Daniel Burston: John Prine, Working Class Poet (1947-2020)
John Prine, a writer whose songs often resembled vivid short stories, died Tuesday, April 7, 2020 in Nashville from complications related to COVID-19.Here, Daniel Burston, a regular contributor to Vox Populi, reminisces about Prine and his songs.
I was merely 18 years old when I had the privilege of hearing John Prine perform live one hot summer’s night at the (now defunct) Wheatsheaf Tavern at the corner of King St. and Spadina Rd. in Toronto, 1970. Yes, I was a little bit tipsy at the time – well, perhaps more than just a little. But he performed most of the songs from his self-titled debut album with merely a bass and a keyboard accompanying him. I’ll never forget that evening. I was completely blown away.
Unlike another iconic performer, his good friend (and fellow Chicago Cubs fan) Steve Goodman, Prine was not a folk-guitar virtuoso. No. But he was a poet and lyricist of exceptional sensitivity and skill, who evoked deep and subtle emotions in starkly simple language. Lesser songsmiths like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were darker or more elliptical than he, leaving listeners struggling to puzzle them out, or imagining that their frequent lapses into inscrutability – which were obviously intentional, and often quite annoying – betokened a certain profundity. And in fairness, I suppose, it did occasionally. But even when his lyrics didn’t make sense, you knew exactly what he meant, and they lacked his irreverence and puckish sense of humor, which had a way of transforming seemingly senseless verse into joyful expressions of compassion, joie de vivre and resilience. And even when he retreated into himself on stage – as all musicians who perform frequently must do, occasionally, in order not to burn out on the concert circuit – it was not because he held his audience in contempt, or because he was afraid of revealing too much of himself, but because his performances always came from the heart, and he wanted to “keep it real”, as we say nowadays.
John Prine was a national treasure, whose songs about love, loss and aging – many written while he was still a relatively young man! – reflect his working class roots. But even so, they have a universal and timeless relevance. Songs like “Hello in There” “Souvenirs”, “Angel from Montgomery” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, are incomparable in their acuity and precision. His duets with other singer-songwriters – Iris Dememt, Nancy Grifith, Emmy Lou Harris, and many, many others – were memorable and moving as few others are. Here’s hoping younger artists continue to listen to and learn from the real granddaddy of Americana, and the master of home spun truths.
Apologies, Mike. I didn’t mean to be insulting; only to express my own point of view. And needless to say,I don’t expect everyone else to share it, really, especially knowing how deeply devoted Cohen and Dylan fans are. To each his own.
So, speaking for myself, I’d say yes, at their best, Dylan and Cohen were superb. But there was a directness and a sweetness about Prine that I seldom found in either of them; even in his saddest songs. Nor could they laugh at themselves and the world the way he did – could they? (Just compare Prine’s last album to Leonard Cohen’s last. You’ll see what I mean.) And if I am honest, I find some of Dylan and Cohen’s songs so elliptical that they sound labored and pretentious, like they were trying to dazzle or impress, whereas Prine was always just himself. Finally, as performers, I think both Dylan and Cohen were more conflicted in their relationships to their audiences – not always, of course, but often enough to notice.
But maybe that’s just me . . .
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Thank you for your gracious note, Daniel. A Leonard Cohen aficianado I’m mostly not, but Dylan yes. And as I more or less said, I feel in general resistant to ranking artists. (This discussion has reminded me of a relationship I almost spoiled with debate over Dylan versus Paul Simon. I was, of course, right.) Dylan’s sense of humor, I’d say, is an under-appreciated aspect of his work: Going back to things like “Bob Dylan’s Blues,” “Talking WW III Blues” (“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours” & “I Shall Be Free.” And forward to sneaky jokes like “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time,” from “Bye and Bye” in Love and Theft. And his three-year stint as a DJ for satellite radio’s “Theme Time Radio Hour.” (See, e.g., https://herald-review.com/news/opinion/editorial/columnists/cain/bob-dylan-is-a-funny-funny-man-xm-radio-reveals/article_62cad60a-35cd-55bf-b5ff-0096b4a481ce.html) In general I think a lot of people of, roughly, my age, the boomer generation, have a static image of Dylan from the 60s, when we & he were “so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” Post-millenial Bob — from “Time Out of Mind” & forward to “Tempest” — I’ve argued (and taught), is the best Bob we’ve had.
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“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs,” said Dylan about Prine, glad to help promote Prine’s last album. It might tell us more about Prine’s work (than anything Burston says here) to unpack that “pure Proustian existentialism” remark. To berate Dylan and Leonard Cohen as a “lesser songsmiths” is, at the least, unnecessary. Prine deserves all the good words aimed his way, but doesn’t deserve to have his eulogy be a space to demean other artists. Although I never met Prine, his songs and performances suggest to me he was too classy, too graceful, to go low in that way himself.
— Mike Schneider
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