One of the most beautiful, but tragically haunting, songs ever written is John Prine’s — Angel From Montgomery — because it is steeped with a bitter love-gone-lost yearning that is universal, irrevocable, and palpable. The song is simple but harshly complex. You can play the song with four guitar chords — G, C, D and F — but there’s nothing easy about the joyous melody that leaps from those four chords.
Here’s the humble, but profound, chorus:
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery.
Make me a poster of an old rodeo.
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to.
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.
Let’s take a look at Bonnie Raitt’s live performance of Angel From Montgomery in December 1974. She’s playing what looks like a Gibson ES-175 archtop or a beautifully carved Gibson L5 and her voice and playing are pristine and unforgettable:
Here is Susan Tedeschi — a talented performer, but a perennial Bonnie Raitt wannabe — who also sings Angel From Montgomery live in performance from 2009. She gives a little more energy to the song, but does she add any more insight or passion to the moment than Bonnie before her?
There’s a live John Prine performance — from the 1990’s — of the song he wrote. His simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and raspy singing voice were indelible. That Prine performance of his own song is my favorite. It is heartfelt and sparse and arresting. I never like it when singers say they’re going to sing a song recorded by the artist who made the song popular. Few singers give credit to the actual author of the song. I am happy to say John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” is, without question or pause, the definitive version of the song and I love it that John, a man, sings the song as a woman. Completely fantastic!
The historic, colloquial, genesis of the title of the song, “Angel from Montgomery” has to do with being pardoned from a death sentence by the governor of Alabama. You hope from Death Row that the governor will be your Angel and send a pardon your way from his home in Montgomery. So the old woman in the John Prine song is singing about becoming a pardon from the humdrum humility of her loveless life.