Great Writers (and me) on Writing

Tony - Writing

I have some great news for which I am very thankful.  I have accepted a position as a writing instructor at a local community college.  The course is called “Introduction to Academic Writing” and it is primarily designed to teach beginning students to construct well written, persuasive essays.

To make the most of this educational opportunity, however, I want to share my passion for writing as well as the mechanics of how to do it well.  To prepare, I have pulled out part of a post (below) I wrote on writing.

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song. ― Maya Angelou

The primary purpose of good writing is not to fix a problem, but to make it more meaningful and beautiful to live in a world filled with problems.  This is one reason I don’t read more Charles Dickens and why I haven’t even started Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.  I’m thinking more of fiction here, but even good non-fiction should steer clear of one-dimensional moralism if it is to be effective.  The song must be sung, not explained or advocated or shouted out.  Which leads to my next quote –

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov

Again, while this is true for any writing, I find it especially true for songs and poems.  Don’t say you’re depressed because your girlfriend broke up with you and then go on for 500 words telling me the symptoms of your depression.  Pay a therapist to do that.  Instead,  paint a picture of your sadness, like John Prine in the chorus of  “The Blue Umbrella” –

Blue umbrella
rest upon my shoulder
hide 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.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ― Mark TwainThe Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain

Here is where I’m going to put in a plug for self-editing. I read a lot of blogs about writing and I notice that many writers mark their progress by their word count.  Some even set goals of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words a day (or some such amount).  I believe if your goal is good writing, you should lo0k instead at how many words you delete.  I knew of a college professor who set page limits to essays.  If you exceeded the number, he would rip off the extra pages, throw them away and write across the paper, “It seemed a little incomplete.  Try again.”  One right word yields far greater power than two (or three, or one hundred) wrong ones.

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple. ― Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I like this quote both for its humility and wisdom.  The truth is, we never really get it “right” in this writing life.  Becoming better writers should always be our goal for some distant “one day.”  The direction we should be headed to get there, however, clearly should not involve complex formulas but simple methods of telling it like it is better than we told it the last time, possibly even better than anyone has told it before

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. ― Flannery O’Connor

In terms of writing material, we have a lot within us into which we often fail to tap.  It’s true if you are writing on any subject, you should do good research and not just sit back in your writing chair (mine is a recliner) and write what is on your mind.  Still, if we just pay enough attention to our lives (and the world around us), we will have plenty to start writing every time.

In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody. ― Oscar Wilde

What may have been witty hyperbole in Wilde’s day has become almost literal truth today.  I visit many blogs that have few (if any hits).  E-books are being published that sell almost no copies.  You can’t even give them away.  We could debate what is worthy to be read, but I believe three of my primary obligations as a writer are to read, read, read.  Read what others are writing on their blogs.  Read new books being published by known and unknown authors.  And then, to relax before bed, read (or listen to) the classics (including the Bible) to let my mind be refreshed by the gifted wordsmiths of days gone by.

What are your thoughts on writing?  What quote sums up what you believe most true for you as a writer?

My Mock Interview for a Marketing Internship

This morning I met with a job coach who offered me some very useful suggestions to help prepare for my coffee meeting tomorrow.  After our meeting, she hooked me up with a video slide show on “Informational Interviewing.”  One tip they provided that stood out for me was “BE SERIOUS.”  In an effort to purge myself of silliness (sort of like Mardi Gras before Lent), I thought I would write this post, imagining how the meeting could go (if I were to let it).

