NOTE: Heard word today, April 7, 2020, John Prine had passed on. Thank you for the gifts you left along the way! Peace, brotherman.
Douglas John Imbrogno | March 31, 2020 | thestoryisthething.com
John Prine is headed toward the coda of his life. The news is that he’s on life support due to complications from Covid-19. I will set aside the angst, the bewilderment, at the sudden appearance of the Grim Reaper worldwide, which has already swept away another iconic singer, Joe Diffie.
But Prine is a singer-songwriter of another magnitude. He is both a comic poet (“Please Don’t Bury Me”) and a wise old man of letters, even as a young man (“Sam Stone.”).
The second song—originally titled “Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues”—portrays the death of a drug-addled veteran with a Purple Heart. There are only ever a handful of tunes whose lines become entwined in the DNA of popular culture. But that’s true of Prine’s vivid “Sam Stone” portrait: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.”
That’s about as literary as songwriting gets. It may be the quickest snapshot—for those Rip Van Winkles unfamiliar with Prine’s work—of the punch, the grandeur, even, of his astonishing ability to bring a scene to life in one’s head.
‘Writing‘ is actually the best way, I think, to describe what makes Prine such an iconic songwriter. Unlike many a songwriter, the best of his tunes are like short stories. Or, even better, a chapter lifted from a novel whose characters and storylines we’d like to hear more about.
In my decades as a weekend singer-songwriter, I only have ever learned one of Prine’s songs well enough to play it live. Prine wrote “Paradise” for his father. It came out in 1971 on his debut album, “John Prine.” (He re-recorded it for his 1976 album “German Afternoons.”)
Here’s Wikipedia’s framing of the tune’s real-life echoes:
“The song is about the devastating impact of strip mining for coal, whereby the top layers of soil are blasted off with dynamite or dug away with steam shovels to reach the coal seam below. The song is also about what happened to the area around the Green River in Kentucky because of strip mining. The song references the Peabody Coal Company, and a town called Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, where the Tennessee Valley Authority operated the Paradise Fossil Plant, a coal-fired electric generating station.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradise_(John_Prine_song)
In my years of singing this tune solo and—the very best way to sing it—with my buddy Albert Frank Perrone on harmony, or in four-part harmony with my old quartet The BrotherSisters, I’ve often changed the last line to “Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away…” to “Mister Blankenship’s coal train …”
Yeah, that guy.
Habit prevailed. In my final go on the chorus at the end of this homage you’ll hear “Mister Blankenship,” followed by “Mister Peabody.”
The buggers are still knocking down Paradise, and the stakes have never been higher.
So, here is my quickie video homage to John Prine and “Paradise,” cobbled together over half-a-day when I learned John was—as I say in the video—“on his last chorus and verse.”
Much respect, appreciation and love to you and your family, John Prine.
PS: Mountain Stage has uploaded to its website an hour-long show featuring a past performance by John Prine.
Subscribe to TheStoryIsTheThing Newsletter
SUBSCRIBE to this site’s free email newsletter for updates on essays, photo-essays, multimedia and more. It’s very intermittent: thestoryisthething.substack.com
PSSS: I was surprised to find so much useful free video online to illustrate the song when I went looking for specific imagery. Thanks be to Pixabay.com and Pexel.com. All the photos and video are mine except for the following (I forget where I nabbed the cool bottle shooting):
Foggy River: Video by Peggy Choucair from Pixabay
Coal Mining Scene: Video by Tom Fisk from Pexels
Forest Scene: Video by TheMarcKnight from Pexels
Old Railroad & Dam: Kelly Lacy from Pexels.com
Boat on Lake: Erkan Avanoğlu from Pexels.com
If you like what you heard in my jokingly named “John Lennon Memorial Studio of Appalachia,” below are links to some other songs recorded there in a time of pandemic: