Monday, April 13, 2020

John Prine, Folk Poet and Prophet

John Prine


Last week the legendary folk musician, John Prine, died in his 70's from COVID-19. Prine was very ill, then seemed to be getting better, then the announcement came of his death. He was discovered, so it was said, by another legend, film critic Roger Ebert, who after watching a film stopped in to a Chicago bar for a beer and heard a musician about whom he wrote an article, praising his song lyrics. 

I heard John Prine in 1972, if my math is correct, at the Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto Island. He was relatively new to the folk scene but already recognized as a songwriter who offered a gritty, powerful perspective on life. Apparently he wrote his first social commentary song around 1968 and there were many which followed.

One of the more controversial was Sam Stone  written about a drug-addicted Vietnam War veteran who dies by overdoseThe most familiar and controversial refrain in the song is 

"There's a hole in daddy's arm, where all the money goes, 
Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose."

Some people were offended by the supposedly sacrilege and even walked out of his appearances.Johnny Cash sang the song but only after he convinced Prine to alter that phrase for him. I was an earnest teen Christian at the time and found the line jarring, but I realized that he was making a statement about the futility of war and its tragic consequences for those who are supposedly survivors. 

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God and Jesus and faith showed up in John Prine songs, usually with a wry turn. Jesus, the Missing Years muses about what happened during the time Jesus turned twelve and the beginning of his public ministry at age thirty. 

In a Rolling Stone interview when he turned seventy Prine said that he believed in God, but was sick of the way evangelical Christians use the Bible as a political weapon against gays and transgender people. “I think of the Bible as an unauthorized biography.. I think that the disciples were all trying to vie for their personal time that they spent around Jesus. If I wrote anything, I would go toward that."

Well, another loss amidst so many in this pandemic. Thanks, John Prine, for being a poetic and perhaps prophetic voice in a turbulent time. 

God only knows the price that you pay
For the ones you hurt along the way
If I should betray myself today
Then God only knows the price I pay
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows the way that I feel
Is only a part of the way that I feel
If I can't reveal that way that I feel
Then God only knows the way that I feel
God only knows
God only knows
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows when I'm not true
To the things I say and the things I do
And if I can't be true to the things that I do
Then God only knows the way I feel
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows
God only knows

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