John Prine died. In the midst of the roiling economic and health tragedies and stress-inducing changes visited upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic, that news struck as a thunderbolt. John Prine died. He survived two bouts of cancer, a hip replacement, and a life on the road but the virus none of us can see but all fear struck him down. Damn it. Damn it all to hell.
John Prine’s death breaks my heart. His songs were a soundtrack to the good and not so good times in my life with his clever, soul-weary lyrics and deceptively simple, yearning melodies reminding me that there is always and everywhere survivable sadness and ironic humour. I always knew that when too much was confusing that I could read Kurt Vonnegut and listen to John Prine and that their similar messages of chagrin overlapping hope would help me through.
I have seen John Prine perform countless times but the first was special. It was the Mariposa Folk Festival on the Toronto Island in 1975. He was the final performer and mesmerized us all with the sorrow of the old woman in Angel From Montgomery, the blistering humour of Grampa Was a Carpenter, and the invitation for compassion for the elderly in Hello In There. At the end of his performance, he invited his friend Steve Goodman to the stage and they performed Souvenirs and then the song of good times gone bad in paying the price of progress: Paradise. The crowd cheered and headed for the ferry. The song started far behind us but overtook us like a wave. We were soon all singing Paradise, over and over, in the line and on the boat. If I close my eyes and gentle my mind I can hear it now.
I will listen to a lot of John Prine today. I think I’ll start with one of his recent songs called When I Get to Heaven to hear what he’s up to right now. The songs will evoke memories, smiles, and tears, like always, and, as is the case with all artists who matter, forever.
Click here for When I Get to Heaven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0EiV423j0M