Thursday, April 21, 2016

John Prine—The Songwriter as Poet

John Prine lust starting out at the 5th Peg Pub in front of a banner that misspelled his name.

Ordinarily, we don’t think much of it, but song lyricsliterally verses—are poems set to music.  Perhaps that is because when it comes to modern popular music the words are secondary to other elements of the song—the melody or hook, beat, harmonies, arrangements and orchestrations, instrumentals, even, increasingly, theatrical stage or video presentation.  Lyrics have to be exceptionally strong to stand out.  But a lot are as disposable as used Kleenex, clichéd restatements of convenient and comfortable tropes.  It may not seem as corny as the Moon/June/Moon of vaudeville era pop standards,  but from Nashville to Rap and all of the stops in between, there is plenty of plug-in-here familiarity to mix with vocal trills and tricks to make earworm music that is easy to love.
But in most songs, if you plunk the words down on paper to read without the music they don’t have legs to stand on their own.  Back in the day Steve Allen, the late night TV host and comedian who was also a jazz aficionado, composer, self-proclaimed intellectual, and, lets face it, something of a musical snob, could always get laughs by pulling out the lyrics to one of the new rock and roll songs and reading them with mock seriousness.

Well be-bop-a-lula she’s my baby,
Be-bop-a-lula I don't mean maybe.
Be-bop-a-lula she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula she's my baby doll,
My baby doll, my baby doll.

Well she’s the girl in the red blue jeans.
She’s the queen of all the teens.
She’s the one that I know
She’s the one that loves me so.

Say be-bop-a-lula she’s my baby,
Be-bop-a-lula I don’t mean maybe.
Be-bop-a-lula she's my baby doll
My baby doll, my baby doll
Let’s rock!

Gene Vincent

I’ve probably seen a half a dozen comics do the same thing with everything from heavy metal to hip-hop to Rascal Flats.
Of course it was not always its way.  Music and poetry were inseparable from birth.  From drum chants around Neolithic fires, to Psalms, Homer, and Medieval ballads what we now think of a great poems were sung by bards and minstrels to long-lost melodies.  In the 18th and 19th famous poems were routinely set to music becoming the basis of everything from Protestant hymnals, romantic ballads, patriotic anthems, to German Lieder songs.  Then Tin Pan Alley and the three minute song—dictated by the capacity of a Victrola disk—and snappy came roaring into fashion.  A lot of wonderful songs with catchy patter and the foundation of what would become known as the Great American Song Book.  But the words on their own were seldom great poetry.
There were some exceptions, of course, moving forward in the 20th Century the archly playful words of Cole Porter were as clever as anything by Dorothy Parker.  The German exile Kurt Weil brought his European athetic and paired with great writers who produced real poetry to go along with his songs—Berthold Brecht, Ogden Nash (Speak Low), and Maxwell Anderson (September Song, Lost in the Stars.)  Richard Rogers could rise to the occasion.  And there were some smokey saloon songs from the film noir era, anti-love songs mostly, that hit the mark.
The ballad—the story telling not just any slow tempo love song—was relegated to the edges of popular music—hillbilly begetting country and western, and folk music through various waves of revivals.  Now it has even been bled out of modern radio dictated country hits radio which prefers what is basically rock and roll with a nasal twang.
But in folk music, the words were always the thing.  Stripped down the accompaniment of a single guitar or a handful of acoustic instrument,  voices sweet and perfect or raw and real, the lyrical content was front and center.
When I was in High School a hip English teacher had us study the lyrics of Simon and Garfunkle as poetry in an APP class for smarty pants nerds.  Everyone knew Bob Dylan was a poet.  Leonard Cohn was a poet before Judy Collins almost literally pushed him on stage.  Non-folk singer/songwriters like Laura Nyro were also writing lyrics that could be—and were—published comfortably as quality poetry.
Which brings us at long last to today’s subject.

Prine in 2014

Just last week a short news item floating around the web caught my attention from the Boston Globe. 
PEN New England will honor songwriter John Prine with its Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award, an accolade that has been previously upon Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, Chuck Berry, and Leonard Cohen. PEN New England hasn’t officially announced the selection, and it’s possible a second songwriter will be honored in addition to Prine. We learned of Prine’s selection by way of Rosanne Cash, who serves on the committee that chooses the honoree and spilled the beans to a New York Times reporter who wrote a profile of Prine   last week.  Prine, 69, has never enjoyed a lot of commercial success, but his songs, which range from wry acoustic folk to country, are much admired by his peers. The award ceremony will be held at the JFK Library, though the date has yet to be announced. 

So there you have it.  No less an august body than a section of PEN, the international organization of writers, will bestow its blessing on Prine and his words.  I guess that makes ‘em officially poetry if anything does. 