Marketing Guru (MG):  Tony Roberts?
Me:  Yes.  (extends hand)
MG:  Wow, has anyone told you you look like Brad Pitt?
Me:  I get that a lot.  We have the same optometrist.
MG:  I love the outfit.  Very hip.
Me:  I can’t take the credit.  I don’t dress myself.  I have people, you know.
MG:  Well, thank you for meeting me.  Would you like some coffee?
Me:  That would be great.  Some Americano.  I like supporting the local economy.
MG:  (to clerk)  That’ll be two Americanos, please.
          (to Tony)  So, you are interested in the field of marketing?
Me:  I am.  I have a way with words and I’d like to help small businesses and non-profits realize their potential.
MG:  How did you find out about our firm?
Me:  Through LinkedIn.  I explored your website and I’m impressed by your neighborhood focus and your creative approach.
MG:  Thank you.  Tell me, what have you done that could prepare you for a career in marketing?
Me:  Well, being a pastor involves a lot of marketing.  Only, instead of a product or service, you offer new life.  As pastor, I’ve led a creative team of volunteers and paid staff to interpret mission, build relationships, and foster community.
MG:  If you were a character on Sesame Street, who would you be?
Me:  Excellent question.  I admire Elmo’s playful charm, but I am more like Kermit, inquisitive and a real team-builder.
MG:  Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Me:  I would love to be doing work with a firm like yours, living in a neighborhood like this, writing day and night.
MG:  Do you have any questions for me?
Me:  Just one, but I’m afraid to ask.
MG:  Don’t be.  Go right ahead.
Me:  Do you know of John Prine?
MG:  Oh my, yes.  Greatest singer-songwriter on the planet.
Me:  Phew!  Okay, thanks.
MG:  Why?  Could that have been a deal breaker?
Me:  It could have, yes.
MG:  Well, thank you for contacting me.  You’ve given me a lot to think about.  I’ll be in touch.
Me:  Thank you for your time.  I really appreciate it.
brad pitt appears courtesy Brenda Clayton in Bespectacled

What do you think?

Would you hire this guy?

The Suicide of Sam Stone: Remembering All Our Fallen Soldiers

 John Prine’s song “Sam Stone” tells the story of a soldier who comes home from Vietnam, a wounded warrior.  Not only is he physically injured, he is also psychologically and spiritually consumed.

And the time that he served,  

Had shattered all his nerves,  

And left a little shrapnel in his knee.   

But the morphine eased the pain,  

And the grass grew round his brain,  

And gave him all the confidence he lacked,  

With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.

We then see the terrible impact of Sam’s wounds on his family as the chorus shifts from a third-person narrative to a plaintive first-person plea from the perspective of Sam’s child.

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,  

Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.  

Little pitchers have big ears,  

Don’t stop to count the years,  

Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.  

Mmm….

Sam’s addiction leaves him ill-equipped to face the demands as a worker and father.

Sam Stone’s welcome home  

Didn’t last too long.  

He went to work when he’d spent his last dime  

And Sammy took to stealing  

When he got that empty feeling  

For a hundred dollar habit without overtime.   

And the gold rolled through his veins  

Like a thousand railroad trains,

And eased his mind in the hours that he chose,  

While the kids ran around wearin’ other peoples’ clothes…

Ultimately, this wounded warrior chooses to end his struggle.

Sam Stone was alone  

When he popped his last balloon  

Climbing walls while sitting in a chair  

Well, he played his last request  

While the room smelled just like death  

With an overdose hovering in the air  

But life had lost its fun  

And there was nothing to be done  

But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill  

For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill.

On this Memorial Day, it is important we remember all those who have given up their lives in the service of our country.  Some died (and are dying) while fighting on a military battlefield.  Some died (and are dying) fighting the effects of war in the battlefield of their mind.  My prayer for each of them, as well as for those they’ve left behind is,

“God rest your soul.”

 

Veterans Suicide Help‎   (800) 273-8255

Caregivers of Wounded Warriors SparkTeam from Torrey Shannon in Caregiver Resources

John Prine, Prison, Sex, Religion, Abe Lincoln, Grammar and Happy Meals (favorite Google Hits)

photo

I was inspired by a recent blog post I read to check out the Google searches people have used to find “A Way With Words”.

My overall impression is that Google Search is doing a fine job of directing readers I want to reach my way.  I hope, in turn, they are finding here much of what they are looking for.

I thought it might be a helpful service, however, to directly address a few of the searches I found particularly appealing –

has john prine ever been to prison

No, you are thinking of Johnny Cash, who recorded “Live at Folsom Prison”.  John Prine did write the song “Christmas in Prison” but he did this with his artistic imagination and poetic license (which he keeps in his billfold next to a picture of Fiona in a bathing suit).

the pursuit of happiness sex scene

Hmmm.  I guess I could work in a sex scene between my 70+ year old lead characters, but that would be just, well… gross.

religion is a system of wishful illusions

On the contrary, as C.S. Lewis once wrote – “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next.”

which president is better abe or george and why

Well, according to one of my new blogging buddies, Abraham Lincoln was actually one of our worst Presidents.  I disagree.  While it’s hard to definitively discern history, I believe Lincoln did as good a job managing the worst period in our nation’s history as any President before or after him has done (in much less difficult times).

why is there a place for grammar and mechanics in modern culture

Just as the sun rises in the morning and the moon rises as night. we rely on grammar rules and mechanics to provide anchor our words such that we can make beautiful sense.

how to write an interview on happy meal

Go to the source.  Old McDonald’s Farm.

