A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Three months after the grievous loss of John Prine – songwriter’s songwriter, big-hearted good ole boy of wit and grace, beloved best friend to thousands of ardent admirers he’d never met – his home state of Illinois has named him their first Honorary Poet Laureate. Announcing the posthumous designation, Governor J.B. Pritzker cited Prine’s “unparalleled musical legacy” and all the bereft followers “who hope that in Heaven he finds Paradise waitin’ just as he longed for.” In a statement, John’s widow Fiona said she knew he’d “be proud and delighted” to get the recognition from a home state whose sports teams he continued to follow, adding he’d also never found “a hot dog, pizza or Italian beef sandwich to rival the originals.” “John had great respect for writers of all kinds,” she wrote. “He regarded poets as among those whose work carried weight, relevance and elevated craft.”
Just like his own: A day dreamer and mailman who started out making 50¢ a customer at his weekly Chicago gig – the first drew 12 people – he was often “the funniest and the saddest guy in the room at the same time,” writing songs of hard, sweet, everyday life that people held onto in good times and bad. “(They) clutched them as if they offered proof,” wrote Jayson Greene in a moving Afterword following John’s death. “If his songs were allowed to exist in the world—so simply written, so profoundly beautiful —surely there was room for other good, decent things, too.” Even in tales of loss and pain, he kept his heart open: “Yeah I knew love – love knew me/And when I walked – love walked with me/And I got no hate – and I got no pride/Well, I got so much love that I cannot hide/…I wish you love – I wish you happiness/I guess I wish – you all the best.”
Through time and illness and acclaim, Prine stayed the same meatloaf-eating, Chevy-driving, straight-up guy on stage and off, aging along with the preternaturally astute songs – Hello In There, Sam Stone, Donald and Lydia, Paradise – he somehow wrote as a kid in his 20s. “He was always just John Prine,” wrote Greene, “one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, forever hiding in plain sight.” He was also typically wry on the pleasures of old age – “If there’s only one chair left, you’ll get it.” In When I Get to Heaven from his final album Tree of Forgiveness, he happily envisioned an afterlife of thanking God “for more blessings than one man could stand,” smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette, and drinking his signature, vodka-and-ginger-ale – diet ’cause “you don’t want to get diabetes from drinking” cocktail Handsome Johnny: “I named it kind of after myself.”
His sudden death from COVID, his body and leaders having failed him, set off an outpouring of grief; many bereaved fans used John’s “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)” to declare, “My heart’s in the ice house.” On social media, they’ve steadfastly continued to mourn him and sing his songs in tribute. Unsurprisingly given his deeply quirky writing, those songs had brought many successes – “they sort of ambled up to him, like dogs coming home” – but never a #1 hit. It thus came as “one of the most bittersweet moments in an extremely bitter year” that his last song, I Remember Everything, blew up into his first #1 on Billboard. It was recorded in his living room, where producer Dave Cobb recalls a lively John – “he was really happy, (and) he wasn’t finished.” Cobb calls the achingly poignant farewell gift “a classic Prine song in the best possible way,” and it is – lustrous, true, clear as the waters of Lake Marie. We remember everything too, John. You are much missed.
I’ve been down this road before
Alone as I can be
Careful not to let my past
Go sneaking up on me
Got no future in my happiness
Though regrets are very few
Sometimes a little tenderness
Was the best that I could do
First published in Common Dreams.