Songs w/ Substance #8 – John Prine – “Lake Marie”


Every place has a history. Every river, hill, valley, and tree has bared witness to an endless array of mankind’s collective moments.  Thanks to the diversity of the human experience, that history rarely has a coherent narrative—it is a random collection of happenings that may share nothing in common other than a pair of geographic coordinates that mark the place in which those happenings unfolded.  Nevertheless, part of the same narrative those happenings remain, and it’s up to us to decide what that narrative means.

No song in the history of music better illustrates this phenomenon than John Prine’s “Lake Marie”. The lyrics recount a history—part-actual and part-fictional—that describe a few of the events observed by the lake’s “peaceful waters”.  These events include a tale of two abandoned babies that gave the real-life Wisconsin lake its name, a fictionalized but highly-believable story of a struggling marriage seeking to find salvation in the fond memories formed on the lake’s shorelines, and a pair of mutilated, murdered bodies discovered in the forest that surrounds the water.

The disconnectedness of these events is challenged at the end of the third verse, when the song’s narrator, who is learning about the area’s latest double-homicide through the “TV news”, connects those murders back to the marriage that he could not save.  He finds in those murders an unmistakable symbolism of his own lost love that had been “slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie.”  To the narrator, Lake Marie is a place of unfulfilled promise—a love set to the soundtrack of “Louie, Louie” that could not endure the test of time…A serene and secluded body of water that could not hide from nor escape the world’s ugliness.

John Prine once said that, in his songwriting, he likes to “try to look through someone else’s eyes,” and give his audience “a feeling more than a message.”  “Lake Marie” is reflective of that effort.  It’s a song about a certain place with a certain story, but it’s also a song about all of the places that us humans name, occupy, and experience.  It’s a song about the public history for which a place is known, but it’s also about the more intimate connections that form between that place and certain individuals.  It’s a song about the different meanings that we attach to a place depending on that place’s significance in our own stories—both for better and for worse.

We all have our own Lake Marie’s.  They’re the towns where we grew up and the parks and playgrounds where we made our first childhood memories.  They’re the buildings of education and employment that shaped and molded us into the people that we are today.  They’re the various scenes and settings that have played host to our lives’ greatest triumphs and tragedies, and the personal relationships that we have formed with those places as they become a part of our history and we become a part of theirs.  That’s why in John Prine’s song, even if we don’t know Lake Marie personally, we all know how Lake Marie feels.  Aah baby, we gotta go now.

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Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below


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