RIP: JOHN PRINE
(OCTOBER 10, 1946 – APRIL 7, 2020)
JOHN PRINE IS GONE: AN APPRECIATION
ANOTHER COVID-19 CASUALTY
“Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay…” Like another John–John Milton—we lost Paradise today.
“The world has lost John Prine to COVID-19. After he survived throat and lung cancer, I was hoping he was perhaps immortal. Nobody could write songs like him, at once spare, profound and amusing. There’s an unbelievable story about how he was discovered that is apparently true. He was at an open mic night at the age of 24, a mailman at the time, making fun of the talentless performers. He was challenged to get up and play himself. He got on stage and played Sam Stone, Paradise, and Hello In There. After the first two he was met by dead silence, the audience stunned at what they had just heard. After the third, it was raucous applause, and he was off to the races. Can you imagine being at an open mic night and a kid gets up and plays those three songs back to back?” (Ryan Grim from The Intercept)
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land—just four years after the 1918 worldwide flu pandemic. So of course we lost another great poet in April—April 7—after a three week-long battle (March 17 – April 7, 2020) with another deadly virus- COVID-19 – in Nashville, Tennessee in Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Eighty-six of their medical staff who care for the patients have coronavirus themselves, so what chance do the patients have of not being reinfected should they begin to show signs of improvement. That was the situation that John Prine was in—fighting for his life. He was outnumbered.
In the heart of Music City, Prine’s home was also in the center of one of the most backward states in the union—whose rightwing Republican Governor Bill Lee waited until the very end (March 31st—the day the Trump administration revised their original estimate of 15 deaths up to 100,000) before declaring that people would be better off staying home, although refusing to extend the stay-at-home order past his initial declaration. No wonder people are terrified of going to the hospital today. In addition to the Governor Tennessee has a government Trifecta—the governor and both houses of the state assembly were all of the same party—Republican. Prine was outnumbered there too—three to one.
In his 2005 song, Some Humans Ain’t Human, from his album Fair & Square, Prine satirizes the party that killed him:
[Spoken:]…”Or you’re feeling your freedom
And the world’s off your back
Some cowboy from Texas
Starts his own war in Iraq
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind
They lie through their teeth
With their head up their behind
You open up their hearts
And here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind.
As a songwriter who radiated kindness, generosity and humanity, Prine brings a unique sense of dispirited unbelief to this brokenhearted yet mordantly funny takedown of Republican ideology in the Bush years, released at the height of the Iraq War.
You open their hearts and here’s what you’ll find,
he sings over a spare gentle melody.
A few frozen pizzas
Some ice cubes with hair
A broken Popsicle
You don’t want to go there.
As political jeremiads go, it’s still pretty lovely, the work of an artist who could add beauty to the world even when he was singing about its ugliest people. “During Vietnam, when you saw people on the street, you knew which side they were on,” Prine said. “But you don’t know anymore.”
“It just got to the point where if you weren’t saying anything then people were taking it that you supported him, so I thought ‘Jeez, if I get hit by a bus I would sure like the world to know that I was not a Republican.’” (Rolling Stone—25 Essential John Prine Songs—with thanks to my editor Steve Shapiro for sending it to me)
Here’s one of his gentle nonessential songs—wistful, humorous, seemingly off-the-cuff—and perfect—
It’s A Big Old Goofy World.
Now Elvis had a woman
With a head like a rock
I wished I had a woman
That made my knees knock
She’d sing like an angel
And eat like a bird
And if I wrote a song
She’d know ever single word
There’s a big old goofy man
Dancing with a big old goofy girl
It’s a big old goofy world
The last time he came through town—which was just last year—he stopped at the Grammy Museum six months before his concert on October 1 at the John Anson Ford Theatre. Executive Director of the Grammy Scott Goldman interviewed him and asked him what the new album—The Tree of Forgiveness—was about. Prine answered, “Pork chops, love and mortality.” It doesn’t get more basic than that.
As if to underscore the point, he writes in one of the included songs—
Knocking On Your Screen Door
I ain’t got nobody hangin’ ’round my doorstep
Ain’t got no loose change just a-hangin’ ’round my jeans
If you see somebody, would you send em’ over my way?
