John Prine

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John Prine’s first album came out in 1971, the year I graduated from high school and entered college.  I can’t remember if it was David Williams or Mitch Kellam who turned me on to it, but in any case, has a better debut album ever been released?  I mean “Illegal Smile,” “Hello in There,” “Sam Stone,” and “Angel from Montgomery” all on the same record, a masterpiece.

What distinguishes Prine from most from most other songwriters is a combination of imagination and empathy. Like a talented fiction writer, he creates characters we care about and places them in a world that’s palpably real.

Take, “Hello in There,” a song about the loneliness of old age. The lyrics stand up remarkably well by themselves unaccompanied by music:

We had an apartment in the city
Me and Loretta liked living there
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown
A life of their own left us alone
John and Linda live in Omaha
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean war
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore

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”

Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more
She sits and stares through the back door screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen
Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy
We worked together at the factory
But what could I say if asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do”

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”

Not only could John do sad, he also could be really funny. Take “Illegal Smile,” for example.

When I woke up this morning, things were lookin’ bad
Seem like total silence was the only friend I had
Bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down… and won
And it was twelve o’clock before I realized
That I was havin’ no fun

But fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun

Last time I checked my bankroll,
It was gettin’ thin
Sometimes it seems like the bottom
Is the only place I’ve been
I Chased a rainbow down a one-way street dead end
And all my friends turned out to be insurance salesmen

But fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun

Well, I sat down in my closet with all my overalls
Tryin’ to get away
From all the ears inside my walls
I dreamed the police heard
Everything I thought… what then?
Well I went to court
And the judge’s name was Hoffman

Ah but fortunately I have the key to escape reality
And you may see me tonight with an illegal smile
It don’t cost very much, but it lasts a long while
Won’t you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone
No I’m just tryin’ to have me some fun
Well done, hot dog bun, my sister’s a nun

When John contracted the Virus, I figured that with only one lung, he was a goner, and sure enough, he’s a long gone daddy now.  However, what a body of work he has left behind. If his debut self-titled album is the only one you know, check out this link from Billboard.

And I’ll leave you with this duet with Iris Dement before the YouTube people snatch it away.

 

 

Stephen Foster Is in the Cold, Cold Ground – But Then Again, Not Really

foster sitting

Now that I’m retired, I begin each morning with a leisurely stroll through the pages of  “The South’s Oldest Newspaper,” the Post and Courier.  One of my favorite features is “Today in History,” which chronologically recaps the high-and-lowlights that occurred on the day the edition appears.  For example, today, the 13th of January, we have in 1941 Puerto Ricans gaining birthright citizenship and James Joyce succumbing to an ulcer less than a month before his 59th birthday.

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die; over us dead they bend. Joyce, from Ulysses

The 13th of January was an unlucky day for several other notables as well.  In 1962 Comedian Ernie Kovacs perished in an auto crash, and 16 years later, former Vice President Hubert H Humphrey died in Waverly, Minnesota at the age of 66.

The saddest death recorded that day, however, belongs to Stephen Foster, America’s first great songwriter, who, estranged from his wife, drunkenly slipped on a piece of glass while shaving in a flophouse in the Bowery.  In the fall, he accidentally cut his neck, was found on the floor in a pool of blood, and died at Bellevue Hospital 3 days later.  On the day of his death, his worldly possessions consisted of that razor, a comb, a few items of clothing, and a leather wallet. The wallet contained 38 cents in Civil War scrip, 3 pennies, and a scrap of paper with the words “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” scrawled on it.

fde9f7c912c359247e2c3a7c66c56e47.jpgI first heard of Stephen Foster’s music orally when my father would rock and sing me to sleep and from my Grandfather Kiki who sang  “Campton Ladies” while playing his ukulele.

‘Doo-dah, doo-dah.”

My father, a sentimentalist, told me about Foster’s sad life, often the fate of geniuses, he intimated.  Although Foster did write comic songs, the majority of them pulled on the proverbial heartstrings.

We have roamed and loved mid the bowers

When thy downy cheeks were in their bloom

Now I stand alone mid the flowers

While they mingle their perfumes o’er thy tomb.

Because he wrote for the Christy Minstrels, a Northern blackface minstrel troupe, and sentimentalized the plight of slaves, Foster is now a controversial figure. Defenders claim that Foster’s attitude was sympathetic and that he admired African American slaves.

Others, not surprisingly, disagree. In  2010 members of the Yale Glee Club refused to sing “My Old Kentucky Home” at a concert and later burned a copy of the song, according to Ken Emerson, Foster’s biographer, “[My Old Kentucky Home], he writes, “was actually inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a deeply abolitionist novel. And the sense of loss here, and the sense is because Uncle Tom is being sold down the river as he was in the famous novel.”

Ironically, Foster hailed from Pennsylvania and only travelled below the Mason-Dixon line once in his life on a honeymoon steamboat cruise to New Orleans.

Emerson, the biographer, goes on to say, “his politics were definitely not abolitionist, but his heart and his feelings were very strongly sympathetic with the African-American plight. This contradiction, I think, is – the conflict between sentimentality and self-interest is something that, I think, characterizes – has always characterized Americans.”

And the songs themselves reflect the ol’ melting pot metaphor, an amalgam of Irish, African American, Italian, German, and Czechoslovakian influences.  For example, “Oh Susanna” is rendered in a polka beat.

Again, Emerson: And I think he merged [the various musical influences] in way that appeals to the multicultural, mongrel experience of America in its history and culture.”

The bottom line is that Foster remains popular even today, a century-and-a-half after his death, a rarity for a pop artist. In fact, I own a 2004 tribute album that features such artists as Alvin Youngblood Heart, John Prine, Mavis Staples, Roger McQuinn, and Michelle Shocked.

The combination of those beautiful melodies he created and pathos he conjured can still mesmerize.