Around Chicago the legend of the Maywood Mailman is well known and time honored.  In May 1970 Prine, a skinny guy with a mop of brown hair, was hanging around the 5th Peg Pub a saloon and folk club operated by Ray Tate, the chief instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music just across the street on Armitage.  Prine was in the audience of a weekly Monday night open mic that featured mostly teachers and students from the school.  Fueled, perhaps, by an extra drink or two, he may have made a disparaging comment about some fledgling songwriter’s effort which supposedly resulted in an “Oh, yeah, I’d like to see you do better,” dare.  Prine borrowed a guitar and took to the stage.  He sang five original songs, every one of which was a masterpiece destined to become a revered classic including Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Any More, Hello in There, Sam Stone, Paradise, and Angel from Montgomery.  The audience sat in stunned silence before bursting into cheers.

Prine kept coming back to the open mic in the weeks that followed and word of mouth spread through the close knit Chicago folk music scene.  The place was jammed week after week.  Tate gave Prine a steady Sunday night slot in July where he was greeted with a backdrop banner that misspelled his last name. No matter.  Soon he was so popular he was given Friday and Saturday slots as well. The small club with virtually no advertising was turning people away at the doors week after week.  It was about that time that I first saw him, the 5th Peg being one of several regular watering holes then on my rounds of dives.
More importantly in November Chicago SunTimes movie critic Roger Ebert caught him there  and was so awe struck that he rushed back to the paper and pounded out a virtual paean of a column—Prine’s first ink. 

He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you… You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday on Saturday.

Best buddies Steve Goodman & Prine at the Earl

After that Prine was an official Chicago sensation.  He played to top folk clubs—the Saddle Club on North Avenue, Richard Harding’s second Quiet Knight location on Belmont, The Bulls on Lincoln, and later Somebody Else’s Troubles and Holstein’s further up Lincoln.  But he made the established folk Mecca The Earl of Old Town an unofficial home base and was the center there of a fabulous scene that included his good buddy Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc, Jim Post, Fred Holstein, and others.  He also worked with established folk legend Bob Gibson and mandolinist Jethro Burns of Homer Jethro.  When he added electric sets to his repertoire Jethro’s son Johnny Burns traded riffs with him.  

It was at the Earl that Kris Kristofferson, as noted no slouch as a songwriter and lyricist himself, heard Prine and helped him get a deal with Atlantic Records.  John Prine came out in 1971 and never got above number 154 on the Billboard charts.  But it was a passed-from-hand-to-hand cult hit among folkies and Nashville rebels.  Half the albums must have been sold to other awe struck musicians many of whom covered his songs and clamored to play with him on stage.  Even Bob Dylan himself climbed on the stage of Prine’s first New York City gig to anonymously blow back-up harp.  I was then on the staff of the old Chicago Seed underground newspaper and got to write one of the first reviews of the album, an unapologetic rave. 

Prine hated his first album cover where his label posed him on hay bales.

Prine was born in Maywood, Illinois, a western working class Chicago suburb on October 10, 1946.  His father and mother, William Prine and the former Verna Hamm were from Paradise, Kentucky in Muhlenberg County and had joined the migration from Appalachia to the North for industrial jobs in the War years.  His grandfather was a former coal miner and sometimes preacher who also played music professionally including stints with Merle Travis, writer of the coal mining classics Dark as a Dungeon and Sixteen Tons and Ike Everly, father of the Everly Brothers.  Stories about Kentucky and occasional summer trips “home” kept the Appalachian experience alive for the boy.

When his first album came out Prine was upset that the label posed him on bales of hay for the cover in an attempt to win a country music audience.  Prine protested he had never sat on hay in his life.  His people “were miners, not farmers.”  He flatly refused to wear a cowboy hat.

Music always played a part in the family life.  When John was 15 his older brother Dave, a banjo, fiddle, and guitar player, taught him how to play the guitar.  He became inseparable from his instrument and was diddling around with making up songs while still attending Proviso East High School in Maywood.

After graduation Prine went into the Army and was lucky enough to draw posting to Germany rather the Vietnam.  That narrow escape haunted him somewhat and he always felt a kinship with the guys who went to war—many of them classmates and buddies.  He would write about them in Sam Stone and other songs and would always have an anti-war and anti-establishment streak that would carry forward into songs about George W. Bush and his wasteful wars decades later.

Out of the Army Prine returned home, married his sweetheart Ann Carole and settled down with a good jobcarrying the mail in Westchester, another western suburb.  He was scribbling song ideas and noodling on the guitar at night and on weekends.  After seeing Ray Tate interviewed on TV, he showed up at the Old Town School, which he had never previously heard of, and enrolled in classes.  So perhaps the legend of taking the stage on a dare at Tate’s club, was a bit apocryphal.  Tate knew what a talent he had and just needed to find him a way to get him in front of an audience.

