In Spite of Ourselves

I don’t have big story about how John Prine shaped my worldview or how his keen understanding of the human condition has imbued my own mortal struggle with meaning. It seems as if many do, as if his recent death is for many as significant as the death of author David Foster Wallace was for me. I think I understand the feeling, though my own connection to Prine was a thin one.

I liked his music. I remember first hearing his song “We’re Not the Jet Set” about 20 years ago. At the time, I listened to an up-and-coming local Bluegrass station a lot on my morning commute, and I really liked this clever duet. The DJ said John Prine was the male half of the pair (Iris DeMent sang with him), and that’s when I learned his name. I’ve heard him here and there over the years, and in the last year or so, I’ve listened to his music a fair bit. My son and I had listened to a lot of Prine’s music over the last couple of months in particular. So he was in my frequent rotation already when the news of his having caught COVID-19 broke.

Musical talent doesn’t come very naturally to me. I can pick out melodies with a little trial and error, but my efforts to learn the guitar or the ukulele have fizzled out in recent years. I do occasionally pick up one of these instruments, though. Last weekend, having listened to Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” a lot recently, I thought it’d be fun to try to learn it to the best of my little ability on the ukulele. It’s got just three chords — C, F, and G — that are all easy to play on the uke. I was able to pick it up fairly easily, though strumming one rhythm while singing another proved difficult.

I don’t remember what provoked it, but I wound up thinking it’d be fun to amp up the song’s comedic potential by writing some alternate lyrics in which the members of the duet were a well-known odd couple. My mind turned to Frodo Baggins and Gollum, and I spent a few minutes Saturday morning plunking away on the uke and tinkering with some new lyrics. Prine died the Tuesday after.

I’m under no illusions that it’s a fitting homage to Prine, and I’ve got no real business trying to create an homage, but the timing of his death and of my working on this happened to coincide. So I give you my variation of John Prine and Iris DeMent’s “In Spite of Ourselves.” Verses should be sung in the voices of Frodo and Gollum, alternating, with the refrain sung as a duet. I’ve kept some of the original phrasing, and where a line feels like too much to cram into the standard rhythm, that’s on purpose too, though I won’t insist that it’s necessarily good. The closing line is to be spoken earnestly, with a good-natured shake of the head, in the voice of Gollum.

In Spite of Ourselves

He don’t like to eat stewed bunny.
He thinks cheatin at riddles ain’t funny.
He’d take jewelry over money.
He goes to ground when the weather’s sunny.
He’s my stalker, I’m his precious,
He’s never gonna let me go.

He ain’t had taters since he left the fellas.
He cannot see that Sam is jealous.
He ain’t too sharp but he gets things done.
Eats his lembas like it’s oxygen.
Nasty hobbitses, has my precious,
I’m never gonna let ’em go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

He thinks my friend Sam’s too needy.
Seeing my necklace makes him greedy.
He likes to go off and argue with himselveses.
Swears like a sailor when spotted by elveses.
He takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,
He’s never gonna let me go.

Shelob will be glad to eat him,
Filthy hobbit never thought that I would cheat him.
Just because I called him master,
He thought he’d avoid disaster.
It was fictitious, now here’s my precious,
I’m never gonna let it go.

In spite of ourselves, we’ll end up burnin’ up in Mordor.
Against all odds, precious we’re the big door-prize.
We’re gonna spite the fingers right off of our handses.
There won’t be nothing’ but big ol’ rings dancin’ in our eyes.

In spite of ourselves.

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