Although it is April, there is, for me, a touch of rainy, gray autumn in the air. Folk singer and songwriter John Prine has died of COVID-19.
We tend to associate music with particular times and places in our lives. I first acquired a taste for folk music back in the late 1970s, listening to two local favorites, Steve Goodman and Prine. I can never think of one without the other.
At the time, I attended classes at the old Loop College on East Lake Street. With a rucksack of books slung on my shoulder and a head full of Arlo Guthrie, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs — but first and foremost, Goodman and Prine — I made my way from the steel mills of the 10th Ward into a grittier, stonier cityscape than today’s steel and glass downtown.
To get to my classes, I rode the old Illinois Central Gulf line from South Chicago to downtown with Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” in my head, or on rainy, gray days, it would be Prine’s “Blue Umbrella.”
There was something familiar, textured and down home about their music, yet also urban and gritty. Even Prine’s twang sounded right, sounded “Chicago.” And they were funny, in a wry, ironic manner, as in Prine’s “The Frying Pan.” Yet they were also poignant and reflective, as in Goodman’s “Yellow Coat” or Prine’s “Sam Stone.”
By then, I had possessed all of Goodman’s and Prine’s recordings, but when compact discs began to come out, I eventually, and now regretfully, replaced those old and scratchy albums. Regretfully, as I believe analog sound easily beats digital.
Fast forward some 30 years. In the fall of 2018, two things happened. I realized that I didn’t have a copy of Goodman’s album “Somebody Else’s Troubles,” and in the process of tracking it down, I became aware of a release of some old radio recordings he and Prine made back in 1979. I ordered the latter release, “One Red Rose,” first, and although the sound quality was poor, the textures of their voices still came through — gritty, witty and wry.
A month or so later, in a bitter January, I did order a copy of “Somebody Else’s Troubles,” as it contains a song, Goodman’s rendition of Michael Smith’s “The Dutchman,” that I consider one of his best efforts.
When the package arrived, however, I knew something was amiss. Initially, I thought the vendor used an overly large, flat mailer for the CD. I was wrong. Instead of the CD, they had sent the album version, the original, from 1972, like the one I had decades ago! Shrink-wrapped and unopened!
For an instant, the thought flashed through my mind: Do I return it? You see, I don’t own a turntable. But then the wry, ironic humor of it all sank in. Prine probably could have written a song about it all, one poignant yet also funny.
Although I couldn’t play the album, I could hear the songs in my mind. And many others. That album became a door that opened onto the colors, tastes and textures of a time no longer distant but close to heart, a time of steel mills beginning to rust, of books and new thoughts, of the clackity-clack of trains, and of the hum and hustle of downtown.
Whether traditional songs like “Shenandoah” and “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” or those by contemporary artists, folk music is about our mountains and our rivers, our towns and our cities, our loves and our losses, our tears and our laughter, and life as it is experienced by those who work with their hands and their hearts.
Folk music helped to expand my mind and my world.
Steve Goodman died in September 1984, and now we’ve lost Prine. Thankfully, we still have their music, but how many listen to it now? When I listen to both, I recall the places I haunted, the people I met, and those I lost. But I also find time to smile, and even laugh.
And considering how this April is unfolding, perhaps we all need something to make us smile, laugh and remember better times.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
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