Prine was more than a little shy and his first public appearance earlier that spring at a Maywood Village festival had not gone well.  The festival was fun, rowdy, and beer soaked.  The audience didn’t care a thing about or know folk music.  They wanted to rock.  Prine felt like a failure in his home town.

With success that shyness faded and Prine became comfortable on stage, especially when he could share it with buddies like Steve Goodman.  He liked the camaraderie of music, the drinking, and the weed.  John and his pals knew how to party.  

Through the 70’s while keeping a base in Chicago, Prine began to tour nationally. Albums followed almost yearly, each with memorable gems.  On Atlantic he put out Diamonds in the Rough, Sweet Revenge, and Common Sense which finally broke into the Top 100 albums of 1975 at #66.  He moved on to Assylum for three more albums but was dropped from the label in 1980 for lack of commercial success.

Prine and Kristofferson in Las Vegas, 2015.
For four years despite continued success as a touring act and the unanimous esteem of the best musicians not only in folk and country music, but in rock and roll as well, Prine could not find a record label.  So in 1984 he started his own—Oh Boy Records.  The master of his own fate, he has now released 15 albums on that label.  Some have cracked various Billboard album categories—1999’s In Spite of Ourselves hit #21 on the Country Chart; Fair and Square in 2005 and Standard Songs for Average People in 2007 hit #2 and #37 on the Indie list; In Person On Stage in 2010 got to #27 on the Rock Chart and #1 in Folk; an 2011’s Singing Mailman Delivers had wide appeal at #20 Indie, #22 Rock, and #4 Folk.

Prine gathered plenty of accolades and honors in his long career.  He has been cited as a favorite songwriter and/or major influence by Kristofferson, Dylan, Elvis Pressley, Johnny Cash, and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd to name just a few. In 1991 The Missing Years picked up the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In 2003, Prine got a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from Britain’s BBC Radio 2 and that same year was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He got a second Folk Grammy in 2005 for Fair and Square.  The same year he was also won the Artist of the Year Award at the Americana Music Awards and was invited to be the first songwriter to read and sing at the Library of Congress by Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. 

Prine with  Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (left) at the Library of Congress.
Despite the plaudits, Prine has faced serious health issues.  In 1998 surgical and radiation treatment for serious squamous cell cancer took a lot of tissue and radiation burns altered his tenor voice leaving it changed and more gravely.  As soon as he was strong enough, however he was back on tour and recording some of the strongest material of his career.  In 2013 just after I last saw him at the star studded Birthday Salute to Earl Pionke—the Earl of Old Town himsel--that was put together by Marina Jason, Prine was diagnosed with an unrelated early detected lung cancer.  He seems to have recovered fully from treatment for that and is back out on the road like the trouper he is.

Prine now lives primarily in Nashville with his third wife Fiona Whelan and has homes in Galway, Ireland and Gulfport, Florida.  

And now for some of those Prine poem/lyrics.

Sam Stone
Original Title:  The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues

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,
Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.
Little pitchers have big ears,
Don’t stop to count the years,
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.

Sam Stone’s welcome home
Didn’t last too long.
He went to work when he'd spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.
And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains,
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,
While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples' clothes...

Repeat Chorus:
Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill.

—John Prine
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

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 you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.

Repeat Chorus:

Then 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.

Repeat Chorus:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
—John Prine
Some Humans Ain’t Human
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind
You open up their hearts
And here’s what you'll find
A few frozen pizzas
Some ice cubes with hair
A broken Popsicle
You don’t want to go there.

Some humans ain’t human
Though they walk like we do
They live and they breathe
Just to turn the old screw
They screw you when you're sleeping
They try to screw you blind
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind.

You might go to church
And sit down in a pew
Those humans who ain’t human
Could be sittin’
right next to you
They talk about your family
They talk about your clothes
When they don’t know their own ass
From their own elbows
Jealousy and stupidity
Don’t equal harmony
Jealousy and stupidity
Don’t equal harmony

Mmmm Mmmm
Mmmm Mmmm
Mmmm Mmmm
Mmmm Mmmm

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
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind
They lie through their teeth
With their head up their behind
You open up their hearts
And here’s what you’ll find
Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain’t kind.
—John Prine


  1. My first date with my husband was in the fall of 1971. We went to the Quiet Knight where John Prine was appearing with Kris Kristofferson and a fellow called Steve Goodman, who was making his Quiet Knight debut. It was epic.

  2. Replies

    1. thanks. Double checked it an you are right. Fixing it now.

  3. My guitar has learned all his favorite songs.

  4. In Des Moines in November. I think my 10th concert. Those with Steve Goodman were the best. He deserves a Kennedy Center honor. Unparalleled songwriter.