John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Lake Marie”

John Prine’s song finds something personal and yet universal in story set at a Wisconsin lake.

By - Nov 20th, 2014 01:09 pm
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John Prine. Photo from facebook.

John Prine. Photo from facebook.

My buddy Dave Jacques landed a plum gig 15 years ago playing bass for John Prine. Since then he’s been happier than a mid-term Republican. He works for a reasonable guy who is well liked and funny. Their tour schedule is sane — spring and fall, usually weekends. Fly in and fly out, your gear waits at the venue. Best of all, he’s playing John Prine songs with the man himself.

In a music world that often seems to be a game of Six Degrees of Separation from Bob Dylan, Prine is on him like a shadow. Probably more accurate to call it a happier and goofier shadow. There’s never been any effort to disguise the trace of Early Bob in his voice and delivery, but over the years, that has mattered less as he followed his own muse to places others overlook.

You might say this part of the world falls into that category. Nobody writes much about Milwaukee, or the Midwest in general, not since Jerry Lee Lewis sang What Made Milwaukee Famous, anyway. So it was a great pleasure when Prine delivered a song about a spot I was intimately acquainted with called Lake Marie.

Years ago I cut grass with my brother Jim Sieger, who had his own landscape business. Some of his accounts were in Twin Lakes, just east of Lake Geneva and on the Illinois border, and I remember much about the area. There was the time I was mowing in a culvert on a hot, humid day. I looked up to see a Rolls Royce cruise by with Illinois plates that spelled out GREED. We cut grass at a few large estates and banks out there and always ended our day dropping off clippings at the home of a retired Chicago postal worker named Sam. He plied us with homemade wine and the rest of the day was usually spent in blurry fatigue.

That was long ago, but for some reason, the memories are still vivid and I have a real fondness for that area. So when this song appeared on the album Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings, the second one produced by a Milwaukee native (and long a member of Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers), the late Howie Epstein, I flipped. Had it been just an average song I wouldn’t have cared so much. But this was exceptional.

It captures a restless, wandering mind, one with a rare ability to make great leaps in time and space without breaking the narrative thread. One minute he’s a historian and we learn of the Native Americans who once lived in that area. He starts with a lovely tale about two lost white girls who lent their names, Marie and Elizabeth, to the twin lakes. That would be a whole song for someone else, but Prine abandons it and in the second verse, we are looking over his shoulder, reading his personal memoir. It’s the same rustic setting and his marriage is just starting out. This being Wisconsin, the romance is balanced with sausages on the grill.

But time jumps forward again and the marriage is in trouble. The couple heads to Canada to try to salvage it and “perhaps catch a few fish.” It’s starting to feel like a Wes Anderson movie. Who else can balance the pathos with a little tossed off line like that? But there’s more.

In the final verse a horrible crime has been committed. Two naked bodies, their faces disfigured, lay in the forest preserve. The police and the cameras are there. There’s the unforgettable image of what blood looks like on a black and white TV. We are now in a scary movie with the kind of disturbing visuals that can cause you to lose sleep.

It all winds up on the rocks. His marriage over — so why not  a rousing chorus that celebrates who knows what? You be the judge.

Here he is performing it live. That’s Dave on the left and the great guitarist Jason Wilber on the other side.

Feel free to scan the lyrics while you listen:

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh

Many years ago along the Illinois-Wisconsin Border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
White babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
And living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes
They named the larger and more beautiful Lake, Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

Many years later I found myself talking to this girl
Who was standing there with her back turned to Lake Marie
The wind was blowing especially through her hair
There was four italian sausages cooking on the outdoor grill
And Man, they was ssssssssizzlin’
Many years later we found ourselves in Canada
Trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish
Whatever seemed easier
That night she fell asleep in my arms
Humming the tune to “Louie Louie’
Aah baby, We gotta go now.

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking the narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay, naked bodies
Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sharp object
Saw it on the news On the TV news in a black and white video
You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows, Shadows that’s exactly what it looks like
All the love we shared between her and me was slammed
Slammed up against the banks of Old Lake Marie, Marie

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh
Whoa Wah Oh Wha Oh
Standing by peaceful waters
Peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Peaceful waters
Aah baby, we gotta go now


Cinematic starts to describe the style here, but still falls short. Using the same language and same 12 notes as everybody else in the songwriting game, Prine has created a lopsided and fresh masterpiece. It stretches from personal to universal and back again and can truly be called epic.

Here’s the kicker. He does this trick over and over again in his songs. I just chose this one because of the personal connection. No wonder Dylan loves him — he tries something no one has attempted and gets it on his first try. And he never even breaks a sweat.

0 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Lake Marie””

  1. Anonymous says:

    John Sieger, I agree, John Prine is a true poet (one who doesn’t plot out his songs with a theme, a beginning and middle and end, and horribly boring predictability, but, like life, brings together all sorts of experiences in a marriage of intelligence and emotion). (Did John Prine get over that throat cancer he had years ago, successfully? You might know since your buddy plays with him.)

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