Songwriters write what they know. They write about things that have happened to them. Their reflections on life and love. Their questions and opinions about the world around them. Songs are perfect when a songwriter is able to set deep, honest emotions to music, and tell a story that is meaningful and resonant, and perhaps even biographical in some way.
Except, when they don’t. The really excellent songwriters are able to imagine a world beyond what they know and where they have experience. The excellent songwriters let their imagination and story telling take them to places where, sometimes, they have absolutely no right to be.
John Prine was part of the 1960’s Chicago folk music scene, was discovered by Kris Kristofferson and released his debut album in 1971, which featured a lovingly wistful tale of a middle aged woman standing in her kitchen. Prine’s gruff, gravely voice tells the story.
“I am an old woman, named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old.
If dreams were lightning, thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago.“
This is a great song, not because of the novelty of a young man singing in the voice of an “old woman.” This is a great song because the song tells truths that cut deep. It is easy to imagine a woman standing at the sink in her kitchen, wiping the hair from her eyes, wondering how she got to where she is now. Wondering how her dreams might still save her. She wants so much.
“Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing, that I can hold on to.
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.”
She dreamed of a different future for herself. She was in love with a young cowboy. They were both kids, now they were older, and she is not sure what happened to the years in between.
“When I was a young girl, I had me a cowboy.
He weren’t much to look at, just a free ramblin’ man.
But that was a long time, and now matter how I try,
The years just flow by, like a broken down dam.”
Now matter how hard she tries, the years fly by. Her house is quiet because she is there by herself. But she knows, when her cowboy gets home from work at the end of the day, the house will still be quiet. Her dreams and desire will not fill the silence. The house will still be standing.
“There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear them they’re buzzing,
and I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How in the hell can a person, go to work in the morning,
and come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?”
In just a few stanzas, 25 year old John Prine gives us a portrait of an old woman who is reflective and remorseful. She wants more from herself, and she wants more from her cowboy. She wants what anybody would want from their partner at the end of the day.
Prine wrote the song in the voice of an old woman, but it could have just as easily been a young man, a young woman or an old man. When two people see each other at the end of a long day and there is only silence, the silence can be deafening. Doesn’t take much imagination to know that.
“Angel from Montgomery”
Written and Performed by John Prine