John Prine (1946-2020)

John Prine (October 10, 1946 – April 7, 2020

There wasn’t any MFA program for aspiring songwriters to attend in the late 1960s, so when John Prine got out of his two-year hitch in the U.S. Army, he went back to the same job he had before he got drafted: the U.S. Post Office. “I always likened the mail route to a library with no books,” he wrote on his website. “I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”

I doubt the “ditties” would have been improved by workshopping.

Being a man who still stands with vinyl as well print culture, I walked across the room last night after I heard the news, and flipped through a stack of records. There it was:

Illegal Smile
Spanish Pipedream
Hello In There
Sam Stone
Pretty Good

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get you Into Heven Anymore
Far From Me
Angel From Montgomery
Quiet Man
Donald and Lydia
Six O’Clock News
Flashback Blues

Underneath the titles, Kris Kristofferson’s liner notes recalled his first encounter with Prine’s song. He had finished up one of his own shows and driven across town to a club where the manager was putting the chairs up on the table. At Kristofferson’s request, Prine bashfully got back up on the stage; his shyness belied his lyric maturity. Kristofferson did not hesitate to offer blunt praise: “It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene (in fact Al Aronowitz said the same thing a few weeks later after hearing John do a guest set at the Bitter End). One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it, like when the Vision would rise upon Blake’s “weary eyes, Even in this Dungeon, & this Iron Mill.”

Dylan himself commented years later, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind-trips to the Nth degree.”

It wouldn’t hurt a lot of young poets in MFA programs right now to get a copy of “John Prine Beyond Words.” Maybe give it a try themselves. And that includes taking control of your publishing, as well as your writing.

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