My American Icon

John Prine

Last night as I was laying in bed scrolling I got the terrible news that John Prine had passed away from Covid19. He had been in intensive care for at least a week and his wife Fiona had posted that he was in critical condition on March 29th. He died on April 7th on the eve of the year’s second supermoon–the Pink Supermoon–which was the closet of all to the earth.

I can’t help believing that he walked those moonbeams out into the galaxy or some such thing. His words were that of myth and legend, the gentle and often hilarious or heartbreaking truth of our human existence. He seemed to understand both the loneliness of our lives and the intimacy that comes almost exclusively from ordinary life. He wrote often of porches, screen doors, lost love, kitchens, and country life and the story was mostly about how little we need in order to be happy but how hard it is to see this truth.

His songs make me love more, want less, and believe in the human spirit as a force of goodness known through truth.

Prine has always been a legend in my family. Three generations of my mother’s family loved him. My grandparents, my mom and aunt, and then us cousins. I’m one of the only family members who didn’t see him play live. My cousins got to meet him once while wearing homemade t-shirts that read in puff paint: “You may see me tonight with an illegal smile” and “Hello In There.”

One of the last memories I have of our grandma is her dancing with my sister Hannah around the cabin at Burnt Shanty Lake to Prine’s song “Big Old Goofy World”. Later, in the dark of the deck, she wiped her eyes and told my aunt and mom how much my grandfather (who had died nearly twenty years prior) would have loved to be there.

According to my mom, her father loved everything about his life as a high school civics teacher and was filled with an immense gratitude for the small pleasures. These simple pleasures are what Prine most celebrates. But he was also an iconic writer of protest songs like “Jesus the Missing Years,” ” Sam Stone,” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”

John Prine

It’s hard to say what Prine meant to America. He wasn’t exactly a household name but he was known and deeply loved and a revered song-writer. He saw through the greed of his industry and remained loyal to his own heart, voice, and vision. He offered a kind of homespun wisdom that spoke to us. At least for me, he reminded me of what was beautiful and sad and interesting and hilarious about this life. And for that I am grateful.

When I think of what our country is going through right now–the absolute sham of our presidential leadership, the insanity of how this pandemic is being handled on the national level, the greed and cruelty of the president, the division among us–it is Prine who stands as an icon of everything we could be but aren’t. It is he who would sing about the people that keep on keeping on despite the insanity–the people everywhere that are making the supplies we need, working in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, warehouses, and delivering our goods. The people we call heros because they are giving their lives for us. So we can stay home and stay safe. And of course, they are not being properly compensated or protected.

More than anything, I wish he could write a song about dying in the middle of a pandemic and send it to us. I know it would be good, his best, heartbreaking & true.

-e

lyrics I like:

I’d like to build me a castle of memories just to have somewhere to go.

*

Make me an angel that flies from Montgom’ry
Make me a poster of an old rodeo
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go

*

Blow up your TV throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try an find Jesus on your own  

*

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger,
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day.
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello.”

Published by

emilyarna

Writer, teacher, essayist, author of the essay collection Made Holy from the University of Georgia Press (2019). Mother of two boys, runner, and activist. Wife and partner to Kindergarten teacher and singer songwriter, Mr. Martin.

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