John Prine on his song “Lake Marie”

By MARK GUARINO | Daily Herald Music Critic

Nov 19, 1999

What makes a John Prine song so special is what makes every folk singer special: the words.

But with Prine, the words are never too obvious. The innuendo, wordplay, sly slang and workingman plainspeak always tell it like it is – and as it should sound, too.

When Prine played the Guinness Fleadh festival this summer, he was greeted by fans who sang every word along with him. The song he ended his show with was “Lake Marie,” which can be found on his last collection of all original songs, “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings” (Oh Boy), from 1995.

There’s an odd sort of power in that song, mainly because he combines several disjointed images (a grisly murder, a failing marriage, Native American lore, grilling Italian sausages) and somehow makes them seem natural together. It’s also an example of how Prine’s Chicago past always somehow filters into his songs, whether he knows it or not when he’s writing.

The fact that “Lake Marie’s” a real place and is inspired by real events, makes it strangely moving.

The following is Prine’s own explanation of how that song came about. It’s not a quick answer. For Prine, being a songwriter is a lot like being a detective: it’s a slow, mysterious process that requires patience, curiosity, an eye for what sounds natural, and, of course like any good Chicagoan, a love of Italian sausage.

“It was just an idea I had. I was carrying it around with me. I had this idea for a song that was going to have half talking, half singing in it. It was going to have a strong chorus to it and it was going to start out with something that had a historical nature to it. I had nothing else. I just had an idea for a song like that. I just waited for something to come along that I thought I could fit into that.

“I was soundcheckin’ for a song at the Woodstock Opera House. The monitor guy mentioned something to another guy about Lake Marie. And I said ‘Lake Marie, is that around here?’ And he said ‘yeah, about 20 minutes down the road.’ I said ‘I haven’t been there in years.’ And he gave me directions and me and my brother Billy, we drove over there, it was like in February. There was nothing open hardly at all. Because the town of Twin Lakes was mostly open for the summertime. I saw a little library, a one-room one, I was looking at the bulletin board and I asked the librarian ‘Has anybody ever written anything about the history of this area.?’ And she said ‘No, but there’s a guy working on it; he’s been working several years on it.’ And she said she had a business card for him.

“So I called him and somehow – I felt like a detective at this point – and he sends me various articles. And one of them was talking about the two sisters that the lakes were named after, Elizabeth and Mary. And the little story about the Indians that were around the area when they found the girl.

“And I said ‘That’s that, that’s the song right there.’ And the rest of it, the second verse about meeting a girl and the Italian sausages cooking, that was kind of autobiographical, me and my high school sweetheart, we used to go to Crystal Lake and Lake Marie, the chain of lakes, you know? So did everybody else, we used to go there on weekends and have picnics. Just different lakes. Everybody bring their best-lookin’ car. You go there, cook up Italian sausage and have a game of baseball.

“And the third verse was all the mayhem and people getting killed. As far as I can figure where that came from is maybe all the unsolved murders that were goin’ on in the suburbs in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Like, ‘Who would do such a thing like that?’ The weird murders, and they were unsolved and they were all in the suburbs. We grew up thinking the bad place was bein’ downtown and here, all the sudden, like there’s real screwballs out in the suburbs. Like it was ‘Blue Velvet,’ you know? That’s where third verse came from. I just put it all together and for me, it worked, and I just went ahead and cut it.”


“Lake Marie” by John Prine

We were standing

Standing by peaceful waters

Standing by peaceful waters

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


We were standing

Standing by peaceful waters

Standing by peaceful waters

Whoa wah oh wha oh


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 they were sizzlin’

Many years later we found ourselves in Canada

Trying to save our marriage

And perhaps catch a few fish

Whatever came first

That night she fell asleep in my arms

Humming the tune to “Louie Louie”

Aah baby, we gotta go now


We were standing

Standing by peaceful waters

Standing by peaceful waters

Whoa wah oh wha oh


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

The TV news

In a black and white video

Do you know what blood looks like in a black and white video?

Shadows, shadows!

That’s what it looks like

All the love we shared between her and me was slammed

Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie



We were standing

Standing by peaceful waters

Standing by peaceful waters

Whoa wah oh wha oh

Peaceful waters

Standing by peaceful waters

Aah baby, we gotta go now

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