I could use some help here with a can of pork and beans
Like Charles Bukowski, another mailman-poet, Prine was dubbed “The Singing Mailman,” from his early days in Chicago—in 1971—where he got his start at a tiny folk club called The 5th Peg—delivering mail during the day and going out to local folk clubs at night. But actually it was more complicated than that. For delivering mail was the perfect job for a songwriter. “The main challenge was simply to know the right street. Once you knew that you had plenty of time to dream and think of songs.” Perhaps that is why he never abandoned the identity altogether. A recent album was still titled The Singing Mailman Delivers—a double live album of classic Prine songs going all the way back to his debut album—the one with the enduring songs referenced in the second paragraph, Paradise, Sam Stone and Hello In There. Also on that first album was Angel From Montgomery, which he performed with Bonnie Raitt, who also started recording in 1971.
Sam Stone, which placed Number Six on Rolling Stone’s list of All-Time Saddest Songs Ever, the tale of a returning Vietnam Vet with an addiction to drugs, whose chorus begins:
There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes
Jesus Christ died for nothing I suppose,
the line which John Prine regarded as the best couplet he ever wrote.
And thereby hangs a tale: In Ken Burns’ recent documentary Country Music (still playing at midnight on Channel 3 on local TV) Rosanne Cash (Johnny Cash’s daughter) makes much of the fact that her late father displayed his artistic integrity by singing Kris Kristofferson’s (who discovered Prine) classic Sunday Morning Coming Down just the way he wrote it, even when CBS objected to it. That is he didn’t change the word “stoned” in the line “Wishing Lord that I was stoned.” Well nobody mentioned it at the time, but Cash was not so courageous when it came to his recording of one of Prine’s classic songs. Cash left out the second line of Prine’s greatest couplet: “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” This old Gospel singer just couldn’t bring himself to say it. Where was his artistic integrity then?
But one of his most important songs was not one he had written—from Portside:
“Moral corrosion in everyday life erodes the foundations of even the mightiest empire. In memory of John Prine”–by fellow Nashville songwriter R.B. Morris:
That’s How Every Empire Falls
He caught a train from Alexandria, just a broken man in flight
Runnin’ scared with his devils, sayin’ prayers all through the night
But mercy can’t find him, not in the shadows where he calls
Forsaking all his better angels, that’s how every empire falls…
Padlock the door and board the windows, put the people in the street
“It’s just my job,” he says, “I’m sorry,” and draws a check, goes home to eat
At night he tells his woman, “I know I hide behind the laws”
She says, “You’re only taking orders”, that’s how every empire falls
A bitter wind blows through the country, a hard rain falls on the sea
If terror comes without a warning, there must be something we don’t see
What fire begets this fire, like torches thrown into the straw?
If no one asks, then no one answers, that’s how every empire falls.
He always saved his most popular song for his encore—the song he wrote for his father’s hometown—Paradise, Kentucky, his ode to Muhlenberg County about the coal-mining town that was strip-mined—“I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” It’s a song Prine almost left off his first album because he didn’t think people could pronounce “Muhlenberg,” But his better angels prevailed and his working class classic became a hit. Before he did it he invited his opening act Kelsey Waldon (with whom he had performed In Spite of Ourselves that he recorded with Iris Dement—who sang my favorite Prine couplet (“He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies”)—and his wife—Fiona Whelan Prine—who was with him at the end—to the stage, “because I need all the help I can get.” When his band kicked in the whole audience did too, and filled the night air with Prine’s ode to the working class. It was the way I will always remember Prine.
At that John Anson Ford Theatre concert I was so happy to attend (particularly in retrospect) John Prine made a point of summing up his work throughout – Hello In There was he said his “prettiest melody.” That is the song Brandi Carlyle just performed in her tribute to Prine on the Stephen Colbert show on CBS. She played it the way he did—finger-picking—and sang it beautifully on the 4th fret in G. That is also the song I mention Joan Baez performed in my closing reference to John Prine before he died—just hours before I learned of his passing on Channel 5 KTLA News. I hoped we would all say “Hello In There” to John Prine, as he had asked us all to do for anyone we saw with “hollow ancient eyes.” “Don’t just pass them by as if you didn’t care—say “Hello In There, Hello.” Paradise Lost.
Without knowing it, he had written his own epitaph—back in 1971. As T.S. Eliot wrote so eloquently in “East Coker” of Four Quartets, “In my beginning is my end…In my end is my beginning.” John Prine died as he had lived, still fighting.
Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club; he writes for FolkWorks; Ross may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.