Discovering John Prine: A Memoir of a Muse

I went to Hanover College convinced of my brilliance, driven to succeed, ambitious to learn.  My brain was a sponge – filled with living water, yet ready to absorb more.  My professors took great efforts to first wring me dry.  My acting professor sat me down the last day of class and told me I would get a C -.

“Someone has told you you are a good actor, right?”

I just looked at him.

“Well, they were wrong.”

I did better in other classes, but it came at a cost.  My mind reeled from the politically and socially packed critique of my orthodox thinking that made up a liberal arts education.  “Question authority,” was the mantra.   “But what do you replace it with?”  I wondered.

I was home alone late one night flipping through the 4 TV channels, hoping for divine guidance.

It came in the form of a folk singer from Maywood, Illinois – John Prine.  PBS was doing a documentary on his life and music and I was immediately captivated.  Prine’s songs were poetic stories with profound meaning.

John Prine

He sang of a Vietnam War veteran.  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes.”

He sang of growing old.  “You know that old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day.  Old people just grow lonesome waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there.  Hello.'”

He sang of lost love, “Blue umbrella rests upon my shoulder, hides the pain while the rain makes up my mind.  Well, my feet are wet from thinking this thing over and it’s been so long since I felt the warm sunshine just give me one good reason and I promise I won’t ask you any more just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

But he didn’t just diagnose the problems of life, he playfully suggested solutions.  “Blow up your TV throw away your paper.  Go to the country, build you a home.  Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches.  Try and find Jesus on your own.”

Over my college and grad school years, I accumulated and devoured everything John Prine produced.  I saw him in concert 6 times.  I wrote theology papers based on his songs.  On my way to surgery once, I insisted on listening to his music through headphones on the operating table.

It’s been over 30 years now since I first discovered John Prine.  His music still means a great deal to me.  I don’t accept his worldview uncritically.  Some of his unorthodox theology makes me cringe.  But his understanding of the human condition and ability to bring words to life in song keep me coming back to him for inspiration.

For someone weighed down by deep regret and racked with terrible guilt over sins real and imagined, Prine’s words in the song “Fish and Whistle” are a liberating refrain –

“Father forgive us for what we must do.  You forgive us; we’ll forgive you.  We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue.  Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.”

(image of John Prine from Mark Bush in Images)

3 thoughts on “Discovering John Prine: A Memoir of a Muse

  1. I bought a live album of his a few years back. It’s awesome. I then bought some of his other CD’s but I prefer the live versions. Maybe just because that’s how I got to know all the songs.

    “The Late John Garfield Blues,” is one of my favorite songs ever. Live of course.

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