John Prine died from complications due to COVID-19 in Nashville last week. Prine was a beloved singer and songwriter whose career spanned over 50 years. His vivid, plain spoken songs dealt with the human condition: the loneliness of old age, his own mortality, damaged veterans returning home from overseas, his parents’ hometown being swept away by a coal company, the idiosyncrasies of marriage. His physical disappearance from this world is being mourned by generations of fans and loved ones who found truth in his lyrics, honesty in his singing, and comfort in his presence.
Political organizing and music have often found common ground, from the union songs written by Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger to the Greenwich Village songwriters protesting the Vietnam War, from the spirituals sung by enslaved people seeking freedom to hip hop’s defiance of the war on drugs and racism. More often than not, however, political songs lack the personal characteristics of the songs we listen to with our families, with friends late at night, or in bed with our lovers. Rage Against the Machine may blare through the speakers on the way to a protest, but not on the way back when we’re feeling tired and vulnerable.
It’s likely I first listened to John Prine as a young child at an aunt’s house or on the radio with my parents, but my love for him did not develop until my early 20s, around the same time I was moving towards political activism. My teens had been filled with angst at the injustices and monotony of the Bush years and disappointment of the Obama years which frayed many of my relationships and set me on a path where I never lived in the same place for more than a year. I was restless, looking for some way out of a society I wanted nothing to do with. This of course failed: first, there’s no way to escape, and second, what is there to do once you do escape? It’s lonely without friends and family, living alongside companions, struggling with them to make sense of a complicated world, trying to find some humor in it, and working to make the world a better place.
This was what I found with John Prine. There’s no way to live meaningfully other than to look at reality in the face along with the people you love and have some laughs along the way. His lyrics bring tears and laughter right next to each other where they belong, and contain a wisdom I craved while beginning to confront adulthood. Here was a guy who had figured some things out and was generously sharing them with his listeners, not isolating himself to hold on to truths only for himself.
As I immersed myself into the organizing world doing labor organizing, working on the Bernie 2016 campaign, and working with a local socialist organization in Greensboro, I would try to hide my love for singers like John Prine who opened me to other great country songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Liking country and folk music, I thought was a surefire way to be cast off as a reactionary or poser in comparison to the hip hop, punk rock, and reggaeton played on the way to protests and actions. This is music I love for the energy and sense of resistance it inspires, but whenever I got home or was driving to work I increasingly turned to songs that made me feel whole, that helped me make sense of my thoughts and feelings.
For a long time I tried to keep these worlds separate: my organizing life and my personal life. I found it hard to reconcile wanting to see the end of capitalism and oppression with a love for music so often conflated with patriotism and reaction. To try to bridge the gap, I began diving deeper into the lyrics and lives of performers like John Prine in order to politically justify my taste. This was much easier than I initially expected.
While I knew the words to many of Prine’s classics like “Paradise” and “Sam Stone” I had not yet connected the dots between the stories and their political implications. “Paradise” is a nostalgic tale of Prine’s youth, going to visit his parents’ hometown of Paradise in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He recalls shooting pop bottles with pistols, travelling down the Green River, and the “backwards old town that’s often remembered/ So many times that my memories are worn.” The song transports me back to summertime, exploring the woods with my cousins at family reunions. By the end of the song, however, the place where all these memories were made disappears on “Mr. Peabody’s coal train,” the small town strip mined into oblivion. When I finally connected the dots it was like a lightbulb went off in my head: this is an anticapitalist song. It’s a rejection of the extractive industry, and a celebration of home and community. And it’s more clearly communicated than anything I’ve read in the leftist press.
Prine grew up outside of Chicago to parents born in the town “Paradise” is set, part of the wave of migrants from the South during the Depression-WWII era. His father was a labor leader in the local tool-and-die union. Prine worked a range of jobs including a mail carrier before being drafted into the army during the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Although he was never deployed to Vietnam, many of his friends were, and came back to live shattered lives filled with anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. His masterpiece “Sam Stone” explores the impact of the war on one veteran who eventually dies of an overdose, so dejected by his wartime experience he muses “Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose.”
Amongst radicals, the working class is often discussed only in the abstract, something “out there” whose energy needs to be harnessed in order to win a better world. For John Prine the working class was always something very concrete. It was filled with characters who laughed and cried, longed for a better future, bickered with their loved ones. They are the kinds of characters you can picture in your home, amongst your friends and family, complicated and full. They don’t have it easy, but they try hard to love and support the people around them. They are not abstractions, but living and breathing people working their way through relationships, money problems, aging, work, and kids.
John Prine helped me to merge two parts of myself I thought would forever remain separate. His songs have only deepened my resolve that people deserve dignity and laughter in their lives, especially in these uncertain days of anxiety and fear. There is no doubt in my mind that had he made it through his bout with COVID-19 that he would have a whole host of new songs to cheer us up or help us process our experience in quarantine. Unfortunately government neglect turned Prine into another statistic.
Listening to his songs again during the pandemic has given new life to their meaning. Whether it’s the loneliness of the older generation trapped at home already envisioned by his “Hello in There,” or the sense of community grieving he explores in “Chain of Sorrow.” It is a testament to his masterful lyrics that songs written 50 years ago today feel as relevant as ever. They engage a deep empathy for both kin and strangers that is the basic material for the social solidarity so deeply needed in this moment.
Empathy was John Prine’s superpower. There are no true villains or heroes in his songs, but rather a deep sense of him imagining the most intimate thoughts and feelings of others. For all of the talking activists and organizers do about the problems in this world, we often forget this most basic element of extending ourselves into the lived experiences of others. We may know the statistics and theories to identify social problems, but fall short of imagining in vulnerable detail the lived experience of that issue. We would do well to follow John Prine’s example.
John Prine will be missed dearly by generations of people who listened to him at work, on car rides with their families, and on the porch with buddies. The Left should grieve as well. His songs represent some of the most vivid portraits of working class life in American music, and his ability to bring people together across generations and backgrounds by empathizing with them in his songs is a model for building the intimate solidarity needed for any transformational movement.
Hamish O’Brien [he/him] is an organizer in Greensboro, a grad student, and is ashamed to have been born in the North.