The CBS This Morning piece on John Prine is not online, but my entire sit-down with him can be found here. The quite extended dance cut of the interview can be found here. There are other pieces up on YouTube too, including one about how John Prine anticipates his silverware needs. Another post has some clippings from a good read on him.
I first heard John Prine in college. I used to try to listen to him while I was writing. I never could do very much writing though, because I’d always stop and listen to the words. Even long after I knew the words and had listened to the songs a thousand times and learned them on the guitar, I’d still stop and listen to the words again. I still can’t just listen to John Prine in the background very well. There are so many great songs– Paradise, Angel from Montgomery, Hello in There, Souvenirs– I started to make a list and the list became too long. So I started thinking about some of the songs that you might not know. I’ve listed a few below and why I like them.
My Mexican Home: This song breaks my heart and makes it bigger every time I hear it, too. It is, in part about his father’s death on the porch of the family home. Prine had been with him a few hours earlier. His Dad had asked him to stay a little longer, but his son had things to do. (Keep that hurry of life in mind in the third verse). The images of the heat lightening, headlights, and the train are so real to me. I’ve been on that porch. I have scraped paint flakes off my bare feet after coming inside, and I have no idea where that porch is. As Luke Skinner aptly put it on Twitter, John Prine’s songs are so vivid they feel like a memory.
Far From Me: Prine said this song is about the first girl who broke his heart. “It’ll make a songwriter out of you real quick.” He says he likes to ground a song in an image before letting in the emotion. I didn’t know that, but for me when I hear this song I think about spoons. Now I know why. I also love the rolling revelation which leads to the big thunderclap realization in the final line which is foreshadowed by that piercing line about laughter. I don’t want to ruin it, but the lights closing and the junebug…Oh boy.
Bottomless Lake: Enough about these sad songs. This was my son’s favorite song as a little kid. I think it’s still a favorite of his. It’s for sure one of mine.
Oldest Baby in the World: John Prine’s introductions to his songs are sometimes as wonderful as the songs themselves. This song has a typical one. Oh and here’s a great description of Angel from Montgomery from a great old video.
Summer’s End: For me the end of summer means the sharp stab of time passing. You look at the clock and the hands are spinning fast enough to cut sandwich meats. The shadows crossing the ceiling in the song make me think of twilight which is the daily version of the same feeling. Where did the time go? Why didn’t I use it more wisely? But of course if you hurry summer. If you march your swimming suits to the clothes dryer instead of letting them line dry, then you haven’t had a summer.
For John Prine this song might be about peach ice cream, but that’s one of the things I like about art and his music in particular. We each inhabit the songs in our own way. We move in, put up our feet and wipe the water off the table where the bottle left a ring. The feeling we get is a combination of what the musician has created and what we’re feeling and then what happens in the moment. Emerson writes about this. He returns to a book that meant so much to him and he can’t remember why. My interpretation is that he’s trying to re-light the spark that happened in a moment. Sometimes it can’t be recreated. Of course, for me, John Prine’s songs carry with them the memory of all those sparks created over the times that I’ve listened to his songs.
Unwed Fathers: I would never have guessed you could rhyme Appalachia and Greyhound station. Prine once said this is a song about “something you can’t see on the streets: unwed fathers.” I feel that way about a lot of his songs and yet it’s the detail of his songs that you can see so clearly– gray stone building for example. Wait, you might say, a gray stone building isn’t a specific image. Yes, but in a song about the distant, cold anonymous thing that’s going on in this song, I think it works mighty fine. I’ve also held on to this song because I wrote a song about my son to its tune (Red Car, not available on Spotify). That’s what I thought I was doing but then the chorus of that song has a line about eyes, as does this song. So this song has wound its way into my brain in ways I can’t quite figure.
How Lucky: A friend of mine who knows everything about anything really likes this song. I think I know why I like it, but I’m going to leave this one unsaid. (In a related note, the great song One Red Rose has a line “But what I never knew, I never will forget,” which feels like the bookend to the line about memory in How Lucky. (Also: “Hardly a sound was left/ From the birthday party” Yes…)
More to come…
6 thoughts on “John Prine Songs”
Sitting in Dallas waiting during a 4 hour delay. Stumbled upon your site John. Listening to John P is so calming. I wish I could preach it to others. Deeper than an ocean yet as simple as tying your shoe. Thanks for your insight JD.
That is a wonderful way to describe John Prine’s songs…deeper than an ocean yet as simple as tying your shoe. I tried to think of how to describe his music and lyrics yesterday but failed to articulate how many emotions his songs embody. This line is perfect. Thank you!!!
John Prime might be the greatest writer of clear yet thought provoking lyrics our country has ever known
John has a magical way of stating things. Always loved “If heartaches were commercials, we’d all be on T.V.” His music has always had a comforting effect on me, whether doing housework,cooking, or rocking my kids to sleep-John has been there with me. Stay here forever and keep the people sane.-Kevin McNeil.
Your oral recitation of My Mexican Home on John’s tribute is magnificent. Wow.
What a wonderful gift of remembrance for the man who touched our souls with his words.
Well done and thank you.
Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of JP’s songs. I was lucky enough to see John as Sting’s opening act in Albuquerque, September, 1996. This concert was on the night before I had to have a very dangerous and complicated surgery. I went to be comforted by Sting’s music (Fragile), but instead was uplifted by John Prine. I had only known Angel From Montgomery until then. I didn’t expect to laugh, be comforted and more by Prince’s performance. We just watched the Tribute. Thank you for your role in making this possible.