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Song Meanings: Unwed Fathers by John Prine

A heartfelt song written by one of the greatest songwriters of our time. It sometimes happens when a certain sequence of words paired with the right melody moves me to the point where fully formed, and very wet tears stream down my face.

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It sometimes happens when a certain sequence of words paired with the right melody moves me to the point where fully formed, and very wet tears stream down my face. This happened to me recently while I was driving to work listening to John Prine’s Unwed Fathers. Despite the song’s title, I believe the song is not about unwed fathers, but is the story of a young girl and soon-to-be, unwed mother. She is sitting and waiting at an Appalachian Greyhound station for the bus to arrive.

In an Appalachian, Greyhound station

She sits there waiting, in a family way

In these two lines, there are the Appalachian mountains, cascading in the distance. There is a young girl sitting and waiting for the Greyhound bus to arrive. She is pregnant and scared. I’m familiar with the phrase ‘in a family way’ from Steinbeck, and while I’m not drawing comparisons between the author and songwriter, both seem to me early American, and essential.

From the next verse, we learn that she is leaving her family, that she loves her mother and plans to write to them someday. With certain songwriters, it can sometimes be difficult to understand the meaning of their songs. I don’t find I have this problem with Prine. It’s not stated outright in the lyrics why she left her family, but these lines from the chorus are clear —

From teenage lovers to an unwed mother

Kept undercover, like some bad dream

Prine is essential to country music, and this song displays his ability to capture the ostensibly wholesome south, both in its beauty and grotesque-ness. The girl’s family couldn’t bear the shame of an unwed, pregnant daughter, because after all, what family could be expected to bear the weight of a bad dream such as that.

The lyrics hit, especially when listening to it sung by Prine’s familiar southern drawl. The girl has her baby ‘in a cold and grey town’, the only person by her is her attendant nurse. It’s clear that the nurse had a good hard look at this girl because she realizes she is only a child herself. I know these next lyrics well, since these lines got my tears from just beneath my lower eyelid, to over and down the rest of my face.

”Lay down,”

“This ain’t no playground, and this ain’t home.”

Someone’s children, out having children

In a grey stone building, all alone.

The scene is simple, but it is specific. I can visualize the nurse helping the young girl, and thinking this thought in her mind, and the sadness she would feel from it. In the next verse, the young girl, now mother has gone ‘somewhere-else bound,’ and she tells her little baby this,

“Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever

He just don’t live here, but you’ve got his eyes.”

I know the song is called Unwed Fathers, but what do we learn of the unwed father in this story? All we know is that “[he] they can’t be bothered”.

I’m sure there’s more to the story of the unwed father, and I wish Prine (RIP) were here to tell it. Still, this song is not about the unwed father. It’s about a girl, who is an unwed mother. We also know she is resilient, that she is hopeful and forgives her family even when they abandoned her. We know that she is kind, and doesn’t speak badly of the man who left her to raise their child alone so he could run.

I was a bit embarrassed getting to work that morning with my mascara slightly running down my face from the tears. It was tough to explain why I’d been crying, and I wasn’t sure exactly, but I think now I’d just say I was listening to John Prine’s Unwed Fathers.

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