Remembering John Prine, and the path to his songs

1971 John Prine Album Cover

John Prine. It might have taken longer to write about him, except this week brought the sad news that he had passed away at age 73 due to complications from COVID-19.

How I came to know about his songwriting, his gift of storytelling in music, is a roundabout story itself. It's a long one, but I’ll try to make it as short as possible. When I was at student at Hampshire College, I took a lot of breaks, partly because Hampshire allowed me to do so, but mostly because I needed them.

During one of the breaks, I worked with Little Flags Theater in Boston, performing and touring in a play called "The Furies of Mother Jones", a musical about coal mining, union organizing, and mine safety. (If you don’t know who Mother Jones was, she was a union organizer and anti-child labor organizer in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; well worth a little internet search.)

There was a nationwide coal strike during our tour in the spring of 1978, and a show in Pittsburgh was cancelled due to the coal shortage (night-time black outs) so we scheduled a free performance for miners and their families in Stearns, Kentucky. They’d been on strike for over 29 months, trying to get union recognition and better working conditions. The night before the performance we were fed and put up in their union hall, with a couple of miners sitting in their cars outside all night, watching over us. A union organizer’s house had been blown up the week before.

At the end of our performance the next day, held in a school gym nearby, after the last song and a rousing speech by Mother Jones, the lights came up and we were about to take our final bow when we realized the audience wasn’t clapping. All we could hear was people crying. We looked at each other for a moment, held hands, and then took a slow bow. As we came up, the clapping started. And then we were in tears.

I learned a lot during that tour. Talked to a lot of people. Miners, families of miners, community organizers. Heard a lot of stories.

When I came back to Hampshire the next fall, I wanted to find a way to share that some of that experience with my college community. Decided to put together an evening of coal mining songs and stories. During the research I found singers such as Nimrod Workman, a traditional singer, former mine and black lung disease activist, Jean Ritchie, Billie Ed Wheeler, Hazel Dickens. And John Prine. We’re almost to him. I promise.

“Voices from the Mountains”, a book by Guy and Candy Carawan (who, among others such as Lucille Simmons, Zilphia Horton, and Pete Seeger, helped the folk process along in adapting the traditional spiritual “We Shall Overcome” into an anthem of civil rights movement) was a big part of my research. Two well-worn copies of the book have an honored place on the bookshelf in the library/seed sorting room of my house. Just got one of them out and was looking through it, jogging memories. It’s taken even longer for me to write this as a result.

The book is a collection of songs, photographs, oral histories and more, documenting a region, a time, a history a people and a way of life. On page 32, you’ll find the song “Paradise”, words and music by John Prine. On page 33, you’ll find the story of how the small town of Paradise, Kentucky, where John’s father and grandfather grew up, was destroyed by strip mining, and a photograph of two of the Peabody Coal train cars that hauled it away. My friends and I learned that song and sang it as part of my final concert at Hampshire. You’ll find a good YouTube version of the song here:

The day that I heard John Prine was in intensive care with COVID-19, I spent a good deal of time going from one video to another. Interviews, duets, old songs and new songs. If you don’t know his work, or even if you do, it’s something I heartily recommend. John Prine was an accomplished storyteller, in his music, and in his introductions to songs. There are as many ways to tell stories as there are people. I love John's way of telling stories.

When I heard he had passed away, I stayed up late, doing it again. Hello in There, Sam Stone, Angels from Montgomery, In Spite of Ourselves, Some Humans ain’t Human, Souvenirs, Lonesome Friends of Science, and so many more. Brandi Carlile, another of my favorite songwriters, had trouble sleeping that night and sang a version of “Summer’s End” on Instagram which you can find a path to here:

If that’s the only thing you have time for, it’s worth the three and half minutes or so that it will take.

In that late night journey into the life of John Prine, I found a quote from a 2018 Pitchfork interview by Jayson Greene, where Prine said, “I guess I just process death differently than some folks. Realizing you’re not going to see that person again is always the most difficult part about it. But that feeling settles, and then you are glad you had that person in your life, and then the happiness and sadness get all swirled up inside you. And then you’re this great, awful candy bar, walking around in a pair of shoes.”

Now that I’ve finished writing this, it’s time to put my boots and work gloves on, and go outside, sing some songs while I do some weeding, a candy bar in the garden. Be well.