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Joe Henry: Five Essential John Prine Songs

Joe Henry (photo by Glen Hansard, PR)

Joe Henry (photo by Glen Hansard, PR)

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Over the past five years, the prolific Joe Henry released his gorgeous solo album, Invisible Hour; recorded songs while traveling cross-country on a train with Billy Bragg for their 2017 collaboration, Shine a Light (check out their FUV Live session); and he even co-wrote a biography with his screenwriter brother, David, about the comedian Richard Pryor. Henry managed to accomplish all of that while keeping a steady tour schedule too.

He is now on the brink of releasing his 14th studio album, Thrum, on October 27, a stirring collection which he writes evolved by a process in which "songs could flourish no other way than being thrown headlong into the proverbial sea."

Henry's voluptuous, poetic knack for description also extends to those he admires — like John Prine. He's covered Prine in concert (singing "Storm Windows" with Birds of Chicago just last month at Nashville's Americana Fest) and looks to the older songwriter's way with words as a beacon, an inspiraiton, and guide. When FUV asked Henry if he might like to write about Prine for FUV Essentials and choose "Five Essential John Prine Songs," he not only agreed, but sent along a loving and long assessment of the man and his music:

Joe Henry: Five Essential John Prine Songs:

This is a trap, of course; a fool’s errand — yet I willfully step into and head out upon it. And as such I ask and thank you for your sympathy in advance.

I’ve been invited to flag what I am to have you believe are the five most essential songs from the quietly towering and enduring body of work that belongs to John Prine. (While I’m at it, I may as well go ahead and offer a thought or two on just which of Walt Whitman’s grass leaves is greenest.)

But five songs? In truth, I’d be hard pressed to just choose the five most essential off his first album alone. And though I’ll play along and invite you to pretend right with me that such a smattering might possibly be suggestive of the whole of his wide-arcing story, this will never really do. The man arrived with a writing voice full-formed and perfectly tuned to his tremulous times; and it has grown deeper and more expressive with years because John has been willing to see us all with an eye as compassionate as it is unflinching. His gentle acknowledgment of our desires and failures is affirming, and made buoyant by forgiveness. Against many odds, we are thus nourished and persuaded to press on — and encouraged to just maybe forgive ourselves too as we go.

I first heard John when I was but 15 years old, in the Michigan of 1976. I had been a song obsessive since roughly the age of 7 and by my tender teens I was predominantly devoted to songwriters and singers who happened to be, among many other things, dead.

But owing to a ravenous curiosity, and the good luck of both a wise older brother and our shared and well-schooled best friend, my world was expanded by a select group of very singular writers who were nonetheless alive and sparking: Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Loudon Wainwright lll, and John Prine.

Loudon was mining autobiography (something I abided in him and few others, not really being one for the so-called “confessionals”); and Tom was articulating most all from behind a stumble-bum character’s immovable mask. But Randy and John both struck me as kin to the great short story writers who as well held me in thrall and helped shape my evolving sensibility: gifted and steel-eyed visionaries that included Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Carver, and Nathanael West. John’s songs invariably played like three-minute movies scrolling behind my eyes, and they did to me what I most want any song to do when I encounter it: they seduced me.

The songs of John Prine call to my mind a favorite quote from Kurt Vonnegut: "Man is not evil. He is merely too hilariously stupid to survive.”

But John seems always to be betting on our survival. Somehow, he loves us. And he still believes in us. In spite of ourselves. In spite of ourselves ....

“Far From Me," John Prine (1971)
There are other songs its equal on John’s eponymous debut album in terms of stopping time upon a knife’s edge, but this was the one that first cracked my heart open. The scene it draws is a small one: a young man sits in a café late of an evening, waiting for the woman with whom he is entangled — the solitary waitress — to close up and walk out with him into the humid summer night of his dream’s debasement. We listen and learn, as he does, that all is lost; that if she ever truly loved him, that love has cooked beyond reclamation like the dregs of the long day’s first coffee. The verses themselves are pure journalism, recounting with the dispassion of a courtroom sketch artist the details of inertia and fragmentation. But the chorus is untethered, and blooms by means of pure poetry and hovers above the ground, offering if not good news, then the hard-won truth that frequently we see what we most want to see — and fool ourselves long before anyone else might ever have an inkling:

And the sky is black and still now
on the hill where the angels sing,
ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
looks just like a diamond ring?

It haunted and affirmed me in equal measure, when first encountered. And it continues to.

“The Late John Garfield Blues," Diamonds In The Rough (1972)
This song was an early touchstone for me, and I think of it frequently when, in my own writing, I have employed the loaded imagery of significant cultural figures (be that Willie Mays, Richard Pryor, Edgar Bergen, Ali, etc.) whose shadows stretch from the past to lay coolly upon our present. By conjuring a long-dead matinee idol, living in our minds as a symbol of both romantic simplicity and irretrievable loss, the song swings upon the hinge of enforced acceptance. Like Lot’s wife, the character speaking can’t help looking back, and does so with palpable regret, even as he must shuffle forward.

Two men were standing upon a bridge–
one jumped and screamed, “you lose!”
and just left the odd man holding
those late John Garfield Blues

Oft times surviving feels like drawing something other than the winner’s hand.

“Angel From Montgomery," John Prine (1971)
This song is in no uncertain terms a masterwork, and everybody knows it. It is so masterful in its telling, in fact, that I hear the whole of the story implied — complete and utterly contained — in its opening two lines:

I am an old woman, named after my mother,
my old man is another child that’s grown old.

The camera then pulls back to reveal the details: the depth and nuance of dreams lived out against ever-diminishing possibilities. Like a struck bell at a funeral, it formalizes the border between hope and its extinguishment that shall heretofore remain heavily guarded. That it also appears on John’s first album is further testament to the mystical authority of John’s gift as a storyteller from the get-go — doing in three verses and three-plus minutes what a film like "Hud" takes two hours to deliver. When I first heard it as a teen, I was both elated and demoralized. It represented what I most wanted to achieve as a songwriter; but felt too like Mt. Everest, mocking me to climb on up. It is indeed a mountain; and it moves like blood in ways both mysterious and inevitable. And it is a landmark of American songcraft.

“Sabu Visits The Twin Cities Alone," Bruised Orange (1978)
Borrowing the specter of the real life “Elephant Boy” (an actor from India who starred in British adventure films of the '30s and '40s), this strange and beautiful song imagines the decline of the actor’s (read that: our) fortunes as times change around him, leaving him not fighting obsolescence, but rather riding its inevitable slide like it was one last dusty, lumbering beast of burden. Like much of John’s most beloved work, it is wickedly funny as it describes impending darkness.

Hey, look Ma– here comes The Elephant Boy
bundled all up in his corduroy,
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul

We just know he’s never coming back. Read that: we’s.

“Lake Marie," Lost Dogs And Mixed Blessings (1995)
What, you didn’t think I was going to? This is John’s sprawling opus; en epic bit of alchemy, wherein a single landscape is the setting for three separate stories that all converge in the fragrant Midwestern air high above us. Within this weather resides all fear of worse, all hope for better. The lost are found, the estranged reconciled, and death crawls and consumes. The redemption promised by love’s ultimate authority flickers like lightning bugs in the dimming woods across the water — illuminating truth that is as irrefutable as it is untenable.

Each story throws spark and shade at the others, allowing them all to exist in three dimensions. We laugh and we cry, beg, barter, and steal as we whistle past the graveyard, hanging on to and for dear life.

Awww, baby…we gotta go now.

[fin]

- Joe Henry
October 2017

Read all of FUV's Five Essential Songs and Albums.

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