Monday, June 15, 2020

On John Prine

When John Prine died on April 7, 2020 of Covid-related complications, he left a deep and wide gap in the American consciousness. In his memory, Essay Daily invited some folks to think on, write about, and discuss some of their favorite lines from his sung mythology.

Bob Cowser: I always loved Prine’s noodling with language, and the poetry he made of common speech.  But what really speaks to me is the genuine nostalgia.  "I really love America. I just don't know how to get there anymore,” Prine said in one of his last interviews.  His songs take us back to an America we (think) we recognize or remember. The heart and humor and resistance in his music are things he carries forward from what he’d listened to as a child, on the radio and around the dinner table.

Jennifer Bottom Sobecki: Muhlenberg Co. was right next to the county I was raised in Ky. One summer in college I worked for KY Fish & Wildlife. We worked a lot in the reclaimed mine lands in Muhlenberg Co. I did see the “world’s largest shovel” as we drove through the mine lands. There were many new lakes created in the reclamation process and since it was Fish & Wildlife property we got to name the lakes. So now there is an 80 acre lake near Paradise, Ky named Bottom Lake! It has a deep oxygenated layer so trout are stocked there. Some of my co-workers wanted to name it “Ass Hole” but I vetoed that!

Cathy Barber: This is another of my favorites among John’s songs. One of my cousins, who lived in West Virginia, owned a strip mining company there. You can imagine we were on opposite sides of the political divide. The lines that Bob quotes above really hit me...that paradox of loving America, of feeling genuine nostalgia and heartache, fear for the loss of what we love.

Melanie Bishop: "Genuine nostalgia" nails it. This song mourns everything we've lost, different for each person. My father was raised in rural Virginia and his parents picked tobacco. He loved this song. If he and my brother have a favorite John Prine song, this is it. Our family sings this one like it's our anthem. This one meant more to me after John died. When I die let my ashes float down the Green River. I hope he's all the way to Paradise by now.

Marla Porter: I don’t yet know the limits of happiness in love. I hope I never find out. But I know you learn weird stuff about your lover. Mine writes down everything he buys. He can literally tell me how many cans of black beans we’ve eaten together. He wears only boxers in the house and refers to this as his “natural state.” When the cat gets too close to his face at night, he moves his pillow to the foot of the bed to escape her. But when you have love, even the weird stuff feels like a big door prize.

Melanie: This inventory of your love is just gorgeous. The big door prize. Damn straight.

Maggie Karrs: Death is one of those Big (capital b) ideas. When John Prine sings about death in “When I Get to Heaven”, he does it in his usual fashion, by taking the pieces of a difficult concept and making them resonant while also painting them in bright, comical colors. The idea of greeting all our loved ones after we die, giving and receiving forgiveness, and drinking “a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale,” makes me want to laugh, cry, and sing along at the top of my lungs, as John Prine songs tend to do.

Melanie: "Bright, comical colors." I love Prine's ability to cut right to the heart of a matter, and pair that with something light or funny, sweet or sarcastic. He bridges the emotions with lines like "...we found ourselves in Canada, trying to save our marriage, or perhaps, catch a few fish, whichever seemed easier." You have the ailing marriage, on the one hand, but in the other hand, there's the fishing pole. Or the spatula turning the sausages, sizzlin' on the grill.

Cathy: “Hello In There”—one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written. By a mailman, or as we now say, letter carrier, who probably met old, lonely people on his route, people who met him at the door for the mail: just bills and requests for money for the church and the hungry. If he hadn’t been discovered, he might have kept on walking, kept on dropping envelopes through slots. How many letter carriers, Uber drivers, landscapers have unknown talents? Don’t we all? Hello in there, hello.

Jessica Handler: “Hello in There” never fails to reduce me to tears, for very much the reasons that Cathy points out. Who might have been the people Prine met on his mail route, and what are the unknown stories, the unheard voices of so many people around us lost to age and loneliness.

Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell: Both my dad and his mother (my Granny) worked for the post office. My grandmother was a rural mail carrier who drove all over the county and into the next delivering letters and bills and packages to farmers and their families. I’m reminded through Prine’s words how quickly a person’s life can turn, how the fortunes of a family vacillate, how suddenly people come and go.

Melanie:  A memory: I'm 16 or 17, in the grocery store with my older sister, Laurel, produce aisle. There's an old man next to us, and I say hi and he says a warm hi back. A minute later, out of earshot, Laurel says,  "Do you know that man?" "No," I tell her. "Just saying hello in there." Prine taught me that, and I've never stopped doing it. One day I'll be the old person with the "hollow, ancient eyes." Please don't just pass 'em by and stare, as if you didn't care, say hello in there, hello.

Lee Anne: My dad came back from Vietnam in 71. He died in 2018. The war made him sick. Agent Orange. PTS. It’s a story I tell often. I’ll tell it the rest of my life. The child singing his daddy's war tells that story forever now, too. Yet, dad had a good life, fought to escape Sam Stone's fate. The pain remained; even now it's a ghost. I saw Prine play after dad died. There it was: my dad's despair & troubled faith, his belief in mercy & his merciless work ethic. His love. Grief revisiting me in song.

Melanie: "Grief revisiting me in song." My love of John Prine is so enmeshed with my love for my father. Prine may have been a mailman, and my father a PhD Psychologist, but spiritually, they were the same. My dad didn't have a hole in his arm, but there was alcohol. There was depression. There was a longing. These songs drop me into our family room in New Orleans, 1971, my father lying on the floor, his head in between the speakers. He was getting an infusion.

