STORY OF THE SONG #7: ‘ANGEL OF MONTGOMERY’
“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…”
John Prine wrote it, but Bonnie Raitt has lived it for nearly fifty years. ‘Angel Of Montgomery’ was first released by the late, great John Prine on his self-titled debut album back in 1971, but it was Raitt’s 1974 recording, taken from her hit record ‘Streetlights’, that first took the tune sailing into the mainstream. “It probably means more to my fans than any other song,” Raitt has said. “It will historically be considered one of the most important tunes I’ve ever recorded. The song just has all the different shadings of love, regret and longing… it’s a perfect expression from a genius.”
Montgomery is the capital state of Alabama and it’s the place songwriter Prine said he had in mind when writing the song: “It’s a song about a middle-aged woman who feels older than she is,” he stated. “I had a really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands and she wants to get out of her house, her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from it all.” And Montgomery? “That’s likely due to Hank Williams,” Prine revealed a long time ago (Williams was born in Montgomery). Its poignant images and real-life poetry mark the song out as a stone-cold Prine classic and its conversational folk stylings reveal the subject of the song’s life, as well as her memories, dreams and desires.
A FOLK SONG
Prine has said that all the songs on his debut album were written as he was walking on the job when he was a mailman. You can hear the rhythm of the street throughout ‘Angel Of Montgomery’, especially in lines such as “And there’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear all their buzzin’” and “How the hell can a person, Go to work in the morning, Come home in the evening, And have nothing to say?”. These are lyrics that perhaps say more about main street American life than many so-called great American novels, as Prine’s economy and precision with words draws straight lines from the distance between what the country can be and how it really is. But a song such as ‘Angel Of Montgomery’, essentially a folk song, needs a voice of innocence and experience to bring it into three dimensional life, off the page. That’s where Raitt came in and found her truth held hostage in the words and melody. “I was always drawn to the blues,” Bonnie has said. “That’s why I’m glad I’m the musical equivalent of a character actress, because blues singers can just keep singing…”
GREAT AMERICANA SONGBOOK
‘Angel Of Montgomery’ entered The Great Americana Songbook the second Bonnie released her version nearly fifty years ago and has been covered by artists such as Brandi Carlile, Alison Krauss, Kacey Musgrave, Carly Simon, Joan Osborne, Susan Tedeschi, Watermelon Slim, John Denver and First Aid Kit. The tune defines the spirit of ‘three chords and the truth’ and has a sing-along chorus to take centre stage of any performance. A life lived, or maybe not, in three verses, the lyrics are delivered in the first person and that immediacy is what captures hearts and minds straight away. The life of the narrator seems to flash by in those big chords and weeping pedal steel lines, while the melody tugs at your heartstrings without straying into sentimentality. The song’s power means it can survive any treatment, though when delivered live and in-person with just an acoustic guitar or two, you can really feel the commonality of the piece wrap its arms around an audience.
DID YOU KNOW?
The song’s author John Prine was once described as ‘the new Bob Dylan’. It was 1971 and Prine was lumped in with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Loudon Wainwright III as ‘new Dylan’s’ at a time when the old one was just thirty! The tag was a heavy one to carry, but became eerily prophetic early in Prine’s career when he met the man himself in the company of Kris Kristofferson. “We got introduced and pretty soon the guitars came out. I got to singing one of my songs – my first album was three weeks away from being released – and all of a sudden Dylan starts singing along,” Prine has said. “I was sitting there thinking ‘I know all your songs, but how do you know mine’!” So began a mutual appreciation society that lasted throughout Prine’s life. We’ll leave the last word to Bob: “John Prine’s songs are Midwestern mind-trips to the nth degree.”
Read Story of the Song #6: ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’ here.