SONG OF THE WEEK – ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY

I remember back in 1970, I was working as a mailman in the Denver area, saving up the money I would need to go to law school.  The job was sort of stressful in the early morning when I had to get all the mail “up” and organized so I could take it out on the route.  Once I left the post office, though, it was mostly pleasant.  I was outside, working on my own with no supervision.  I could have lunch in the park, or wherever I liked; and the days when I finished early, I could read or write a song or poem until it was time to get back to the post office.  In September, 1971, I quit that job and went back to school.

At the same time, there was a mailman in the Chicago area writing songs while he was out on his route.  His name was John Prine.  He had delivered mail for a few years before he was drafted and went back to that job after he left the Army.

John Prine was then, and is today, a better songwriter than me; plus, he could sing and play the guitar.  He began performing at open mic nights in Chicago folk clubs, with other up and coming musicians like Steve Goodman.  He and Steve were recommended to Kris Kristofferson, who heard them perform and remarked that the songs John wrote were so good “we’ll have to break his thumbs.”  Instead, Kristofferson took Prine and Goodman to New York and helped them obtain recording contracts.

John Prine’s first album, entitled John Prine, was released by Atlantic Records in 1971 – and he also quit his job at the post office.  That debut album contained some of the really good songs he had written as a mailman – songs like “Illegal Smile,” “Sam Stone,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” “Donald and Lydia,” “Hello In There” and our Song of the Week, “Angel From Montgomery.”

“Angel From Montgomery” is an amazing song in so many ways.  It begins, “I am an old woman named after my mother.”  When it came out, John was a 25-year old man.  Yet, the song rang true.  It brought the listener into the thoughts and dreams of a middle aged woman who feels she has grown old and life has passed her by.  In an interview, Prine said of this song:  “I didn’t realize all this at the time, but if you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented. You let the character write the song. You just dictate from then on. You stick to it, and whatever the character is saying, you have to figure out how to keep that in the song. You know? That’s how I do it. I almost go into a trance.”

“Angel From Montgomery” has been recorded by many other artists, and the most famous version is that by Bonnie Raitt on her 1974 album, Streetlights.  The YouTube video that is embedded below is a live recording of Raitt doing the song.

One image in the song that stays with a listener is the line, “There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ’em buzzin’.”  Well, it has been unseasonably warm here in Colorado this Fall – at least until the snow that came a couple of days ago.  All week, there has been a fly in our kitchen.  I couldn’t get it to leave, so I naturally thought of this song.

I might mention in passing that my wife, Cathy, retired from her position as a nurse and lactation consultant this week; but I would probably be in trouble if I thought, even for a minute, that this choice for Song of the Week was influenced by that fact.

So, here’s Bonnie ………

Angel From Montgomery
By John Prine

I am an old woman, named after my mother
My old man is another child that’s grown old
If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire
This old house would have burnt down a long time ago

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
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

When I was a young girl, well, I had me a cowboy
He weren’t much to look at, just free rambling man
But that was a long time and no matter how I try
The years just flow by like a broken down dam.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
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

There’s flies in the kitchen I can hear ’em there buzzing
And I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
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

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., ZENA MUSIC

Read more: Bonnie Raitt – Angel From Montgomery Lyrics | MetroLyrics

3 thoughts on “SONG OF THE WEEK – ANGEL FROM MONTGOMERY

  1. What is it about this song that makes it so haunting and memorable? It’s one of my all-time favorites. No matter where I am or what I’m doing when it comes around, I stop what I’m doing and just live inside it for a little while. I’ve been wondering about that since you posted it here.

    It’s a baseline song in my life. When I first heard it, it expressed perfectly my own feelings about how vital it is to get out into life and live it fully, and what the price is for not doing that. Part of the heart of this song is how perfectly it expresses that being broken by events in life, and staying that way, doesn’t diminish the spiritual hunger every human being has for “something to hold on to” and believe in.

    Being broken and defeated is a price many human beings pay at some time or the other. Surviving, and going on, seeking that “one thing to hold on to,” and finding it, does not erase the memories of how painful it can be, and this song expresses that emptiness and depth of pain perfectly.

    And then it’s also a cautionary tale about what happens when we stop growing rather than going on and continuing to live in the thunder and lightning of our dreams and desires and push ahead seeking them until we find them.

    One of the great songs of humanity, expressing an eternal aspect of human pathos in a 20th century sensibility… Thanks, Louis – this is one of the great ones.

    PS: Congratulations and best wishes to Cathy from both of us. The transition from work to retirement is really a transition from work to another sort of work. Many folks find fulfillment in their occupations – and I’m certain she found much in her commitment to service and care to and for newborns and their families. Let her know that the fulfillment she will experience in the times ahead of her now will be even greater, and to her own benefit as well as to her family and humanity – and life itself. Tell her to write us back in a year or two and let us know if she agrees. We’re happy for both of you. Take care, be well, and be happy – together!

    • Bob, I think you have pointed to the essence of this song, and of a whole lot of other things, by recognizing that the central character is a kind of Everywoman seeking one thing to hold on to while negotiating a lifetime of dreams and desires, disappointments and frustrations. Behind it all there is a Truth that something inside all of us wants to grasp. I am reminded of the thoughts expressed by the Spanish writer and philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno:

      “[M]y religion is to look for truth in life and life in truth, even knowing that I may never find them while I am alive. My religion is to struggle constantly and tirelessly with mystery…”

      • And, every once in awhile, to spread my arms wide and fall over backwards into the middle of it, and float there weightlessly, and rest in the truth and life of that eternal mystery…

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