Shabbat HaGadol! The Great Shabbat! I hope this Shabbat lives up to its title as I hold all of those suffering from COVID-19 in prayer. It is certainly odd to prepare to celebrate Passover in the midst of a global pandemic stopping us from gathering together with our loved ones. The traditional Jewish public prayer for healing, Mi Sheberach, usually read during Shabbat services has long found a place in my personal practice and I suspect that it will be recited in many homes also lacking a minyan this evening. I also know that I am not the only person including John Prine on my list of people in need of a healing prayer.
John Prine does not know me personally, but he helped to raise me. My parents started listening to Prine in the seventies, several years after his first self-titled album was released in 1971. Twenty years later, Prine released “The Missing Years” just a year after my parents released me. The songs from that album are my childhood. Listening to “The Sins of Memphisto” I remember dancing in the kitchen with my folks, my dad scratching his back on the corner of a wall like a cartoon bear and then stomp twisting along to the song. Like the adult jokes stashed away in children cartoons, as I grew so did the song, from watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to reading the Count of Monte Cristo, to consoling friends through their parents’ divorces. I can see my parents dancing together and laughing, “a big ol’ goofy man dancing with a big ol’ goofy girl”, to a song with instructions to work hard (“work like a dog, better than sitting at home like a bump on a log”), be polite (“mind all your manners, be as quiet as a mouse”), dream big (“someday you’ll own a home that’s as big as a house”), to be honest (“if you take an inch, give ’em back a mile”) and to care about the world around you (“cause if you lie like a rug and you don’t give a damn, you’re never going to be as happy as a clam.”)
“Daddy’s Little Pumpkin” from the same album brings memories of giggling and tumbling around the basement on that red/brown carpet with my sister. My dad swinging us around in a hamper and hoping that we would never learn what John Prine meant by “sell her little pumpkin.” Meanwhile, my sister and I lived up to the line of a fire burning behind our eyes, yes sir, we “must of swallowed a candle or some other kind of surprise.”
The title song of the album, “Jesus, The Missing Years,” is perhaps an odd favorite of mine with its slightly irreverent portrayal of a drug-taking, divorce wanting, very human Jesus. I do love a good story song and John Prine has written some of the best. Prine’s music gave narrative to my first daydreams out the car window driving east across the Great Plains to visit family. His story songs filled my mind with a varied cast of characters. As a young Jewish gal growing up in Wyoming, when asked about Jesus, I’d joke that the only things I knew about him I learned from John Prine and the Doobies.
My parents first saw John Prine at the Uptown in Kansas City on July 25, 1980. They described his concerts as big sing-alongs, with an audience that felt like family. My dad would start reminiscing about the live shows while we explored the dirt roads of Wyoming, having our own family sing-alongs tucked tightly together in the white Mazda pickup truck my dad calls Betsy. It wasn’t until the summer after we graduated from college in 2012 that Kelsey and I finally went to our first John Prine concert with our parents. I will never forget watching him strut around the stage with his guitar, opening with “Spanish Pipedream.” We’ve managed to go just about every other year since. No one dances to a John Prine song quite like his mandolin player, Pat McLaughlin. The pure joy radiates from the stage. Pulling his and the band’s family on the stage to sing “Paradise,” I witnessed magic surrounded by love. The love shared between Prine, his family, and his bandmates is palpable.
John Prine’s music provided constant comfort through growing pains. While homesick in London, I listened to “My Darling Hometown” on repeat with its description of a river that I could imagine as the North Platte. When “Pal” broke things off with me that December 2011, “Everything is Cool” helped pull me out of my first heartbreak. Singing along to “Rocky Mountain Time,” I find my traveling homesick voice, “too young to be where I’m going but I’m too old to go back again.” John Prine’s music became a traveling home for me– a comforting lap to curl up in and let myself feel whatever it was I was going through at the time.
I think it was our junior year at Hollins when I discovered that my friend Jessica had never heard John Prine. She is still one of my most favorite poets and someone I admire deeply for her bravery and tenacity; a person I consider myself lucky to count among my chosen family. Of course, I had to introduce her to one of the best storyteller poets of this time. Prine’s catalog is overwhelmingly large and it is hard to find a song I don’t like, so I decided to show her only one song a day. To my delight, she began to eagerly look forward to her next song installment, falling a little bit more in love each day until she became another devoted fan.
The joy of sharing John Prine is only equaled by the discovery that his music is a common interest with someone you just met. That’s the thing about John Prine. He makes strangers into instant family. A stranger with a homemade “Happy Enchilada and You Think You’re Gonna Drown” t-shirt knows my mom’s story about her niece without a word between us. We share a common sense and find ourselves immediately bound together by our love of one of the world’s most incredible songwriters.
Yes, John Prine does not know me but he is my family. He taught me to act with kindness and compassion. He gave me examples of a diverse humanity filled with human desires, “cause dreaming just comes natural, like the first breath of baby, like sunshine feeding daisies, like the love buried deep in your heart.” Prine encouraged me to question my government. “Don’t you tell me that the White House is my home, leave the lights on ’til your baby gets home.” He sang of seeking out your own religious beliefs and that blind patriotism is not a moral virtue. He taught me to speak truth by modeling it. He called out big corporations and the destruction of the environment. He told stories of marriages, happy and unhappy, of heartbreak and love. But mostly he sang about people, about all of us.
I cried when I read his family’s news that John Prine was in critical condition and intubated. Thankfully, he is now in a stable condition but still in need of healing prayers like so many others now. I pray that he will recover and get to go home to his worried family. Staying home to “flatten the curve,” we really have become “the lonely all together, all together we’re all alone.” But as a John Prine fan, you’re never really all alone.