Singer / songwriter John Prine survived two separate and distinct rounds of cancer, only to succumb to COVID-19 on April 7, 2020.
After hearing the news, NPR music critic and correspondent Ann Powers wrote this about him:
“Prine’s songs claimed sweet revenge by making room for the wide range of emotions that careen through people as they stumble and dance through life.”
I was fortunate to see him perform in November 2018 in Breckenridge, Colorado, elevation 9600 feet, an altitude that has even young singers commenting between sets how challenging it is to sing in such thin air. At the time, Prine was over 70 and had overcome both throat cancer and lung cancer. He gave a memorable, wonderful performance that I was fortunate to see.
He stayed in the game
If anyone exemplifies stage four living, it’s John Prine. He stayed in the game, never letting aging or cancer get in his way and keeping a sense of humor through it all. He had throat surgery in 1996 to remove a cancerous tumor, which involved removing part of his neck, severing nerves in his tongue and damaging some of his salivary glands. He wrote an open letter to his fans after that surgery, saying:
“I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and singing my songs. Hopefully my neck is looking forward to its job of holding my head up above my shoulders.”
Many years later, in 2013, he was operated on again, for lung cancer, a procedure that cost him part of one lung. The throat and lungs are the two major instruments of singing, yet Prine continued to perform with both of them broken.
A guitar and poetic lyrics
John Prine made beautiful music with little more than his acoustic guitar and his ability to interpret his observations of life and human nature.
Angel from Montgomery was one of his most commercially successful songs, recorded by another one of my favorite musicians, Bonnie Raitt. Although it tells the story of a middle-aged woman tired of her life, it speaks to anyone who is struggling or feeling hopeless:
Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
To believe in this living is just a hard way to go
Another one of his most famous songs, Hello in There, was written when he worked by day as a postal carrier in suburban Chicago. Seeing all the elderly living in isolation, he realized that he may have been one of the few or only visitors they received. This song makes me cry every time I hear it:
Old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say,
‘Hello in there, hello’
With so many poignant, wonderful lyrics to choose from, I could get into copyright trouble by stepping over the boundaries of fair use. But I want to finish with two final songs he wrote and performed toward the end of his life.
I Remember Everything
This song prompted me to update this post, because it was the last song he recorded. I Remember Everything was posthumously released, just recently.
Got no future in my happiness
Though regrets are very few
Sometimes a little tenderness
Was the best that I could do
Sometimes a little tenderness is the best we can all do, and that’s okay. You can listen to this very sweet, sparse song in this YouTube clip.
When I Get to Heaven
Finally, I think a fitting end to my little tribute to this talented musician, cancer fighter, and role model for staying in the game, is this song from THE TREE OF FORGIVENESS, John Prine’s eighteenth and final studio album. The song is titled, When I Get to Heaven:
When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
If there is a heaven, I am certain he is there, making those words come true.
RIP John Prine, and thank you.