His dad was a toolmaker, His mam was a homemaker. He was a soldier in the Vietnam War. He worked as a mailman when he came home. It was Chicago. It was the early 1960s. His name was John Prine. Movie critic Roger Ebert heard him sing during an Open Mic session at the Fifth Peg on Armitage Avenue. He was blown away. Prine’s first album, simply called John Prine, features one of my all-time favourite songs made popular by Bonnie Rait: Angel from Montgomery. I first heard it sung by a campfire in Lake Louise, Alaska. We were at a dart tournament. I can’t remember the girl’s name but I remember asking her to sing it three times.
Kris Kristofferson was a fan. Bob Dylan once slipped onto a New York club stage and backed the man on harmonica. Bruce Springsteen reckoned he and Prine were the ‘new Dylans’ of the 70s and described him as a ‘true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages’.
His anti-war song, The Great Compromise, is quite something and I think it’s still talking to America today.
I used to sleep at the foot of Old Glory
And awake in the dawn’s early light
But much to my surprise
When I opened my eyes
I was a victim of the great compromise
Another great duet was that with Nanci Griffith on Speed of the sound of loneliness.
Billie Bob Thornton asked him to write a song for the end of the movie they both starred in, Daddy & Them. The song is called In spite of ourselves. But it’s the video that goes with Summer’s End that had me bawling today. Many other artists have covered his songs; some have even taken liberties with the lyrics (ahem, Johnny Cash). All have recognised Prine’s genius.
In this video, The road to the tree of forgiveness, Prine talks about his early days, about being happy to be writing songs and singing. Others talk about his music.
I reckon you could split the world in two – those who’d heard of John Prine before this week and those who hadn’t. Those who had known him and his music have had years of enjoyment. Those coming late to the turntable have years of enjoyment ahead of them. I belong to the latter. I never knew he wrote one of my all-time favourite songs. I never knew that like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, he’d received a PEN award for his songwriting [and with lyrics like ‘there’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes’ and his song Jesus the missing years, it’s not surprising]. Bill Murray talks about how he got his sense of humour back, from John Prine’s Linda goes to Mars. Lyle Lovett probably owes the man a lot, too. I wonder if Smithwicks ever did anything with the namecheck in When I get to Heaven. I never knew his music. What a guy. What a gift. What a present to have received today. Thank you, John Prine.
PS. Video is a remarkable thing. I’ve spent the morning listing to music and watching videos from his earliest recordings in the 1970s to ones as recent as 2018. Nearly 50 years of ageing. It’s fascinating. Most of the live videos have Prine giving context to his songs, doing what he does best, telling stories.
And some more links…