John Prine’s Songs about Forgiveness and Hope

Hey John Prine, we’re sure going to miss you. We could use your gentle take on things with this wretched disease infecting us—the loved, the old, the vulnerable, the poor, the essential, the unlucky, the poets like you.

It’s a hard time, many of us are sick and turns out COVID-19 unleased a whole world of hurt and anger about racial inequities and now we’re in an epic fight for truth, decency, and justice.  

Back in the late 1970s, John Prine was a songwriter from Chicago, and I was a college student in a small, central Wisconsin town. He sang about places I’d never been, but with his gift for storytelling and plain-spoken truths, I felt like I was right there with him. Come here, he seemed to say, I want to tell you something. Then he’d sing about Western Kentucky, about Sam Stone’s drug addiction, and about a young boy who was hit by a slow-moving train in the song, “Bruised Orange.” The boy was a metaphor for a world suffering from senseless loss, for the overwhelming anger we feel about fairness and injustice. He was an altar boy, lost in his thoughts and walking backwards on the tracks when he was killed. How could this happen? Questions fueled by rage can fester, and left unanswered, explode. Yet, in the song, John Prine told us not to give up, not to get bitter, not to get trapped in what he called, a chain of sorrow.

The first song I learned on guitar was “Fish and Whistle,” a goofy tune about being in the army, drinking in town, and a guy being paid squat for a job cleaning a parking lot. Like many of his songs, it was riddled with random riffs on slices of life, magically brought together with a catchy refrain. And like most, this one had a lesson John Prine tossed out as truth. About the value of forgiveness. A theme he often re-visited.

In college, everybody liked John Prine. Here we were at a house party, crammed together on the living room floor listening to “Paradise.” There we were at a bar up north listening to a friend play guitar and sing about clown eyes, old towns, and penny arcades.

Like the folks in many of John Prine’s tunes, my relationships back then didn’t work out. They became stories of love lost or just forgotten. If those stories were in a John Prine song, they’d contain catchy dittys, softening the hurt behind the words.

As a young mom, I worked on the banks of Lake Marie in southeastern Wisconsin, the topic of John Prine’s song of the same name. Those days I had lost touch with the heartfelt Americana of John Prine’s world. I was learning how to be a school psychologist in a school on the banks of Lake Marie. I was a character in a John Prine song, attending college at night, then spending Saturday mornings studying statistics in the dusty basement laundry room of the apartment complex we lived in.

Years later, after the kids were gone, I found those songs again. Like an old friend, it felt good to hear from him and I reacquainted myself with John Prine’s music reveling in some new-to-me gems like “In Spite of Ourselves” and “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.” He wrote about loneliness like he knew it. Intimately. Come here, he said, I wanna tell you about being in a failed relationship. How people change. How it disappoints. How it gets lonely real fast.

Last winter I became obsessed with “Clay Pigeons,” a Blaze Foley tune John Prine covered. His voice was pure and clear and sounded so good. Come here, he said, I wanna tell you about this guy who decides to get on a bus. This guy was down on his luck. Even stopped talking. With weary determination, he tells us he’s gonna get back in the game anyway. Like “Bruised Orange” and “Hello in There,” “Clay Pigeons” was a sad song, yet somehow, tentatively hopeful. Hope, it seemed to say, is inherently tentative. Isn’t it?

In “Jesus the Missing Years,” John Prine sang about Jesus like he’d done some research. His storytelling was at its frenetic, disjointed best, re-imagining a twenty something Jesus moving to Spain, then Italy, back to Jerusalem, then dying on the cross and finally going to heaven on a fast track. It was clever. And informative. Who knew those missing years of Jesus were a European vacation?

Yesterday, I listened to John Prine on YouTube singing “That’s the Way the World Goes Round.” The lyrics offer a simple philosophy. The notion that things might look bad today but if we just hang on awhile, things will get better. The lights will come on, the sun will come out, the car will start, and we’ll see old friends and family again. I grabbed a memory and was once again a college student, riding shotgun with girlfriends on country roads to farms around town where we’d listen to John Prine songs in the warm sun under skies with no clouds.

One of his most brilliant songs isn’t from those old days. It’s a new one called “Summer’s End” and it breathes sadness. But so too, it’s filled with tentative hope for summer days, corn fields, families broken but still together. It’s about someone dying who takes part of us with him. It’s about love, loss, and healing.

I never met John Prine but I imagined he was a kind person. In the song, “Hello in There,” about a couple who were achingly alone, he encouraged us to say hello to our elders. His song, “Donald and Lydia,” detailed the lives of a sweet couple who seem meant for each other but never quite connect. It’s a slow ballad with a haunting melody, brief but with the storytelling depth of a full-length movie. In the last song he recorded, “I Remember Everything,” John Prine gathers his memories—of touring, of hard times, of love. It’s a sweet and tender love song and deserves its number one place on a billboard chart! Yay!

I hope it’s true, John Prine, what you wrote about in the song, “When I Get to Heaven.” That you’ll see your loving family, open up that nightclub, serve Smithwick’s, kiss the pretty girl on the midway, and shake the hand of God. Where all is forgiven, and time doesn’t matter.

I wanna tell you something, he might say. Heaven is kinda like life. Only better.