In Iowa City songwriter Brian Johannesen’s new single “Corona of Springfield,” one of two new tracks he dropped today, a child — the narrator in fact — is born in a Walmart in Springfield, MO.
Like so many life events during the pandemic, what might have been a celebration and blessings with gatherings of loved ones — a child’s birth — is viewed from afar. And worse, a kind of Walking Dead fatalism casts a doubtful shadow, where hope might normally shine. (Remember when Judith was born in Season 3?).
The song appears to be inspired by an actual event back in March. However poetic liberties have been taken, resulting in a dark retelling where a mother dies after giving birth, and the unwitting biological father ends up caring for this “Angel of Death” all while the pandemic-ravaged population of Springfield, in a kind of gallows humor, suggests the child be named Corona: “Some said you should name her Corona / With their tongues pressed hard in their cheeks // They all laughed around Springfield, Missouri / And none of them died in their sleep.”
Even as depressing as “Corona of Springfield” might be in its subject, you can’t help but be impressed by the sharp efficiency of Johannesen’s storytelling. There is a black humor to the depiction of the mother being wheeled out in a blue Walmart shopping cart and comparing the cleaning of the newborn to sterilizing of a bathroom is an image we understand in a world of washing groceries and elbow bumps.
The picture of the father standing in the whipping wind with his daughter in a cornfield reads like it was ripped from the pages of Steinbeck:
By the time that the dust had all settled
Tumbleweeds rolled through the town
The number of dead had been triple
What the experts had warned them about
And my daddy stood out in a corn field
The world all tattered and torn
His hair whipped around like a pinwheel
His angel of death in his arms
“Corona of Springfield” includes no specific happy ending — we’re all still counting the newly sick and recently passed daily. Any depiction of life beyond the Corona virus would seem insincere, I think. The one bit of hope is that the narrator is telling her story from the future, one where she must have lived to tell the story.
One of the many tragedies to come out of the COVID-19 outbreak in the music world was the loss of John Prine. I can’t help but wonder what songs Prine might have written in the almost-unimaginable post-COVID world. I think it might have been a song like “Corona of Springfield,” with its bittersweet capture of lives lost and lives living with a little bit of tongue pressed firmly in cheek.
Editor’s note: Brian Johannesen is a Little Village staff member.