The cruelty, ignorance, and incompetence of the federal pandemic response have cost the life of a beloved singer-songwriter who stood against all those things.
By Mark Guarino
April 08, 2020
The death of John Prine on Tuesday from complications of COVID-19 is a cruel blow to anyone who favors decency, empathy, community, and good jokes—you know, all those things that once defined the American character but in the face of the federal malfeasance surrounding this pandemic feel like sentimental niceties from a bygone era. I hope I’m wrong.
If Prine had died at 103 rather than 73, or if he’d fallen to either of the two bouts of cancer he overcame in recent years, it wouldn’t have been less sad. But it wouldn’t have felt this cruel. And speaking of cruel, the singer-songwriter passed away the same day voters in Wisconsin were forced to choose between casting ballots and risking lives—their own and those of anyone near them—because the Republicans who control the state legislature wouldn’t postpone the primary.
The folk-music tradition from which Prine emerged in Chicago in the late 1960s is hardly unfamiliar with stories of indecency like that one. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” from his 1971 debut album, satirized the mock patriotism on display during the Vietnam conflict.
He used the same approach in 2005 on “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” which he wrote in response to the second invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. “Some humans ain’t human / Though they walk like we do,” he sang. “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.”
Folk music has always denounced scoundrels—only the names change. Today they’re called “deplorables.”
I talked to Prine a few months before the 2016 presidential election. “I would write a song in a second about Donald Trump, but I don’t think he’s going to be around,” he said. “And if he is, then boy, I’ll get the daggers out. I’ll think of something and it’ll be humorous, everybody will want to sing it, and it certainly won’t put him in the best light.”
The imminent threat of COVID-19 has been known to the Trump administration since at least November, and our president mocked it at the podium as a media hoax and lied for months about its reach and danger, doing nothing to prepare for the onslaught. Would the lives of Prine and the nearly 15,000 other U.S. COVID-19 victims so far—462 in Illinois by late Wednesday—have been spared if the administration were not leading the American people on a suicidal death march? Is the galling, unquenchable hubris of the Trump cult responsible for all the tens or hundreds of thousands of funerals this disease will cause, leaving grieving families and friends wondering why?
No one can say with 100 percent certainty. But the dots are certainly there to connect.
Over the decades, Prine’s music penetrated the lives of ordinary people in a profound way. He makes the kind of albums that are passed down from parents to children, and his songs are sung in guitar classes and around campfires. His concerts draw fans from several generations, from the young people who discovered him through admirers such as Bon Iver all the way to the bearded elders who grew up with his music in the 1970s.
“A guy with John’s talent is vanishingly rare,” says Chicago singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks. “Fifty years of great songs in a writer’s voice that was all his own, and songs that everyone wants to sing and play—and can, because they’re beautifully simple. Original folk music. Funny and dark mixed together in a casual, natural way.”
The volume of grief on social media the evening of Prine’s death, and the immediate outpouring of tributes from the likes Bruce Springsteen, Miranda Lambert, and Rodney Crowell, echoes the reaction to John Lennon’s murder or Prince’s passing from an accidental overdose of fentanyl. These were beloved, genre-defining artists whose needless deaths came as painful shocks. Prine was never a hitmaker, but the overwhelming response to his death proves that racking up gold records isn’t as important to enduring popularity as dedicating yourself to your craft and to a life of humility.
By now, the story of Prine’s life in Chicago is well-known: He grew up one of four boys in Maywood, a western suburb on the Des Plaines River that was built for working families from the factories that lined North Avenue, Mannheim Road, and other industrial corridors. His grandfather was from Kentucky and in 1924 became the first of the family to move to Chicago. In 1999, Prine told me that he considered Maywood a “melting pot” where people of all backgrounds could make a good living and raise families. “There were Mexicans and people from the south and Blacks. I thought it was a pretty neat area to grow up in,” he said. It wasn’t until Prine got drafted in 1966 and saw racism firsthand in a Louisiana boot camp that he realized how special his upbringing had been. “I thought, well jeez, I must have come from a good place, because I went to school with everybody,” he said.
After graduating from Proviso East High School, Prine married his high school sweetheart and settled in adjacent Melrose Park. He worked as a mail carrier by day, but by night he lurked in the folk clubs of Old Town. In the late 60s, he briefly took guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Armitage, and in July 1970 he made his professional debut across the street at a club called the Fifth Peg. In the audience for one of Prine’s shows at the Fifth Peg was a 12-year-old Andrew Calhoun, who would later operate Waterbug Records, an influential Chicago folk label founded in the 1980s. “It was a radical voice of love,” Calhoun remembers. “The songs were incredibly well written. It completely lit me up. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
Artists who played the clubs at the time were frequently booked for weeklong residencies, often playing several sets a night. Prine’s years in that fertile scene helped him learn how to hold a crowd spellbound, especially with his darkest songs, and sharpened the onstage comic timing that he retained till his death.