Built to Last (inspired by John Prine’s “One Red Rose”)

Our Cabin by Rick Scully

The rain came down on the tin roof, creating a soft white noise that Lydia found soothing.

“That roof is built to last.”  said her Grandfather long ago and again and again in her childhood

Each time it rained.

“Not everything is built to last.  But that roof will outlive me.”

It rained the day of his funeral and the tin roof held.

Shielding them from the sorrow of their loss.

#     #     #

“Did you remember to give Phoebe her umbrella?” Lydia asked.

“No.  I thought you did.” replied Donald.

Lydia sighed, weary of words that went no where.

Her parents had given Donald and Lydia a week’s retreat at the family cabin,

An anniversary gift to the two of them,

And a birthday present to Phoebe, who shared the day with them.

They hoped it might help.

“It’s the least we can do,” they said.

#     #     #

“Why don’t we go to bed early and save clean up for tomorrow?” suggested Donald.

Lydia was too tired to protest.

She took one last look around the room.

Dirty paper plates.

Crumpled paper streamers.

Half-hanging cardboard sign.

She walked away, leaving the kitchen light on.

#     #     #

As Lydia walked to the bedroom, her eyes fell on the family Bible.

She opened it up and found the rose pressed between the pages.

She heard her Grandmother’s voice from the day Lydia shared the news of her engagement.

“Marriage is hard work,” said her Grandmother.

“I want you to have this.”

She gave Lydia the Bible.

“This is the holy alphabet for your marriage.”

She opened it up to a rose.

“Your grandfather gave me this rose on our wedding day.”

She closed the book and handed it to Lydia.

“I want you to keep this.”

#     #     #

Now, her grandmother was gone.

Lydia closed the Bible on the rose.

Some of its remains fell to the floor.

Some things just aren’t built to last.

This poem first appeared as a blog post on January 3, 2013.  It was republished in thematticuskingdom on March 26.  You can hear John Prine sing “One Red Rose” – here.

(photo: “Our Cabin” from Rick Scully, some rights reserved)

George Jones’ Choices

It was almost midnight when I got the news that country-and-western legend George Jones “The Possum” died yesterday.  He was 81.

When I told my Dad this morning, his first response was “We’re going to the funeral.”  Then, he remarked sadly, “His drinking finally caught up to him.”

It brought to mind a lyric from the John Prine song, “Please Don’t Bury Me” (an anthem for organ donation) that goes –

Give my stomach to Milwaukee
If they run out of beer

If Jones drank up to even half his reputation, there is no doubt that his kidney and liver must have been pickled, but in his case it seems to have worked as a preservative.  “The Possum” performed his music over a span of almost 60 years, much of it heavily under the influence of alcohol.  According a New York Times article

“White Lightning,”a No. 1 country hit in 1959, required 83 takes because Mr. Jones was drinking through the session. On the road, playing one-night stands, he tore up hotel rooms and got into brawls. He also began missing shows because he was too drunk to perform.

I had the pleasure of seeing George Jones at the Little Opry House in Nashville, Indiana in 1984.  True to form, he was late appearing on stage as his crew frantically worked to sober him up.  When he did arrive on stage, it took two large men (on either side of him) to hold him up and keep him in the general vicinity of the microphone.  Yet, his voice remained strong as he belted out –

They call me No Show Jones.
(They call him No Show Jones)
I’m seldom never on
(He’s seldom never on)
The stage singin’ my songs
My whereabouts are unknown.
(They call him No Show Jones)
They call me No Show Jones.

The audience went wild – cheering on this man who could get away with so much yet sing so well.

One of the paradoxes of George Jones is that while he clearly broke nearly all the rules that lead to life (drinking, drugging, failure to support wives and children), his music still affirmed a moral universe.  His Grammy-award winning song “Choices” expresses this well –

I’ve had choices since the day that I was born

There were voices that told me right from wrong

If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today

Living and dying with the choices I’ve made

George Jones was perhaps the second greatest male country singer who ever lived.  And unlike the first (Hank Williams, Sr.), he was able to beat the odds, to live the hard life celebrated in song, to drown his sorrow and come up just in time for air time and time again.  He was able to temporarily put off his pain in pursuit of pleasure.

