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Essay

On the Music of John Prine

“For me, though, there is one Prine song I find the most philosophical, though many of his songs do indeed have that bent…The song is  ‘Fish and Whistle,’ the first track on his 1978 album Bruised Orange…”

John Prine was one of the first prominent performing artists to die of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). I recall hoping, praying that somehow he would make it through, and he did hang on for a while, but he was at that age I suppose where the virus, particularly in the early days, hit one the hardest. And eventually he left us on April 7, 2020. His wife, Fiona, wrote shortly thereafter: “The outpouring of love is a comfort to me and my boys. Thank you for loving [John] so well. We can feel that love today. Keep listening and sharing his songs as we all find a way to be in the world without him.” 

From the time he first came onto the scene, as they say, with the help of Kris Kristofferson and Roger Ebert (the subject of one of my previous essays) in 1971, it was clear that Prine’s music told a story. He wrote his earliest songs while delivering mail after leaving the Army. (William Faulkner worked too as a postman as a young man.) But as Ebert noted, something that always impressed me, Prine wrote many of his best songs before “his 24th birthday.” Songwriters, unlike authors, can come of age early and farm their best in younger years, but there was a certain empathy beyond his years that allowed the young Prine to put himself in the shoes of an elderly couple increasingly isolated and mourning a son lost in Korea (“Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more/She sits and stares through the backdoor screen/And all the news just repeats itself”); a Vietnam veteran addicted to drugs and struggling to adjust to being home (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose”); or a troubled young man estranged from his father and struggling with his sexuality who resorted to suicide (“‘God bless this kitchen’ said the knick-knack shelf/’The dinner’s almost ready, go and wash yourself’/Well Jimmy’s growing up now, Wanda’s growing old”). (1)

I do not like to compare, but I doubt Prine ever did better work than with these songs, which appeared on his first album John Prine, released right around the time of his 25th birthday. Even Robert Christgau gave the album an A. And who can forget that opening riff of “Angel from Montgomery,” my favorite version of it being a live duet sung by Prine and Bonnie Raitt? It was an introduction made more powerful by a call and response between the guitar and Hammond organ. There is that distinct gospel feel, the opening of Sunday worship, and then it comes in:

“I am an old woman
Named after my mother
My old man is another
Child who’s grown old”

Even folks I know who say they never listen to songs for the lyrics can’t keep that promise when it comes to Prine, and with this song in particular.  

I remember the first time I heard “Angel from Montgomery.” It was while I was running on a dusty trail on a Friday afternoon in late June. My cousin’s wedding was the next day, and my first real relationship was on the rocks. And later that summer, my friend Jamison and I would drive out into Lancaster County around dusk and talk along the way, and on the way back, after the sun had gone down and it was dark but still warm, we’d listen to that song. 

Bob Dylan once said that his favorite Prine song was “Lake Marie.” Maybe Dylan had just said that in passing, and had he been asked again, he might have said “Sam Stone” or something else, but he chose “Lake Marie,” and I suppose that counts for something. The song was released in 1991, well after what we might call vintage Prine. The song tells the story of two lakes by the Illinois-Wisconsin border, from Prine’s idealized vision of their naming (how they were named for two white baby girls found in the woods by a local Native American tribe there) to Prine meeting his wife there by chance at a picnic beside the lake years down the line. Later, perhaps not overwhelmingly dissimilarly from how Sylvia Plath used the Holocaust as a metaphor for her marriage to Ted Hughes, Prine uses two dumped murder victims found in the woods by Lake Marie’ as a metaphor for his deteriorating marriage. I don’t think much (or any) of the story in the song is true—not that it matters, of course. But it has a sort of unexpected upbeatness to it despite the subject matter, and I think I was listening to that song on the day I learned Prine died. 

I visited Kentucky for the first time this spring, the state from which his parents hailed, and a place he visited often as a child to visit his grandparents, as described in his song “Paradise,” also from his debut album. I liked the way the air smelled in late May, especially after the storms had all cleared and the creek was just the right level to paddle. Harold Fondren, no doubt, would have too, as well as how little the sky there seems to have changed since he’s been gone, even if some of the towns have. 

Paradise was a small mining town until the Tennessee Valley Authority bought the land in 1967 and relocated the remaining residents due to contamination concerns from the nearby Paradise Combined Cycle Plant. Pennsylvania has a town of Paradise too. I used to smile when I saw that small green roadside sign on Route 30 advising motorists that they were 8 miles from Paradise. Were they being misled? Or was that just about right? Gan Eden baolam hazeh.

