Standing By Peaceful Waters: John Prine & the Story of “Lake Marie”

One of my favorite songs by John Prine is “Lake Marie,” which first appeared on Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings (1995). The song, which is also a favorite of Prine’s, tells a love story intertwined with history, legend, murder, and heartbreak. One may interpret the song in a number of ways, but John Prine based some of the images on real people and places.

“Lake Marie” The Song

The tale of the peaceful waters of “Lake Marie” can be divided into three segments. First, the song begins with a story about Native Americans along the Illinois-Wisconsin border discovering two white babies. Although it is unclear how the Native Americans learn the names of the two babies, they name their Twin Lakes after the two little girls.  The smaller and less fair lake is named “Lake Marie” after the less fair baby.

In the second part of the song, the singer tells about falling in love with a woman at Lake Marie. Many years later, the two go to Canada to try to save their crumbling marriage.

The third part of the song tells of a crime scene, where police find two naked bodies, apparently by Lake Marie. The singer then brings this third part of the story back to his lost love: “All the love we shared between her and me was slammed / Slammed up against the banks of Old Lake Marie.”

Below, Prine performs “Lake Marie” in 1996.

What Inspired John Prine to Write “Lake Marie”?

There are in fact two lakes like in the song, Lake Marie and Lake Elizabeth. A John Prine fansite, the John Prine Shrine, explains how Prine came to write the song. While Prine was in Wisconsin for a show, a crew member told Prine a tale about the local Lake Marie. As the crew member told a mysterious tale about the lake, Prine decided he wanted to visit the lake. So he and the crew member drove twenty-five minutes to see the lake.

After seeing the lake, Prine and his brother visited a library to read stories about the lake. There, Prine discovered that Lake Marie and its sister lake, Lake Elizabeth, were named after two babies discovered by a Native American tribe.

From there, Prine began writing the song that began with the baby story. The Prine Shrine explains:

But after that [first verse], John went into some fictional story-telling about a marriage on the rocks, and a shadowy double murder that took place in the proximity of Lake Marie. “When I was done, it was exactly what I wanted. I guess the point of the song is that if the Indians hadn’t named the lakes after a couple of white girls, they would still be peaceful waters.” (Puckett 15)

What About the Dead Bodies?

And then there is the crime scene in the story.  In an interview in No Depression, Prine explained that the dead bodies in the third part of the song were inspired in part by Chicago news footage he saw as a kid about a series of murders.

Regarding the bodies in the song, though, on various discussion sites, listeners debate the relationship between the story of the narrator and the double-murder at the end. Is the narrator one of the victims of the crime along with his lover (or former lover), or is the narrator the perpetrator of a murder-suicide? Or, is the narrator just someone watching about the murder on TV?

I lean toward the latter interpretation.  It seems that the narrator is seeing the story on television.  That explains why he is seeing it in black and white: “You know what blood looks like in a black and white video? / Shadows!”

The TV interpretation is consistent with Prine’s statements about the song. The crime scene at the lake seems to reflect on how the land had changed since the white people came and took the land from the Native Americans.

This TV interpretation also fits with another quote from Prine.  He reportedly said that the reference to the TV coverage of the murders was not a particular murder.  He knew it seemed like a sharp left turn in the song, “but when I got done with it, I kind of felt like it’s what the song needed right then.”

A Great Song

The love story and its struggles and its heartbreak, though, are what tie the song together and make it a classic, not to mention Prine’s wonderful emphasis on certain words and syllables as he talks through the lyrics.  It is a brilliant song.  Heck, it is Bob Dylan’s favorite John Prine song, which says a lot.

As Prine explained generally about his songs in a 1970 article by movie critic Roger Ebert about the then-young singer, “In my songs, I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.”

So enough with the analysis, and you should just enjoy the feeling here in a more recent version of “Lake Marie” on Sessions at West 54th, in a John Prine performance that one commenter called, “Arguably, the best 10 mins of music on You Tube.”

Live versions of “Lake Marie” appear on Prine’s Live On Tour (1997), the various artist collection Austin City Limits Music Festival: 2006 (2006), and the DVD John Prine Live from Sessions at West 54th (2001).

And that’s the story behind the song.

What do you think “Lake Marie” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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