God only knows where this pursuit has ultimately led him.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live…  (Deuteronomy 30:19)

(photo above “George Jones – Rest in Peace” from  Laurie in Books & Movies & Music & TV & People)

A Day in The Life of the Unemployed

I will admit since being on disability, there have been days I’ve gotten next to nothing done.  Today was not one of them.

After a bowl of honey-nut cheerios and a banana, I filled a travel mug of coffee and set up a card table to start organizing my book Delight in Disorder: Meditations from a Bipolar Mind to prepare for the second draft.  As my editor, Leanne Sype, recommended I put the meditations into “rooms” of the “house” that is my bipolar mind.  I was hoping to come up with 7 (the number of completion), but wound up with 6 – “The Front Porch”, “The Family Room”, “The Living Room”, “The Basement”, “The Prayer Closet”, and “The Kitchen”.  I managed to complete the introduction for “The Front Porch” and arrange the meditations on it bef0re it was time for lunch.

I decided I wasn’t really hungry yet, so I packed a peanut butter-and-honey sandwich along with some tortilla chips and hummus and headed for Bloomington.  On the way I stopped at Best Buy to question a charge.  Evidently, my sister paid a $160 hard-drive warranty on my laptop.  So, if I get mad at something I read on another blog and slam the computer against the wall, I’m covered.

I went to the Monroe County Public Library hoping to download an audio book and do some work on-line.  I picked out Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.  I had trouble accessing the Internet and nobody at the library or on the Best Buy Geek Squad call-in line could fix it, so I abandoned the project and headed to the Scholars Inn Bakehouse to meet a pastor friend for coffee.

I got there early, filled up my travel mug with the House Blend then looked at the posters for something I might do this weekend.  I noticed that The Bloomington Storytelling Project was hosting an event called “In the Beginning” at the Bishop tomorrow night (April 26) from 8-10 p.m..  I thought I might just go.  Then I noticed at the bottom of the poster that storytellers were welcome.  I thought I might just tell a story.

I sat down at a table and started putting meditations in order within their respective rooms.  I was so engrossed in this project that I didn’t see my friend Dan pass by.  When I looked up at the clock, it was 15 minutes after the time we were set to meet, so I started to text him.  At the same time, he saw me and came over and invited me to his table.

We caught up on our lives since the last time we met for coffee (a couple months back).  He asked about my writing.  I asked about his church.   Dan is part of an effort currently called The Bloomington Project “to become a community of grace in the city of Bloomington in order to speak grace to the people of Bloomington.”  Dan is a very bright and compassionate man who has a heart for Christ and a desire to reach out to others.  We talked about many things and before we left Dan prayed for me and my family, for which I am grateful.

On the ride home, I made some calls.  It looks very good that the friend I had mentioned in earlier posts is pursuing valuable treatment and her housing needs are being met.  God has provided bountifully (through insurance coverage), such that the financial burden shouldn’t weigh heavily on her or others in the family.  Praise the Lord!

I also spoke to my Dad and it looks as though my step-mom will be coming home tomorrow (after having successful knee replacement surgery).  Dad celebrated by making a donation to his favorite cause – the casino.

I got back in time to pick up my brother-in-law and take him to the auto repair shop where he picked up his car.  I took my laptop to the in-house geek squad and it appeared as if he fixed it (though it still doesn’t work at home).

I had baked potato (actually, microwaved) with chili and cheese on top for supper.   We updated each other on our days and I asked if one of them might go with me to the Storytelling Event (to keep me awake on the drive home – 10 p.m. is almost passed my bedtime).

Now, I’m sitting here reflecting on my day, listening to John Prine singing “The Late John Garfield Blues”

John Prine

An old man sleeps with his conscience at night
Young kids sleep with their dreams
While the mentally ill sit perfectly still
And live through life’s in-betweens

What a day!  It doesn’t get much better than this.