John Proctor: I don’t have that intense connection to my own personal and family narrative, and yet I’ve been singing this refrain for weeks since his death. I’ve even sought out covers, just so I could hear these words in other voices. I don’t know exactly what it is, but these two lines are like a good short story to me.

Lee Anne:  John Prine tells a story in an interview about how Johnny Cash couldn’t bring himself to sing the words about Jesus. That line must have made his mouth go dry, a line hard for a recovering addict to sing, that one could have faith yet no hope for redemption or recovery. That Prine’s gentleness could sit alongside such hard reckonings says so much about the dark depths he could reach as an artist.

Jessica: I am eighteen. I play an Ovation 12 string guitar. Looking back, I can’t imagine where it came from. How could I have paid for it? I know I loved it, spoke through it. I sing, Make me an angel, that flies from Montgomery. I have never been to Montgomery, although home is not-far-from-there Atlanta. I am in Boston. Forty-some years on, I can tell you that I hated it there. Call me homesick. Call me lost. Call me a freshman. I was a child, not yet grown old. My best friend and I harmonize. Thunder was desire. She imagines Bonnie Raitt’s arid voice, but I live in John Prine’s bitter, wise words.

Melanie: I had an Ovation, too. A boyfriend gave it to me. I didn't deserve it and never learned to properly play it, but I still have it. Angel from Montgomery is brilliant. If dreams were lightning, and thunder were desire, this old house would've burned down, a long time ago. Dreams and desire. Your lines, "Call me homesick. Call me lost," strike a chord with me.

Steve Adams: The thing about this song for me, as a straight guy from Texas who played guitar (and failed at lyric writing), was I could immediately sing the hell out of it. I still can. And Prine singing it himself (1st person lyrics, female POV, 1971) gave me permission years ago to not second guess myself over any gender aspects and just own what moved me, what spoke to me directly. You just feel it, and sing it, and that’s enough. And that’s the way he wrote. The mystery of a great song usually isn’t the individual lines - when you put them on the page as poetry they almost never hold up - it’s how the lines work nested in chords, and the way they ride the melody (and how the melody holds them up), and how a human voice can take hold of them and fly. It’s the way a phrase or an individual line can swell with meaning, understood or not by the singer, and give everyone listening in the room goosebumps. He was a master at this. His songs had room inside them, were generous, and we were welcome in there. I want someone to make me an angel that flies from Montgomery too. And I don’t have to understand what it means to feel it, and sing it like I know it.

Maggie: One of the big things about John Prine was that he could embody the subject of song, and he could let you embody them, too. You could be part of the older couple in “Hello In There”, the middle-aged woman in “Angel From Montgomery”, one of the kooky, crazy in love humans in “In Spite of Ourselves”. He lived and embodied all these different human experiences in his songs, and he lets us, as the listener, live in those experiences too, for the length of a song.

Steve: Yes. Maybe much of that (but not all, because there’s mystery here) is the storyteller aspect. A teacher of mine called stories “empathy machines,” and as some people mention above, a postman, especially one particularly tuned in to people, would be picking up stories every day.

Melanie:  "His songs had room inside them, were generous, and we were welcome in there." Amen.

Melanie: I was 14, Larry 16, Laurel 18, when Laurel brought the album home. New Orleans, 1971. It was the first music that belonged neither to the parents or the kids—we all claimed him. Prine looked at you from his bale of hay like he meant every word. My father, a quiet man, listened. He drank. Depression ran through his veins. Prine taught me: A hole in your arm can cost a lot. If shit isn’t going well for you, inside each of us, we have the key. Find that and use it—what you really think is right. 

John: Within a week of John Prine’s death, my best friend Andrew bought a guitar. He’d never really listened to Prine, but his mother had quoted “When I Get to Heaven” to my social media the day after he died. After a week of listening to Prine’s earliest work, Andrew texted me a picture of himself with his new guitar, saying, “Why didn’t you push him on me harder?!” I told him I’d assumed I didn’t need to. He was from Kentucky, after all. “John Prine was always my mom’s favorite,” he said, “And I never took musical cues from my parents.” Even after death, it’s never too late. 

Melanie: This is the only consolation for me as I reckon daily with the fact that he's gone: we have the music. We will always have that. What a thing to leave the world.


Bob Cowser is Professor of English at St. Lawrence University and author of 3 nonfiction books.

Originally from Beech Grove, Kentucky, Jennifer Bottom Sobecki lives in LaPorte with her family and works for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Cathy Barber is a 2013 Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate in poetry, living in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Melanie Bishop is Faculty Emeritus at Prescott College in Arizona.

Jessica Handler is the author of The Magnetic Girl, winner of the 2020 Southern Book Prize.

Marla Porter is a California-based writer who is typically covered in pink fur and laying on a bed of unicorns and other fluff.

Maggie Karrs is a writer, whitewater guide, and Physical Therapy student living in Richmond, VA.

Raised on a farm in Texas and now living in Tucson, Lee Anne Gallaway-Mitchell writes about illness, caregiving, and war.

Steve Adams is a writing coach, editor, and Pushcart Prize winning author living in Dallas, Texas.

John Proctor currently lives, teaches, writes, and self-distances at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

1 comment:

  1. Some of these memories and comments brought tears to my old eyes - we have been so blessed by his poetic and musical creations in so many ways. This latest tribute has added a new dimension to my own appreciation and love of John Prine. A special thanks to my very gifted sister Melanie Bishop for contributing and sharing.