Success came quickly. By 1971 Prine had a record deal with Atlantic, which released his self-titled debut. He would continue to perform many of its songs for nearly 50 years: “Donald and Lydia,” “Sam Stone,” “Hello in There.” Like many of his records to follow, it became a touchstone for songwriters in its wake. While Bob Dylan was more of a conceptualist, leaning on themes, images, and language from film, literature, music, and history, Prine was a strict craftsman who used economical lyrics and just a few chords to construct songs that sounded simple but were deeply wrought with mystery, goofy humor, or sorrow—and often all three.
“I’ve always felt him looking over my shoulder as I write lyrics,” says Fulks. “‘Is that better than adequate, or can I put it in an unexpected and just-right phrase that seals it into the song? Does this show honesty, or just coolness or cleverness?’ All you have to do is look at the 13 songs on his first album, songs like ‘Angel From Montgomery’ and ‘Donald and Lydia,’ and know that he kept up this head-spinning standard of work for the rest of his career.”
Mark Dvorak, a folk singer and teacher at the Old Town School, says that Prine’s influence at the school was already strong as early as 1979, the year he arrived as a student. “His writing voice and his performing style were so complete. I thought there must be something else deep and profound going on beneath all the joking around and cornball country simplicity,” Dvorak says. “It was around that time I became more serious about developing my own writing and style. It’s as if John had been saying all along, ‘Ain’t it kinda fun to learn how to be yourself?'”
Due to throat cancer in the late 90s and lung cancer in the early 2010s, Prine’s voice deepened and his writing slowed. He told me in 2016 that his new songs were starting to become less about specific characters and more about disjointed relationships. “Where people are trying to communicate and it’s becoming more and more difficult to communicate what used to be taken almost for granted,” he explained. “People are feeling either misunderstood or they’re not saying what they really, really feel. For some reason that’s what’s coming out.”
He suggested that he might be channeling the anxiety slowly building in the air during the toxic age of Trump.
“This might sound odd—usually I’m the last one to know what it is I’m writing about. I just dive in,” Prine said. “If somebody asked when I was writing those songs, I wouldn’t have told them I was writing about disjointed relationships. The best way I can explain it, now that I’m finished, is that they seem to be the songs that are hitting home runs for me. They seem like the kind I’ll be singing for a while. And so I gotta think, maybe it has to do with the way a lot of people are feeling. I’m not sure if I’m as good of a radar as I used to be, but I’m picking up on something.’
Prine’s final album led to a career resurgence. The Tree of Forgiveness debuted at number five on the Billboard 200 in April 2018, his highest-ever position on that chart. For the last two years of his life, he toured relentlessly, appeared on national television, and won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2020 Grammy ceremony. He earned the reverence of a new crop of Americana singer-songwriters—Margo Price, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Jason Isbell—who considered him a sacred elder. By then Prine’s songs had been covered by hundreds of artists, including Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, My Morning Jacket, Paul Westerberg, Bettye LaVette, and Swamp Dogg.
Josh Caterer of the Smoking Popes says the most recent album he’s bought on vinyl, just weeks ago, was Prine’s 1999 duet collection, In Spite of Ourselves. “I’ll be spinning it nonstop for a long time to come,” he says. “As a songwriter, Prine was sort of a magician, able to pack a ton of meaning into just a few words, always endearingly simple in his delivery but deeply profound in the truth he was communicating.”
In Rogers Park on Tuesday night, Ed Holstein is thinking about John Prine.
Prine wasn’t an influence but a peer to Holstein, back in the days when they knew each other, first at the Earl of Old Town and then at Somebody Else’s Troubles and Holstein’s, the two clubs Holstein owned with his brother Fred, himself once considered the Pete Seeger of Chicago. Back then, the air was thick with good times. When Prine got his $30,000 record contract with Atlantic, Holstein says he “bullied” Prine to buy him and fellow songwriter Steve Goodman a big dinner at Slicker Sam’s, a Melrose Park Italian restaurant.
Holstein, who still teaches at the Old Town School, is also a songwriter whose material has been covered by the likes of Bette Midler and Tom Rush; he’s now one of a small circle of performers and songwriters left from that bygone scene. He says Prine was “very much Chicago,” in large part due to the performance style he honed at those folk clubs. “You couldn’t just get up there and sing one song after another. You had to relate to an audience,” he explains.
But at 73, the same age Prine made it to, Holstein is no sentimentalist. “I walk on the sunny side of the street,” he says. “We were lucky to have the music, so they’re never gone.”
Next week Holstein plans to walk with his guitar to a friend’s backyard and play “A Good Time,” a Prine song from the 1973 album Sweet Revenge. Then he’ll post it online as a goodbye.
He doesn’t need to say anything. Prine, it turns out, will have the last word:
I thought I’d heard and seen enough to get along
Till you said something neither of us knew
And I had no idea what a good time would cost
Till last night when I sat and talked with you