I will refrain from endeavoring to put Prine “in context,” as is too often done with writers or artists, and I will decline to put forward any bromides about how the songwriters of today are vapid or uninspired as compared to the unbridled authenticity of Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, and Prine—that even the raspiness of today’s singers is contrived. This is because this observation has been made enough already and because there are great lyricists writing today, even if the audience for their work is smaller. (2) (But maybe that’s a misconception too; even in 1969, Prine himself bemoaned that “nobody cares about folk music.”) And one ought not forget that Prine mentored a number of young musicians, some of whom have become rather well known in recent years. I will also withhold any comments about how Prine sings of an America that no longer exists (“Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking”). This is all to say that one should let Prine’s music speak for itself. 

I will admit to not liking Prine’s song “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” from his 2005 album Fair & Square. Although I certainly understand mounting frustration with the War in Iraq at the time, and I have been no defender—in the time since—of the decision to invade that country, I thought the theme of the song—this idea of so many people among us (“You might go to church/You sit down in a pew/Those humans who ain’t human/Could be sittin’ right next to you”) not being human—beneath him. What has been more abused throughout history than categorizing some people as humans and others not? With that said, I do listen to the song from time to time, appreciating in particular this part:

“Have you ever noticed
When you’re feeling really good
There’s always a pigeon
That’ll come shit on your hood
Or you’re feeling your freedom
And the world’s off your back
Some cowboy from Texas
Starts his own war in Iraq”

Because isn’t that how tragedy unfolds? It’s usually not what we worry daily about but, as Mary Schmich put it, “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.”

For me, though, there is one Prine song I find the most philosophical, though many of his songs do indeed have that bent. (Being born in the 1990s, I often—and I’m told this is to my great detriment—think of artists in terms of their songs rather than their albums, but maybe this will one day change.) The song is “Fish and Whistle,” the first track on his 1978 album Bruised Orange:

“Father forgive us
For what we must do
You forgive us
We’ll forgive you
We’ll forgive each other
Till we both turn blue
Then we’ll whistle and go fishing
In heaven.”

Along with Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” “Dona, Dona,” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” I consider “Fish and Whistle” to be among the most lyrically profound songs of the second half of the 20th century, as stiff of competition as there might be. Prine, the amateur theologian of the Heartland, wonders aloud: Our faith tells us we must constantly ask God for forgiveness, including often for our peccadilloes, but might He apologize to us for the cancer that takes a child, the car accident that destroys a family, or the wars that bring continents to their knees? 

When I was in college and had more time, I would write notes to friends from time to time sharing poems and essays I had been reading and thought were worthwhile. (3) One day a friend, at the time, replied that he didn’t know much about poetry, but he sent me the lyrics to Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and then suggested that song lyrics are quite a bit like poetry. In most cases, this doesn’t sound quite right. Surely, one wouldn’t sit down and read the lyrics of most tracks, including ones I’m rather fond of. As much as I enjoy the Elton John song “Daniel” (lyrics by Bernie Taupin) or the title track of Mark Knopfler’s 2000 album Sailing to Philadelphia, I doubt one would sit down to read the lyrics alone, especially say a hundred years from now. Sometimes lyricists just write what they think sounds good, sometimes rather hurriedly. (4) Once, a crazed fan tracked down John Lennon when he was living in New York. Upon finding him, the fan professed how the lyrics of the Beatles’ songs changed his life, drenched as they were in meaning and insight, to which Lennon reportedly replied, “It’s just a song, man.” There isn’t always a great underlying meaning. Sometimes the sea is just the sea and the fish just a fish. In much of Prine’s music, the underlying music is simple and doesn’t rely on the trappings of elaborate production; it seems almost there just to provide a background for the words. With Prine, it is the lyrics one remembers. And they are downright poetic, telling the story of saudade, longing, time passing one by—but, most of all, empathy.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.

Endnotes

  1. It is always interesting to reflect on the ages at which writers, musicians, or philosophers produced their best or most enduring works. Cat Stevens released his 1970 album Tea for the Tillerman, his best album in my view, when he was just 22. On the other hand, Malvina Reynolds wrote perhaps her best song, one that featured in my 2019 essay at Quillette on the so-called elite universities, at the age of 62. Charles Krauthammer tells us that mathematicians tend to come of age young. But writers seem to run the gamut. Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian at the age of 52; Kant the Critique of Pure Reason at 57; and other writers died with their best works likely still yet to come. 
  2. The same can be said for those who also bemoan the lack of great poetry or essay writing today. It is there, somewhere, to be sure. 
  3. I have always thought one of the greatest compliments one could give is to call a work “worthwhile.” 
  4. Some works of literature are written over a decade or more, like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. On the other hand, Faulkner was known to write in binges, sometimes completing a novel in a matter of weeks. Bob Dylan apparently spent two years working on “Tangled Up in Blue,” while Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday” in a matter of minutes after hearing the melody in a dream. (What did Saul Bellow say? “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”) So maybe this is all to say that how long a given author or songwriter spends working on a particular piece only tells us so much.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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