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Coronavirus

Virus hits home as favorite songwriter takes ill

Vietnam veteran John Prine has a true gift with words

Scott Reeder
Scott Reeder

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SPRINGFIELD — The coronavirus pandemic hit home Sunday.

No, I’m healthy and so is my family. I’m grateful for that. But an artist I’ve long admired is ailing.

I learned on Sunday that singer and songwriter John Prine was infected with the virus, was in critical condition and on a hospital ventilator.

A Prine album was the first I ever owned. It was a Christmas present given to me when I was about 12, courtesy of my Uncle Jim and Aunt Judy.

I didn’t own a stereo, so I played it over and over again on my record player. I drove my mother nuts partially because she didn’t particularly like Prine’s music and almost certainly because I’m incapable of singing on key.

In fact, when I was in grade school, our music teacher used to holler at me because she believed I was feigning ineptitude in order to ruin choral singalongs. (Sorry to disappoint, Ma’am. That’s just the way I “sing.”)

So, what attracts someone like myself to Prine’s work? He could write well. I’ve been writing professionally for more than 30 years and have a master’s degree, but I bow in wonderment to Prine, a man who started writing songs while working as a letter carrier in the Chicago area shortly after being discharged from the Army.

His songs appeal to my libertarian aversion to hollow acts of patriotism. Take, for instance, this chorus he wrote at the tail end of the Vietnam War:

But your flag decal won’t get you

Into Heaven any more.

They’re already overcrowded

From your dirty little war.

Now Jesus don’t like killin’

No matter what the reasons for,

And your flag decal won’t get you

Into Heaven any more. 

And sometimes he would touch a nerve about the neglect of the elderly. This week. I have been thinking about his song “Hello in There” as older folks are hunkered down in the homes trying to ride out the pandemic without visits from their families. The lyrics evoke strong emotions:

We had an apartment in the city

Me and Loretta liked living there

Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown

A life of their own left us alone

John and Linda live in Omaha

And Joe is somewhere on the road

We lost Davy in the Korean war

And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore

Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger

And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day

Old people just grow lonesome

Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

Some of his songs weren’t so heavy. My brother Danny loved the song “Spanish Pipedream.” As a teenager, he’d play this song on his stereo. As he stretched out on his bed, he would literally kick up his heels every time this chorus was played:

Blow up your t.v. 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

At age 10, I can remember peeking in my big brother’s room as he sang on the bed. I’d dutifully report, “Mom, Danny is doing it again.” Mom would just roll her eyes and shake her head as the music thundered down the stairs.

The first concert I ever attended was a John Prine performance in Ames, Iowa. I went by myself because in an era of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, none of my peers had even heard of a man named Prine.

Like Springsteen and Joel, Prine sang about the trouble Vietnam veterans had reintegrating into society. But his words in “Sam Stone” are more somber and evoke a greater sense of desperation than Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” or Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon.” I prefer the revised lyrics Prine wrote for Johnny Cash over the original words, which are blasphemous. The Johnny Cash version goes like this:

Sam Stone came home

To his wife and family

After serving in the conflict overseas

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

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm

Where all the money goes

Daddy must of hurt a lot back then, I suppose

The lyrics go on to share how Sam Stone turned to crime to support his drug habit while his kids ran around in “other people’s clothes.”

The song written in 1971 resonates today as our nation struggles with an opioid epidemic and again seeks to reintegrate soldiers returning from distant battlefields.

I was thinking about all of these things as Prine fights this virus. On Monday, his wife reported that the 73-year-old, two-time cancer survivor had been upgraded to stable condition. But he is a long way from out of the woods.

It’s hard to know what Prine might advise during this stressful time. Perhaps it would be;

Blow up your t.v. 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

Note to readers: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. His email address is ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.

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