Another obscure anniversary

Mike Phipps reviews John Prine’s John Prine (33 1/3) by Erin Osmon, published by Bloomsbury.

At Labour Hub, we are always on the lookout for obscure anniversaries, both political and cultural. Last year, I noticed it was the 50th anniversary of John Prine’s first LP – and it doesn’t get more obscure than that.

John Prine was a country/folk singer-songwriter who died in 2020 from Covid. He produced a score of albums noted for their humour and social commentary, to the extent that he was dubbed “the Mark Twain of songwriting”. Some of the songs on his first album were so sharply political that many hailed him at the time as the new Bob Dylan. Much later, Dylan returned the compliment by calling Prine one of his favourite songwriters. Over the years, his social comment mellowed and poor health contributed to a failure to fully achieve the astonishing potential of his early work.

If John Prine’s first record did not get a lot of recognition when I bought it in the early 1970s, over time it gained immense influence. In its 2020 revised list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, the US music magazine Rolling Stone rated it No 149.

In the end, I never got around to writing about all this, but someone else clearly had the same idea, not just for an article but an entire book. Erin Osmon covers the early life of Prine up to his ‘discovery’ by figures in the music industry and the recording of his first record.

It’s a tribute to Prine’s song-writing abilities that the songs on this self-titled album shine through irrespective of the occasionally oppressive treatment some are given. Most of the tracks were recorded in Memphis, with full country backing – very different from Prine’s live performances, comprising just him and acoustic guitar. Even the cover of the album has a photo of Prine sitting on a bale of straw to emphasise his country credentials – he said later he had never seen a bale of hay in his life.

One exception is the song “Paradise”, recorded in New York with much sparser accompaniment, just his brother Dave on fiddle. The song is a poignant attack on environmental destruction, before such concerns were as mainstream as they are today. Paradise was a town in Kentucky, where Prine’s father came from. The family used to holiday there before it was obliterated by open-cast mining carried out by the Peabody Coal Company. The song has now become something of a bluegrass standard.

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,

Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?

Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking.

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

Prine was a figure on the thriving late- sixties Chicago folk scene, much grittier and less middle class than its New York counterpart. He brought to his songs a dry wit drawn from his experiences of dead odd jobs, including a stint in the US Postal Service, and in the military, which he found to be a futile exercise.

The absurdity of these experiences comes through in songs like “illegal Smile”, the record’s opening track. But there are also more pointed swipes at militarism in “Spanish Pipedream” and “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”, which targets phony patriotism and became a new favourite in his stage set  at the time of the US invasion of Iraq.

The stand-out anti-war song on Prine’s first record was “Sam Stone”, which describes with quiet anger the short-lived return to civilian life of a wounded morphine-addicted military veteran. The chorus – “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose” – when first sung by Prine would reduce his mid-western audience to icy silence. Johnny Cash, when he recorded the song, changed the words so as not to offend his conservative listeners.

Osmon’s book locates this work in its context – not just the late-sixties US, but Chicago in particular. The Prines were solid Democrats – brother Dave Prine was briefly a foot-soldier for the party – but it was increasingly hard to support a government which had drafted millions of young Americans to fight in Vietnam and was fiercely repressing domestic resistance.

Following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, riots broke out across America, including in Chicago. “Shot to kill arsonists,” urged the city’s Democrat Mayor Richard Daley. “Shoot to maim looters.”

Anti-war protests at that year’s Democratic Party National Convention on the Southside were met with uncontrolled police brutality, while inside the Convention, the pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey was imposed over the popular choice of the primaries, the anti-war Eugene McCarthy. The demonstrations led to the trial of the Chicago Seven, presided over by the notorious Judge Julius Hoffman, who is referenced in Prine’s song “Illegal Smile”.

Given that Prine was still in his early twenties, many of the songs on his eponymous album have an astonishing maturity. “Hello in there” is about the isolation and loneliness of old people, sung from the perspective of a retiree. “Angel from Montgomery”, later covered by Bonnie Raitt and Carly Simon, is written in the voice of a middle aged woman, who feels her life disappearing in the dreariness of a conventional marriage:

“How the hell can a person

Go to work in the morning,

Then come home in the evening

And have nothing to say?”

Osmon’s book has a lot of fascinating nuggets of information, including about the darker and more exploitative side of the recording industry. My only gripe is that he writes about music and musicians in a breathless style that I can only say is beyond parody. But ultimately, it’s worth ploughing through to be reminded of the exceptional quality of Prine’s work that still stands out half a century on.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: c/o author

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