(photo of John Prine from colleen onto I heard there was a secret chord)

My E-Mail Litmus Test and My New Soul Mate

I’ve been “all over the map” with my writing lately and haven’t responded to prompts for some time.  So when I saw something about “Prompts for the Promptless” over at rarasaur I thought, “Wow, she’s writing this just for me!”  (Which, is a little like a pre-pubescent girl sitting in the back row at a Justin Bieber concert thinking he’s singing for her.)  As touched as I was, I nonetheless was too busy meditating on Jesus and Spring cleaning my blog to respond.

Then two serendipitous things happened.

First, I finally paid attention to the lyrics of a song that has rapidly become one of my all-time favorites – “If I Can’t Trust You With a Quarter (How Can I Trust You With My Heart)” by Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers.  The chorus of the song is classic –

You know I’m a jukebox honey,
But I ain’t got much money.
Said you had a song that you wanted to hear so I gave my change to you.
When I heard that jukebox start I knew the cupid’s dart had missed its mark.
If I can’t trust you with a  quarter how can I trust you with my heart?

But the lyrics that grabbed me were at the end of the second verse –

When you said you’d never heard of John Prine,
Well I knew right away you  weren’t worth my time.
And I’m sorry to say hon before we’d begun,
We were  already through.

Then, I found myself back at rarasaur’s blog, where I read her take on the “prompt for the promptless” (the prompt is, by the way “The Litmus Test”).  I was thus inspired, nay, compelled, to write this post.

I conduct a sort of “litmus test” every time I send someone an e-mail.  You see, my e-mail address is – johnprine1982@gmail.com .  Though I begin e-mails to new recipients with the words – “My name is Tony Roberts (John Prine is my muse).” – I can’t tell you how many responses I’ve gotten that begin – “Dear John,”  Fittingly, I consider this the end of our relationship.

On the other hand, I received an e-mail reply from a prospective employer that began “I’m a big Prine fan, too.  I saw him at the Murat last year.”  (I was in McDonald’s when I read that and I think the gentleman sitting beside me thought I had just won the lottery as he watched me jump up and down, spin around in circles and wave my hands in the air.)

When I first became a John Prine fan (in 1982, in case you haven’t picked up the hint in my e-mail address), I was hard pressed to find even a single soul who knew of his work.  When I started going to his concerts (around 1986), I encountered many people even more fanatical than I (but I’m not sure they came out of their parents’ basements except to attend Prine concerts).

I set my “litmus test” low when I started dating.  Basically, if a woman would feign interest in Prine and not just say, “Huh?” when I quoted his songs to make a point in conversation, I would consider her dating material.  Once I hit the jackpot and dated a young woman who became quite a Prine fan.  I made a mix tape for her filled with his music.  She dumped me.  But she still listens to Prine.

I took a huge leap of faith when I married my wife, who is not a Prine fan at all.  Without going into details you’d have to charge me $100/hour to unload, I’ll just say we are separated now.

So tonight, when I heard Zoe Muth singing these litmus-test lyrics about John Prine, the thought occurred to me – “I think I finally found my soul mate.”

Zoe, if you’re reading this, I’m not looking for any sort of commitment (I’m still married, for Christ’s sake).

I just want you to know – you’re okay in my book.  Anytime you want to drop by for a distilled water and peanut M&Ms, it’s fine by me.

Bring your guitar.  I’ll leave the light on for you.  Heck, I’ll even brew some decafe and let you use my favorite mug.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers by charliebay

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers from charliebay

Who Do I Have To Sleep With To Get Freshly Pressed?: 5 Press-Worthy Posts

Angry_man by Gallivanting Gai

Know this – I am a moralist.  Some describe me as a neo-Puritan (to my face – God only knows what they call me behind my back).

But I am also a pragmatist.  I like to understand how things work so I can get what I want.  I don’t like beating around the bush.  Some say life is a journey, not a destination.  Well, I’m not big on journeys.  Give me a Star Trek teleporter and I’m good to go.

I started this blog – originally called Will Write For Food (and maybe dental) in December of last year.  For fours months, I’ve been slaving daily over this laptop (sitting in my electric recliner, listening to John Prine radio on Spotify).  I’ve been cranking out stories and poems,  book reviews and cultural essays, engaging in writing exercises and linking to intriguing sites.  Sure, I’ve won my share of awards – the Inspiring Blogger, the ABC award, the Liebster (just to name a few).  I’ve received some helpful and favorable comments and been “liked” a great deal.

But….

Not once have I been Freshly Pressed.

So, I ask you – what does a guy have to do?

