I should be working on my novel this morning, but I’ve spent hours listening to my favorite John Prine songs and just thinking about them. John Prine’s music is for some an acquired taste, but from the very first time I heard a Prine song it struck me between the eyes. And in the heart. I’m fortunate enough to have discovered John Prine decades ago while in college. Others may have gravitated toward Dylan for their meaningful, heart and soul-wrenching folk music, but for me it was always Prine. Dylan and Prine share a couple of features – sheer poetry in many of their song lyrics, memorable music, and atypical voices that demand your attention.
There are lots of good homages to Prine already published today, for example over at Lawyers, Guns and Money and the Blue Heron Blast. I won’t try to replicate those, but instead share some personal thoughts.
I always thought of Prine as a Kentucky boy, but he was born in Illinois. His parents have deep KY roots but they moved to Illinois in the 1940’s to chase factory jobs. Prine’s parents were from Paradise, KY, a middle-of-nowhere coal town that John made the title and setting of one of his more famous songs, Paradise. The chorus from Paradise is instantly recognizable:
“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”
Some of Prine’s songs have stayed with me my entire adult life. His impossibly-sad Hello In There has brought me to tears many times (this link takes you to a beautifully filmed and recorded live rendition of Hello in There). This one hits me hard because my paternal Grandmother, Vada McPeak Nichols, spent the last 10-15 years of her life stricken with Alzheimers, not knowing where she was or who was visiting her. A broken mind trapped in a healthy body. Every time I hear these lyrics, all the fear, sadness and anger I felt as a young man, trying to be strong and visit a grandmother who didn’t know me or remember the years we had spent together, comes rushing back to me.
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
The “hollow ancient eyes” description gets me every time. Prine was only 25 when he released his first album with Hello in There as one of the tracks – where does a 25-year-old get the wisdom to write something like that?
Other unforgettable lyrics include the entirety of Sam Stone, Prine’s tragic song-story about the plight of returning Vietnam War veterans:
To the wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knees.
But the morphine eased the pain,
And the grass grew round his brain,
And gave him all the confidence he lacked,
With a purple heart and a monkey on his back.
Jesus Christ died for nothin I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
Didn’t last too long.
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And soon he took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.
And the gold roared…”
Talk about a story all told in one line – “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes” – what an image.
Prine’s songs weren’t all sad – The Accident (Things Could be Worse) from his Sweet Revenge album, comes to mind. Funny and weird, just classic Prine. Every time I pull up at a four-way stop I smile and remember these lyrics about “the yield” going round and round:
We all arrived the same time
I yielded to the man to the right of me
And he yielded it right back to mine
Well, the yield went around and around and around
Till Pamela finally tried
Just then the man in the light blue sedan
Hit Pamela’s passenger side
I could go on and on. Prine wrote and performed over 20 record albums and 100s of songs. But that’s it. Game over. We won’t get to hear any more, any new, John Prine lyrics. His threescore and ten (plus a little bit) has come and gone. And we’re definitely the lesser for it.