Thursday, April 9, 2020

John Prine: Poet from Paradise

This blog dedicated to literacy education and teaching may seem like a strange place to be discussing the contributions of a singer-songwriter like John Prine. But Prine, who died on April 7 of Corvid 19 complications, was a true American poet in the grand tradition of Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Carl Sandburg. No less an eminence than Bob Dylan recognized him for his "pure Proustian existentialism." Whatever, the man could write a song lyric like few others could and those lyrics deserve both celebration and study for their wit, beauty, and keen insight into the human condition..

The first song of John's that I was aware of was "Sam Stone" from his first album on Atlantic in 1971. This was an anti-war song, but as was typical of much of John's work, his observations were rooted in the personal.

Sam Stone came home,
To his 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 knee.

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.

There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes,
And Jesus Christ died for nothin', I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don't stop to count the years, 
Sweet songs only last so long on broken radios.

Also on that album was a song that has become a touchstone for the environmental movement. The song, Paradise, told the story of John's family's hometown of Paradise, KY, a mining town.

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 your too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away.

The coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land.
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken.
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man., 

Themes of loneliness often showed up in John's work. One of his most famous songs, "Hello in There", spoke to the loneliness of the aging.

So, if your walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes,
Oh, please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello.

Or the loneliness of two isolated people living out a sad and loveless existence, dreaming of something better.

Hot love, cold love, no love at all.
A portrait of guilt is hung on the wall. Nothing is wrong, nothing is right.
Donald and Lydia made love that night.

They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams, 
They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams.
But when they were finished there was nothing to say,
Cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.

But dreaming just comes natural
Loke the first breath from a baby,
Like sunshine feeding daisies,
Like the love hidden deep in your heart.

John could be whimsical and very funny as well. On his much praised "comeback" album from 1991, The Missing Years, he had one song called "Jesus, the Missing Years" where he speculated wittily about the years in Jesus' life we know nothing about and another song, "It's a Big, Old Goofy World", where he seemed to weave together every cliche' known to man to humorous effect.

Up in the morning, work like a dog
It's better than sittin' like a bump on a log.
Mind your manners, be quiet as a mouse,
Someday you'll own a home that's as big as a house.
I know a fella, eats like a horse
Knocks his old balls around the old golf course.
You oughta see his wife, she's a cute little dish
She smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.

There's a big ole goofy man
Dancin' with a big, old goofy girl
Oooh, baby, it's a big ole goofy world.

Finally, there is my personal favorite. Whenever John performed it live he dedicated it to his friend and frequent collaborator, Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984. The song is called "Souvenirs." Here it is performed by John accompanied by Steve from the PBS show Austin City Limits..

While I was writing this entry, I received this message from John's wife, which was sent out to subscribers to his website. Donate to one of his favorite charities, if you can.

From Fiona Whelan Prine...

Our beloved John died yesterday evening at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville TN. We have no words to describe the grief our family is experiencing at this time. John was the love of my life and adored by our sons Jody, Jack and Tommy, daughter in law Fanny, and by our grandchildren.

John contracted Covid-19  and in spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team at Vanderbilt he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body.

I sat with John - who was deeply sedated- in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity.

My dearest wish is that people of all ages take this virus seriously and follow guidelines set by the CDC. We send our condolences and love to the thousands of other American families who are grieving the loss of loved ones at this time - and to so many other families across the world.

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world. John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.

In lieu of flowers or gifts at this time we would ask that a donation be made to one of the following non profits:

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