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John Prine: American Legend

Through no wisdom of my own but out of sheer blind luck, I walked into the Fifth Peg, a folk club on West Armitage, one night in 1970 and heard a mailman from Westchester singing. This was John Prine.

He sang his own songs. That night I heard "Sam Stone," one of the great songs of the century. And "Angel from Montgomery." And others. I wasn't the music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, but I went to the office and wrote an article. And that, as fate decreed, was the first review Prine ever received.

From the Chicago Sun-Times, Friday, Oct. 9, 1970:


By Roger Ebert

While "digesting Reader's Digest" in a dirty book store, John Prine tells us in one of his songs, a patriotic citizen came across one of those little American flag decals.

He stuck it on his windshield and liked it so much he added flags from the gas station, the bank and the supermarket, until one day he blindly drove off the road and killed himself. St. Peter broke the news:

"Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore; It's already overcrowded from your dirty little war."

Lyrics like this are earning John Prine one of the hottest underground reputations in Chicago these days. He's only been performing professionally since July, he sings at the out-of-the-way Fifth Peg, 858 W. Armitage, and country-folk singers aren't exactly putting rock out of business. But Prine is good.

He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn't show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.

He does a song called "The Great Society Conflict Veteran's Blues," for example, that says more about the last 20 years in America than any dozen adolescent acid-rock peace dirges. It's about a guy named Sam Stone who fought in Korea and got some shrapnel in his knee.

But the morphine eased the pain, and Sam Stone came home "with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back." That's Sam Stone's story, but the tragedy doesn't end there. In the chorus, Prine reverses the point of view with an image of stunning power:

"There's a hole in Daddy's arm Where all the money goes..."

You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Priine's quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday on Saturday.

So you talk to him, and you find out that Prine has been carryng mail in Westchester since he got out of the Army three years ago. That he was born in Maywood, and that his parents come from Paradise, Ky. That his grandfather was a miner, a part-time preacher, and used to play guitar with Merle Travis and Ike Everly (the Everly brothers' father). And that his brother Dave plays banjo, guitar and fiddle, and got John started on the guitar about 10 years. ago.

Prine has been writing songs just as long, and these days he works on new ones while delivering mail. His wife, Ann Carole, says she finds scraps of paper around the house with maybe a word or a sentence on them and a month later the phrase will turn up in a new song.

Prine's songs are all original, and he only sings his own. They're nothing like the work of most young composers these days, who seem to specialize in narcissistic tributes to themselves. He's closer to Hank Willilams than to Roger Williams, closer to Dylan than to Ochs. "In my songs," he says, "I try to look through someone else's eyes, and I want to give the audience a feeling more than a message."

That's what hapens in Prine's "Old folks," one of the most moving songs I've heard. It's about an elderly retired couple sitting at home alone all day, looking out the screen door on the back proch, marking time until death. They lost a son in Korea: "Don't know what for; guess it doesn't matter anymore." The chorus asks you, the next time you see a pair of "ancient empty eyes," to say "hello in there...hello."

Prine's lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words. In "Angel from Montgomery," for example, he tells of a few minutes in the thoughts of a woman who is doing the housework and thinking of her husband: "How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, and have nothing to say?"

Prine can be funny, too, and about half his songs are. He does one about getting up in the morning. A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare him down, and won. But "if you see me tonight with an illegal smile - It don't cost very much, and it lasts a long while. - Won't you please tell the Man I didn't kill anyone - Just trying to have me some fun."

Prine's first public appearance was at the 1969 Maywood Folk Music Festival: "It's a hell of a festival, but nobody cares about folk music." He turned up at the Old Town School of Folk Music in early 1970 after hearing Ray Tate on TV. He did a lot of hootenannys at the Fifth Peg and at the Saddle Club on North Av., and the Fifth Peg booked him for Sunday nights in July and August.

In those two months, the word got around somehow that here was an extraordinary new composer and performer. His crowds grew so large that the Fifth Peg is now presenting him on Friday and Saturday nights; his opening last weekend was a full house by word-of-mouth. He had a lot of new material, written while he was on reserve duty with the Army in September.

There's one, for example, called "The Great Compromise," about a girl he once dated who was named America. One night at the drive-in movie, while he was going for popcorn, she jumped into a foreign sports car and he began to suspect his girl was no lady. "I could of beat up that fellow," he reflects in his song, "but it was her that hopped into his car."

A concert with John's friend Steve Goodman.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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