I mean, just consider these 5 particular posts (quoted below) –

On Becoming a Gay Brit

Why, just the idea of going to the local pub for a pint to cheer on a group of footballers who are really playing soccer and screaming “Bloody, Bloody, Bloody!” (without it really seeming like profanity) would be a thrilling way to spend an afternoon.

“Tantalizing Titles for Top-Selling Books”

Jonathon Livingston Seagull Contracts the Avian Flu

In his pursuit of perfection, Jonathon learns that even adorable fictitious seagulls are only human.  While living in a commune with a gaggle of positive-thinking bird lovers, Jonathon contracts the flu from a flock of chickens.  Within weeks, the community is decimated.  The chickens survive long enough to be made into McNuggets.

Cold War Carl and Democrat Don Diagnose the World’s Problems (Episode One: Mental Illness)

Carl:  Well, I’m just an ignorant Kentuckian with a 6th grade education, but if you ask me, the world has gotten too complicated.  What with all the technology.  People going here and going there.  All stressed out.  I think the Amish have the right idea.

Don:  I don’t know about that.  But it is true that with technology the way it is, the world has become a smaller place.  They’ve got videos set up everywhere.   Why, I’m sure they’re filming us here right now.

Carl:  You bet they are.  It’s the Russians.

Don:  It isn’t the Russians.  It’s the Republicans.

Tuna Fish Friday (a prompted poem)

Are you sure today isn’t Friday?”

We had meatloaf yesterday.

We have meatloaf on Thursdays.

And we had meatloaf yesterday

And Bingo.

We always play Bingo on Friday.

And we just played Bingo.

Are you sure today isn’t Friday?

I’m sure this is Friday.

I’m as sure as I’m sitting here.

I’m as sure as day is day.

And night is night.

Today is definitely Friday.

But this sure as hell isn’t tuna fish.

“My Top 10 Anti-Resolutions for 2013”

9.  I will not go to the Super Bowl, sit behind the goal post and wave a placard with ”Habbakuk 2:16b” on it.   { ”Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed…”}.

8.  I will not personally disprove the Big Bang theory.

6.  I will not petition the Vatican to make folk singer John Prine a saint.  He has been divorced and remarried (at least once).  He is not Roman Catholic.  And neither am I.

3.  I will not comment on a blog post written by a woman grieving the sudden death of her husband by correcting her grammar. {“i (I)  m (am) so sad(.) he (He) wus (was)my life.}”   I will also not ask her out on a date.

So, who do I have to sleep with to be Freshly Pressed?  Those of you who have been there, how about you?

(image above “Angry man” from Gallivanting Gai)

Roger Ebert on John Prine, The Singing Mailman Who Delivers

Roger Ebert. Click on the picture to check our catalog.

When John Prine was still working for the U.S. Postal Service, performing on the weekends at “The Fifth Peg” in Chicago, a certain ambitious movie critic named Roger Ebert happened to drop by the bar and listen to his set.

After the show, he quickly sat down at his typewriter and cranked out a review he called, “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words”.  You can find the review (as well as some Prine video performances) on Ebert’s blog as the post – John Prine: American Legend.

To give you just a taste, here are some snippets –

He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.

He does a song called “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” for example, that says more about the last 20 years in America than any dozen adolescent acid-rock peace dirges. It’s about a guy named Sam Stone who fought in Korea and got some shrapnel in his knee.

But the morphine eased the pain, and Sam Stone came home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.” That’s Sam Stone’s story, but the tragedy doesn’t end there. In the chorus, Prine reverses the point of view with an image of stunning power:

“There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm

Where all the money goes…”

Prine’s songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They’re nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He’s closer to Hank Williams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. “In my songs,” he says, “I try to look through someone else’s eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message.”

I ran across this review on Ebert’s blog (in February 22 of this year, almost 25 years after it was written).  I was inspired to respond with an allusion to another Prine song called “Spanish Pipedream” –

I first discovered John Prine on television, of all places, as I saw his PBS documentary in December of 1982. 

I responded by blowing up my TV, going out and picking up a topless lady with something up her sleeve.   We moved to the country where we eat peaches and raise children who all find Jesus on their own.

I appreciated the review, Mr. Ebert.  Keep up the good work.  Maybe someday you’ll get discovered, too, and you can quit your day job.

photo of Roger Ebert from Kendra in Illinois Authors)