Brilliant Songs #34: Tommy Prine’s “Ships in the Harbor”

Tommy Prine is sad about something. But it’s not an indulgent, wallowing, “poor me” kind of sadness. What saddens him is just a fact of life, and he knows it has to be that way. He can’t change it, so all he can do is acknowledge it, live with it, accept it for what it is.

Oh, and one more thing: He can write a song.

The tune is “Ships in the Harbor,” and it became the 26-year-old Prine’s debut single when it was released in September, prelude to an album set for release early in the new year.

Part of the song’s brilliance is its simple, sorrowful take on the basic human experience of departure.

Prine distills the sweet sorrow inherent in every departure  with a winsome tone in his voice and guitar, totally devoid of artifice.

All our lives, we wash in and out of others’ lives like the tide, sometimes in with them for just minutes or hours before washing back out to sea for days, months, years, maybe forever.

It was the “forever” version of departure that inspired Prine to compose this lamentation on grief and acceptance as the son of folk writing legend John Prine, whose death early in the Covid pandemic served as a kind of marker signifying the devastation it would cause.

Tommy, his youngest of three sons, has transmuted that devastation into a soulful reflection on the inevitability of loss and an implicit call to treasure the time we have, and the people who help make that time worthy of our full, loving engagement.

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Prine’s central metaphor is in the song’s title, the ships in the harbor whose destiny is to repeatedly head out to sea. He then notes other simple elements and pleasures of life—the sun on his skin, a bluebird on the fence, time with a friend—to note their transitoriness, all these experiences, every experience, with their end wrapped always into their beginning.

But the song’s power as a mood changer comes only partly from its poetry. The other part is in the performance.

Prine distills the sweet sorrow inherent in every departure  with a winsome tone in his voice and guitar, totally devoid of artifice. Simple words, simply expressed, with simple accompaniment, just a man and his guitar (all he’s missing is a dog at his feet), noting plaintively to the heavens that all things come to an end—“as they should.”

Let’s listen to that performance now, complete with lyrics, before returning for some concluding notes.

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As befits both his age and chosen profession, Prine “tends to get lost in the stars,” no artist worth a good guitar lick who wouldn’t claim the same. We hear him being much too hard on himself in the next line, though, claiming, “I waste еvery night wondering where we all are,” when that “wondering” is the very stuff of his struggle to reconcile the joy and sadness that are the twin pillars of this song.

I’m not quite sure what to make of the two lines leading off the final stanza, with their lamentation suddenly turning more to admission of some past transgression— “Takes time to know when you’re wrong”—rather than for the simple sorrow of departure. But the creator-lyricist in him shines through in the following line—“Takes even longer to put it all in a song.” 

And then the true wallop for the legions of fans who sang along with and delighted in his father over the years, his progeny laying himself bare, no small part of this song now overtly reckoning with the most grievous departure of all:

I’d do anything just to talk to my father
But I guess he was leaving soon, as we do
Yeah, I guess he was passing through, and I am too

Given the quality of this debut single and a second one released just last month (see below), we can only hope for many more mornings of sunshine feeling good on Tommy Prine’s skin, all the better to inspire his songwriter’s blood warming to the task of creating an artistic legacy of his own.

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See here for full lyrics to “Ships in the Harbor,” and here for “Turning Stones.”

See here for the first lines preview of all previous posts in this “Brilliant Songs” series.

Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Tommy Prine portrait by Neilson Hubbard, courtesy of https://www.tommyprine.com/

Harbor photo by Justin Brown, San Diego, California  https://www.flickr.com/people/justininsd/

4 comments to Brilliant Songs #34: Tommy Prine’s “Ships in the Harbor”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Tommy Prine’s “Ships in the Harbor” brought to mind Phil Ochs’ “Pleasures of the Harbor”. This morning I listened to it once again, something I hadn’t done for years. Thanks. “Ships in the Harbor” is a beautiful song. Obviously, he’s a chip off the old block. There is so much truth in his lyrics. “Things” do come in and out of our lives like a ship going to sea. I also thought about those whaling ships that sailed from Gloucester in centuries past. They could spend months, even a year or more at sea, before they returned to their harbor. Too many never made it back. Prine was so young when he lost his father. I’ve never had to deal with that. I can only imagine the pain. I’m sure, or at least hope, he feels some sense of joy knowing his father’s love for music still breathes through him.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      One is always on solid ground recommending a Phil Ochs song, Robert, so thanks for passing that one along. He’s much like John Prine, it seems, though more acutely political. And Tommy is much like John, too, so it will be interesting see how he carves his own path while still reflecting so much of his father in the years ahead.

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    Hello Andrew,
    I neither followed nor knew the music of John Prine, but I appreciated his son’s song paying homage and recognizing that we are all passing through. Maybe we touch some briefly, others longer with varied effects from barely remembered to deep impact.
    Being of a certain age and having friends even two decades older, these themes resonate in my heart. So I share this beautiful song from Lord of the Rings.
    https://youtu.be/UoVaK2NXmJA

    Wishing all a peaceful eclipse, and to all Democrats, get out there and vote!
    GO BLUE WAVE!

    Cheers, Marianne

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I love it when readers recommend songs of their own, so thank you Marianne. It’s such a large musical world, and I am regularly amazed at how much of it I have yet to catch up with—not just songs, but every song of a fairly well-known artist like Annie Lennox. Knew about her, but never got exposed. Or you with John Prine, who is a whole gold mine waiting to happen for you if you decide to dig in.

      And whoa—how about that Red Trickle the other night? Another recalibration of conventional wisdom in the political world, long-term implications not quite formed yet but perhaps promising…

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