Christmas in Prison by John Prine.
A good many of my friends—Wobblies, social justice warriors, progressive Democrats, humanists, and those who follow the news with growing despair and anguish—think I have gone soft and squishy and have surrendered to goopy sentimentality and faux joy every year when I trot out the Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival. It’s not that I have retired my radicalism or activism, or that I have been corrupted by the commercialism of the holiday and impossible expectations of the culture. I know what is going on in the world and still put some time in every day trying to fix it.
But I think in dark times we all could use a little joy, a little hope, a little reminder of love, family, community, and connection. This season of year when many cultures celebrate the triumph of light over darkness in their own unique ways is the perfect time for it. Think of it as a spiritual battery recharge.
To show that I have not gone completely daft on candy canes, and sugar plums, gotten drunk on the wassail, nog, and glug today I’ll share one of the saddest Christmas songs ever written—John Prine’s Christmas in Prison. Oh, there are other melancholy seasonal songs but most of them are broken hearted love songs like Blue Christmas, or reflections on a lost past like Another New Year’s Eve. The Pogues’ Irish folk punk Fairy Tale of New York may be even bleaker. And of course country music can be relied on for sentimental tears in songs like the dreadful The Christmas Shoes. But Prine’s lonesome ballad stands alone.
John Prine at the Fifth Peg Pub where he burst out at open mics. The club new they had a star but still misspelled his name as Pryne on the banner behind him.
John Prine was a 24 year old singing mailman from suburban Maywood, Illinois when he showed up one night at a Chicago folk club open mic with a grab bag of astonishing original songs. He was soon at the heart of the hot Chicago folk revival scene of the early ‘70’s alongside his buddy Steve Goodman and others packing them in at The Earl of Old Town, Somebody Else’s Troubles, and other local clubs. Kris Kristofferson said that Prine wrote songs so good, “we'll have to break his thumbs.”
In 1971 he released his first album with now classic songs including Sam Stone, Illegal Smile, Angel from Montgomery, and Paradise. That launched a touring career and a cult core following. Major stardom and charting singles eluded him as others like Bonnie Raitt scored hits with his songs. As a folky he was not embraced by country music’s Nashville recording cartel even though he was revered as a songwriter by many of the genre’s biggest stars. When the folk music singer/songwriter boom faded later in the decade, so did Prine’s career.
He has staged at least two major comebacks with the 1990 album The Missing Years and after two dangerous bouts with cancer. Surgery for squamous cell cancer on the right side of his neck in 1998 removed a piece of his neck and severed a few nerves in his tongue, while the radiation damaged some salivary glands. His voice was permanently altered giving him a raspy, gravely tone. In 2013 he had part of a lung removed after surgery. Both times he returned to touring after recovery and was playing to the biggest crowds of his career.
Despite health problems, Prime continues to perform and is enjoying the greatest success of his storied career.
After the second recovery accolades for his long career began to pour in. Prine was named winner of the 2016 PEN/Song Lyrics Award, won his second Artist of the Year award at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards, was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, nominated for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and had three Grammy Awards nominations this year for Grammy nominations including for Best Americana Roots song and Best Americana Album for his first original studio recording in 13 years The Tree of Forgiveness. That album was his first to crack the top of a Billboard record charts hitting No. 5 on the pop chart, No. 2 on the Country, Indie, and rock charts, and No. 1 on the Folk Chart.
Prine is frequently mentioned as a top candidate for the Kennedy Center Honors.
The second of three albums on which Christmas in Prison appeared.
He has recorded 25 albums including studio sessions, live performances, and compilations. Christmas in Prison has appeared on three of them—on his third album Sweet Revenge in 1973, on the compilation A John Prine Christmas in 1993, and in a new recording on Souvenirs in 2000. Today’s version comes from that session.