Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Wars, music (history)

I think this will be an article that has very little to do with mental health, although I may come back later with a connected lesson....

Songwriter John Prine is intubated in critical condition with COVID-19 in a Nashville hospital. His wife has been telling the people who love him to pray and sing his songs. My wife and I are telling Alexa to do that (at least the singing part), more or less continuously.

There’s a lyric in the song, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” that always amazes me, every time I hear it: “He voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the war.”

I doubt that Prine wrote that line while pondering American history as any academic exercise. He was simply remembering a real person, his own grandfather. How many people appreciate the historical salience of that little meme? Probably not very many. But I hope my children do, and I hope they will tell their children....

The war that Lincoln won was of course the Civil War, aka “The War Between the States” as my grandparents insisted should be its proper name. When I was a child in the 1950’s, there were plenty of people alive who had lived through World War II, and yet still thought of the war first of all as that one which ended not in 1945, but in 1865. That generation is all gone now, and the generation which came after it (called the greatest, those who won World War II) almost is.

The Civil War changed the United States of America, fundamentally and completely. Then the world wars of the 20th century proceeded to change human civilization every bit as much. The idea that one individual in one lifetime could consider Abraham Lincoln’s victory as reason to vote for Dwight Eisenhower may, just on its surface, come from the fact that they were both Republicans. But the John Prine lyric is much more interesting than that. It tells of how generations connect to each other and continue from age to age, parents, children, grandchildren.

Obviously, Eisenhower won the war, too, and it was a much bigger war. Some historians might say it took even more courage, genius, and certainly more human cooperation, than Lincoln’s war. Times change quickly, but the differences between Lincoln’s and Eisenhower’s wars, over a period of 80 years, are probably much less than the differences over the 75 years between 1945 and 2020.

“Grandpa Was a Carpenter” frames a period that is truly gone, although most of us in middle age still remember it as part of our own lives or those of our families. To our children it’s just history, though they might remember it as part of our lives after we’re gone.

People don’t change as much as the times they live in. I think Abraham Lincoln would have understood and used the atomic bomb, even if cyber war would have been a severe stretch for both him and Eisenhower, as perhaps it is for me.

I hope John Prine survives the pandemic.


  1. Prine passed away 4-7 or some such. Back in about 77 he creeped me out a little. Not sure which song. I was actually something of a square. But I am crazy about Tom Waits. I should listen to some Prine. Damn if his postmortem pics don't look like Edgar G. Robinson.

  2. I saw Prine from the diametrical opposite of you and your wife. The line at Manpower, Inc. where young poor college students and the unwashed poor lined up for day labor.

  3. Yes, I lined up with the toothless sociopaths fresh out of prison seeking day labor. Once I got established with a telephone, they called me with plum labor gigs. I was an excellent worker and especially liked unloading trucks (moving and produce).