Remembering John Prine

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John Prine in his final visit to Champaign, performing at the Virginia Theater in April, 2018. Photo by Eric Frahm, Sr.

As we trudge through the second year of the pandemic, the calendar brings gloomy anniversaries. April 7, 2021 was an especially mournful day, marking one year since John Prine died from COVID-19 complications in a Nashville hospital at the age of 73. Prine, the beloved songwriter and Illinois native whose body of work includes classics like “Angel from Montgomery,” “Paradise,” and “Hello in There,” had previously survived bouts with throat and lung cancer. Fiona Whelan Prine’s Twitter updates about her husband’s hospitalization and passing were heartbreaking revelations of the profound personal loss that the pandemic would bring to millions of families.

In the immediate wake of his death, Prine’s fans and fellow musicians rallied around his memory on social media, sharing stories and posting loving renditions of his songs. An online memorial concert in June featured performances by many of Prine’s collaborators and admirers, including Bonnie Raitt, Brandi Carlile, and Vince Gill. Most recently, in March, 2021, Prine’s song “I Remember Everything”—the last he ever recorded—won two Grammy awards.

Prine’s posthumous success at the Grammys came alongside another public tribute from the music world. In recent weeks a number of musicians and music lovers have taken to social media to pay tribute to the songwriter, using the hashtag #JabForJohn to share pictures of themselves receiving the coronavirus vaccine. These photos, of hopeful eyes peeking out over masks and behind tears, reveal glimpses of what Prine’s music has meant during the dark days of COVID-19.

It’s no surprise, really, that songs like “Six O’Clock News” and “Far From Me” would help people weather a pandemic. After all, they were composed by an essential worker. Before he became a famous musician, John Prine was a mail carrier. Born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, he returned home after a stint in the Army and went to work for the postal service. In the hours he spent delivering letters and packages he wrote songs in his head about everyday people like the ones along his route. He was playing those songs in a Chicago club one night when Kris Kristofferson heard him, was blown away, and shortly thereafter helped him secure a record deal. Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut on Atlantic Records delivered the songs of the “singing mailman” to the rest of us. On that album, and on his seventeen subsequent studio recordings, he conjured a community of hard and beautiful lives, from the aging lonesome couple of “Hello in There” to the veteran struggling with addiction in “Sam Stone”—a stunning tune whose chorus concludes with a tender gut punch: “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.”

John Prine’s first, self-titled album, released in 1971

Although he eventually moved to Nashville, Prine kept close ties to Illinois. He played several concerts over the years in Champaign–Urbana, including a gig at the Krannert Center in February, 1974 and multiple dates in more recent years at the Virginia Theater. Prine played his last local show at the Virginia in April, 2018, in support of what would be his final studio album, Tree of Forgiveness. The biggest concert in local history—1985’s Farm Aid extravaganza at Memorial Stadium—included an extraordinary performance of one of his most famous songs (even though Prine himself wasn’t on stage). Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones traded verses on “Angel from Montgomery,” accompanied by the legendary country harmonica player Mickey Raphael. It is well worth a visit to YouTube to find the footage of that beautiful performance, rendered through early autumn raindrops, of one of the greatest songs anyone ever wrote.

John Prine recorded “Angel from Montgomery” for his debut album, whose fifty-year anniversary we mark this year. There is a magic to its three verses and chorus that eludes interpretation. Like so many other Prine songs, it manages to reveal worlds of meaning in the nooks and crannies of overlooked lives. “There’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ‘em there buzzin’,” the song’s narrator (an “old woman, named after my mother”) calls out in the last verse. “I ain’t done nothing since I woke up today.” The beauty of the song hangs in the aching distance between the stasis of that kitchen and the flickering dreams of somewhere else—an “angel that flies from Montgomery,” a “poster of an old rodeo.”

Surviving the pandemic has been like living inside a John Prine song, passing endless hours among the flies in our own kitchens, holding onto lingering notions of better days. It remains a source of great sadness that the singing mailman is gone; we can only wonder what songs he might have written if he had been with us this year. Still, we can continue to take comfort in the music he left behind.

Dan Gilbert teaches at the University of Illinois, in the School of Labor Employment Relations and the Department of History. He specializes in US labor and cultural history.

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