The Anti-War Meaning Behind “The Great Compromise” by John Prine

Every John Prine song showcased his indelible songwriting chops. The Americana icon had his own way of navigating a sentence that made his poetry some of the most distinctive in music history.

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He knew how to shoot straight, writing in the simplest of terms while still earning a massive emotional payoff. However, at times, he would delve into the metaphorical side of things. One of his best offerings in that vein is “The Great Compromise.”

There is more to this song than meets the eye. Hidden underneath the surface of this ode to a complicated lover is something even more consequential.

[RELATED: 5 Songs John Prine Covered But Didn’t Write]

Behind the Meaning

Prine penned many protest songs during the Vietnam era. The draft took Prine away from his mail route as part of the U.S. Postal Service and dropped him in Germany. Though he never joined the frontlines during the war, he knew the plight of a soldier. Moreover, he saw many of his contemporaries suffer unfavorable fates. Naturally, the war and the American government became a routine talking point in his music.

He has more poignant songs in his category than this one–i.e. “Sam Stone.” “The Great Compromise” has an element of humor to it that only Prine could muster. Nevertheless, there is something deeply affecting about the way Prine went about relaying this story. It turns lofty ideas into bite-size morsels that are quickly digested and understood.

Prine conflates America with a girlfriend that you can’t live with or without in this song. The love is still there, but it’s almost not enough to keep the relationship going.

She draws many in with her beauty only to bait and switch once she’s got them under lock, he explains. She spends all his money on things that seem far away from his interests. It’s a cleverly-coded slight towards the powers that be. Saying something along the lines of “I hate the government using my taxes for things I don’t care about” isn’t quite as affecting.

I knew a girl who was almost a lady
She had a way with all the men in her life
Every inch of her blossomed in beauty
She was born on the fourth of July

Well, she lived in an aluminum house trailer
And she worked in a juke box saloon
And she spent all the money that I gave her
Just to see the old man in the moon

The chorus is where the metaphor gets a little less shrouded. I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory / And awake in the dawn’s early light / But much to my surprise / When I opened my eyes / I was a victim of the great compromise, he sings.

In the second verse, he makes nods to the Vietnam War. Instead of painting a picture of jungles and machine guns, he takes the listener to a drive-in movie. He turns around for one second and his girl has hopped into a foreign car and driven away. In the bridge, he delivered a clear picture of how he felt about the war. Many times I’d fought to protect her / But this time she was goin’ too far, the line reads.

Prine’s approach to this song perfectly captures the bittersweet relationship many Americans had with the country in the ’60s and ’70s. The love isn’t entirely gone, but there is irreparable damage. Prine says he can’t continue to back, in his eyes, a misplaced conflict.

I’d druther have names thrown at me / Than to fight for a thing that ain’t right, he sings, resolved in his decision.

Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Across the Great Divide

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