John Prine was a giant. No one loves his work more than we do. His gems include “Angel From Montgomery” and “Paradise“, among dozens of others. But since his death last week (from complications of coronavirus), the one we keep hearing, and celebrating, is one that speaks to isolation and loss. “Hello in There” is a fantastic song, and justifiably one of his best. But somehow it troubles us.
And by “us” I mean “me”
Let me step out from behind the curtain of the editorial we. I have listened to “Hello in There” thousands of times, and I love the song. The lyrics are beyond moving. The simple melody is classic Prine. It is everything I expect from a Prine song: beautiful, touching, eloquent.
But our job at Fleming & Curti, PLC, is to provide assistance and direction to the elderly and people with disabilities (and their families). Also, at age 67, I qualify as elderly myself. I worry that this one song patronizes “my” population — and even infantilizes us to a degree.
“Old trees just get stronger” makes sense to me. “Old rivers grow wilder every day” is a bit more of a stretch (don’t they really slow down, widen out and have fewer whitewater stretches over time? Maybe I’m overreacting). But “old people just get lonesome” is flat wrong. And a little dangerous.
How can I reconcile my love of a beautiful song with my concern about its misleading emphasis? By coming up with some alternatives, of course. I could suggest any number of Prine songs. And virtually all of them would be on my regular playlist (alongside “Hello in There”). But maybe we could look for other anthems for this time of isolation and loss.
Isolation? Let’s start with Leonard Cohen
Perhaps you want to lift the mood during your social distancing. There is likely no better candidate than “Hallelujah“, which is completely anthemic. Cohen himself gave it a somber tone that still seems appropriate for these times, though.
But if you want to wallow in the isolation a little bit, you might try “Our Lady of Solitude“. Or this literally anthemic presentation of “Anthem“, complete with poetry. That is, after all, how the light gets in.
Bill Morrissey, 1951-2011
Isolation, of course, can be shared. That’s the central point of one of the most wonderful folk songs in recent years — “Birches” by the late New Hampshire singer-songwriter Bill Morrissey.
Maybe you’re not familiar with Morrissey. He didn’t have the level of acclaim he deserved. It doesn’t really speak to isolation or loss, but you might like his “Handsome Molly” as a further introduction.
A few other entries, and back to John Prine
It occurs to me that this social distancing soundtrack is pretty masculine. Not to mention a little morbid, since none of the singer-songwriters I’ve listed is still among the living.
I’ve also focused on singers singing their own songs. Maybe sometimes someone else can do a good job with a good song. How about Judy Collins and the Bob Dylan song “Time Passes Slowly“? And that sort of brings us full circle — to Joan Baez in her own living room two weeks ago, singing a song for John Prine.
If “Hello in There” is no my favorite John Prine, what might I suggest for someone who, like me, loves his work and wants to reflect on his extraordinary career? How about his excellent social distancing advice from “Spanish Pipe Dream“? But the best entry, in my mind: “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness“.
Now back to your regularly-scheduled programming. And thanks for everything, John Prine. We all miss you.