I had something else planned for today, but I found out this morning that John Prine got to Heaven. I want to pay a little tribute to a poet and singer I always thought of as one of my oldest brother’s cool friends. I first came across his albums (and stole his albums) from my oldest brother’s record collection.
Dean and John Prine have a good deal in common. They both served during the Viet Nam era. They both delivered mail. They are both poets, and they both have wicked senses of humor. They even have similar accents. I bet my brother Dean could sing a good number of Prine’s songs without even looking up the words. I know Dean liked him because John Prine had the rarest of poetic gifts. He wrote poems that sound simple and easy, rhymes as broad and familiar as the sun. But, think about them and they turn out to be funny and wise and ingenious. They get inside your mind and your heart all in one go. Consider this song that he wrote when he was really young:
I hate reading old love letters
‘Cuz they always bring me tears.
I can’t forgive the way they robbed me
Of my sweetheart souvenirs.
I can remember playing, over and over, and singing over and over, every song on his albums Sweet Revenge and Diamonds in the Rough. Four about seven years I spent part of every summer with Grandma Jones. I would listen to his songs, and since they sounded country, they didn’t seem radical to her. And anyway, he sang “Nine Pound Hammer,” which was one of Grandpa Jones’ favorite songs. There couldn’t be that much revolutionary about a fellow like that. He even sang about Jesus.
While out sailing on the ocean,
While out sailing on the sea,
I bumped into the Savior,
And He said, “Pardon me.”
I said, “Jesus, you look tired.”
He said, “Jesus, so do you.
Won’t you set down, son
‘Cuz I got some fat to chew.’
It was a revelation of sorts to my simple kid brain. Here was someone who could find a way to sympathize with Jesus. That was the thing about John Prine that most reminded me of my brother Dean. He was always making me think about things, more deeply and with more careful consideration. He also knew a whole lot of things about life and people that I couldn’t even guess. We’re all old now, but that’s still how I see both of them.
I hadn’t been listening to John Prine’s sweet old songs lately until I heard he was sick. I looked him up on YouTube and found his performance at Austin City Limits. He sang “When I Get to Heaven.” It was such a blessing to know he still had magic; he still wrote songs that were funny and smart and really, really good.
Tonight I’m going to sit down and toast old John Prine while he has his vodka and ginger ale. I might even write a note to my oldest brother and thank him for introducing me to one of the best poets and singers I ever heard.