The Saddest Songs: Marie by Townes Van Zandt

Marie she didn’t wake up this morning
She didn’t even try
She just rolled over and went to Heaven
My little boy safe inside

Townes Van Zandt’s Marie from his album, No Deeper Blue

Marie is one of the most harrowing but touching songs ever written; if you’re not affected in some way by this tune upon hearing it, then you have no soul!  I’m kind of joking (but not much…)
No other songwriter brings out emotions the way Townes do, and that’s why his songs stand the test of time. It is a late career masterpiece. Townes Van Zandt said the song was inspired by Meryl Streep’s character in the film Ironweed and describes the harrowing plight of a homeless couple who wind up living under a bridge until the woman dies with the protagonist’s unborn child “safe inside her.” Townes Van Zandt performed the song years before he recorded it.

“Marie” is remarkable, an incredibly agonizing and sad song. I’ve played “Marie” so many times, and I don’t think anybody can fail to be moved by it. The subject of homelessness had been dealt with before in songs, but that is like a short movie. It talks about the hopelessness about being homeless, but it doesn’t preach. It just tells the story of these two people. It’s like a mini-Steinbeck book in five or six chapters. It draws you in, and then there’s the payoff line at the end: “She just rolled over and went to heaven, her little boy safe inside.” It’s a killer of a line to close a song with.
– Michael Weston King (in the book: I’ll be here in the morning by Brian T. Atkinson)

Townes Van Zandt – Marie from No Deeper blue (audio):

Willie Nelson recorded several of his songs, including this one. His version is on the album, Poet, a tribute album. He was nominated for a Grammy for it. Of course, he lost, but Townes’s music has often been like that–it is underappreciated  and mainly unknown by the  masses. Willie Nelson’s version is incredible, but it pales in comparison to Townes’s original.

“He sits down with a guitar and has this piece of paper on his knee and proceeds to play ‘Marie’ all the way through. He says, ‘Man, I just wrote this this morning.’ And I’m like (mimes disbelief), ‘You’re shittin’ me, man!’ And (he) went over across the street that night and played it – and remembered every word. I swear to God I saw him do it.”
– Guy Clark recalls hearing “Marie” for the first time when Townes played it for him in Santa Monica where they were booked to play McCabes’ Guitar Shop.

Townes Van Zandt sings Marie in San Antonio, Texas 1993:

A fella across town said he’s looking for a man to move some old cars around.
Maybe me and Marie could find a burned out van and do a little settlin’ down.

Townes Van Zandt – Marie (Solo Sessions, January 17, 1995):

Another wonderful version, here by Steve Earle:

Gurf Morlix – Marie (Townes Van Zandt) with a great intro:

Marie by Townes Van Zandt, sung by Willie Nelson (audio):

When I heard ‘Marie,’ I thought it was one of the greatest tunes ever written. You could tell exactly who Townes was by the way he wrote. I think I knew him before I met him, just by listening to his songs”
– Willie Nelson (2001)

Marie (lyrics):

I stood in line and left my name
Took about six hours or so
Well, the man just grinned like it was all a game
Said they’d let me know

I put in my time till the Pocono line
Shut down two years ago
I was staying at the mission till I met Marie
Now I can’t stay there no more

Fella ‘cross town said he’s lookin’ for a man
To move some old cars around
Maybe me and Marie could find a burned-out
Van and do a little settlin’ down

But I’m just dreamin’, I ain’t got no ride
And the junkyard’s a pretty good ways
That job’s about a half week old besides
It’d be gone now anyway

Unemployment said I got no more checks
And they showed me to the hall
My brother died in Georgia some time ago
I got no one left to call

Summer wasn’t bad below the bridge
A little short on food that’s all
Now I gotta get Marie some kind of coat
We’re headed down into fall

I used to play the mouth harp pretty good
Hustled up a little dough
But I got drunk and I woke up rolled
A couple of months ago

They got my harp and they got my dollar
Them low life so and so’s
Harps cost money and I ain’t got it
It’s my own fault, I suppose

The Pocono’s down but the Chesapeak’s runnin’
Two freights everyday
If it was just me, I’d be headed south
But Marie can’t catch no train

She’s got some pain and she thinks it’s a baby
Says we gotta wait and see
In my heart I know it’s a little boy
Hope he don’t end up like me

Well, the man’s still grinnin’ says he lost my file
I gotta stand in line again
I want to kill him but I just say no
I had enough of that line my friend

I head back to the bridge, its getting kinda cold
I’m feelin’ too low down to lie
I guess I’ll just tell Marie the truth
Hope she don’t break down and cry

Marie she didn’t wake up this morning
She didn’t even try
She just rolled over and went to Heaven
My little boy safe inside

I laid them in the sun where somebody’d find them
Caught a Chesapeak on the fly
Marie will know I’m headed south
So’s to meet me by and by

Marie will know I’m headed south
So to meet me by and by

9 thoughts on “The Saddest Songs: Marie by Townes Van Zandt

  1. Here’s another song for consideration among “saddest:” HIV Blues by Tony Glover, the famous Minneapolis harpist who died a couple years ago and left a monumental collection of unique music memorabilia that his widow put up for auction late last year. Glover was an early friend of Bob Dylan, played on stage with dozens of famous artists, was a key member of the seminal Koerner Ray and Glover blues band from Minneapolis and, of course, wrote the liner notes for Dylan’s Bootleg album Live 1966. He rarely sang lead, but his song about a woman friend who came down with AIDS is heartbreaking.

        1. I wrote about Blues, Rags and Holler by Koerner, Ray and Glover in an Unreleased Beatles post, but the album that you mention is hard to find. I will seek further into the web, thanks for the tip

          1. Song begins: Doctor told my best friend, got HIV in your blood… Thanks to Glover’s wavering, soulful voice and harp, it’s just chilling. I heard it on a tiny public radio station in Minneapolis when the album came out in 2006 and had to rush out and buy it. The raw intensity, humanity and emotion still knock me out to this day.

            Can’t find it on iTunes, but the album is on Amazon (sadly, no MP3 version). If I knew a way to send a link of the song to you I would.

  2. Posted something similar yesterday! Didnt even think about Marie, I agree sad song! The Townes song I mentioned was Tecumseh Valley.. Thinking of how sad Caroline must have been her whole damn life!

  3. Townes is probably the greatest songwriter I know of. He could write such sad songs, funny songs, some really great story songs. His way with words is incredible. In most of his songs it feels like he did not waste one single line or word. Incredible. Surely if you listen to him, and also if you read his lyrics, you can tell he really was a great poet.

    To me, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark are the two greatest songwriters I know of. Cohen ,Dylan, and a few others are up there, too. But, for me, Van Zandt and Clark are The Big Two. Hell, Clark never released one mediocre record in his whole career. With 13 studio albums under his belt, and a few live albums too, that`s pretty impressing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, always good to hear from person with such a good taste in music.

      The guys you are talking about are true poets and master songwriters both of them.

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