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John Prine discusses his life and his formation in music

BROADCAST: 1975 | DURATION: 00:29:50


The opening song is a rebroadcast from a previous recording with Studs Terkel. John Prine talks about his family history in Paradise, Kentucky and when he was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois (Chicago Greater Area). Prine is known for humorous lyrics about love, life, and current events, as well as serious songs with social commentary, or which recollect melancholy tales from his life. All the songs are played in the studio from his albums "John Prine" and "Diamonds in the Rough"


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel This morning the rebroadcast of the comments and some of the songs from John Prine, the program in a moment after this message. [content removed, see catalog record] Biting biting commentary. John Prine, the singer/writer of that song. Somehow thinking of that song and think in the headlines too these days with the exposé now of the deceitfulness of the administration, the previous one the continuation of a New York Times exposé of a song you sing. Who is John Prine. How are you? First of all, Jack, we think of a lot of country western songs being very militarily inclined, you know, the fighting side of me and others, you know. And yet, you sensed, do you sense in that world of song, of which you're so much the part, changes occurring there, too, questionings?

John Prine Well, I'm kind of based in country music. I was like Hank Williams a whole lot, and it's just the subject, you know, I chose to write about. They just kind of, I wrote that one when I was a mailman. I was delivering "Reader's Digest," and they put out an issue one month that that gave everybody a free American flag decal. And that was just about the same time that there was all this talk going on about the silent majority and everything. And I thought that we're kind of cheated a lot of people out of being able to say what they, you know, people that just hadn't said anything yet, you know, and anyway, they got their flag decals, and just about everybody was taking "Reader's Digest," and just about everybody stuck them right on their front door, you know, right next to the mailbox, so the next day when I come up I saw them all sitting there, and I was kinda thinking of the Reverend Carl McIntyre, too, a little bit.

Studs Terkel Is that how you get the idea -- You worked as a mailman for a while, right here in Chicago?

John Prine Oh, I was out, I was working in Maywood, but I was out in Westchester delivering mail.

Studs Terkel So the idea comes along, how you get the idea for a song. Who is John Prine, where are you from?

John Prine Well, I'm from Maywood, but my family is from western Kentucky and all my brothers are from up here.

Studs Terkel Western Kentucky,

John Prine Right. Is

Studs Terkel Is it a mining region?

John Prine Yeah. It's down Muehlenburg County. I come from this little place called Paradise, sits down on the Green River. They had like those names and they gave back there, and Paradise was, I was like to go down there, there's a whole lot of my relatives down there, and it's just a real small town, just about everybody is somebody that they could figure out some kind of relation they had to you, you know. It was out of the way, you had to go out of the way to get there. I mean, you couldn't pass through the town. You had to be going to the town to get there.

Studs Terkel And it's called Paradise, Kentucky?

John Prine Yeah, I guess what it was is, oh, I don't know, but I guess around 150 years ago somebody was coming down a Green River and they were going someplace else. I don't remember where, but they stopped there. There was a good place, I guess, to stop, and they just stayed there, you know, and they just named it Paradise.

Studs Terkel Did you find it like paradise when you were a little kid there?

John Prine Oh, yeah, it was, in a way. It was -- There was always something different about the town. I could go to another town, maybe about five miles away, and there's just that much difference between paradise. It was set aside from everything else.

Studs Terkel Is the town -- The mines run dry or what, or?

John Prine Well, they've been mining down here for a long time. A lot of them. My grandfather was a miner, for a while, and a whole lot of people down there, they worked the mines, and I guess they they just found out that they'd get more mining if they strip-mined the country. So they bought up just about everybody a little of the time, you know, living in Paradise. And it was mostly old people. I mean, I'm older, older people like the young ones didn't didn't stay in Pradise. And because there was only, all there was was two stores there, and pretty soon they ended up buying everybody out, and they tore the whole town down. There's one house left standing, I'm told. I'm going to go down there in a couple of months, there's a house that they forgot about that's off hidden behind the woods, and some people moved into or were just passing through, some some old woman and one of her sons moved into it. My father was down a couple months ago, and he's going to go on up and talk to 'em, but he said the young fellow looked real mean.

Studs Terkel You know, it's funny. This is a music that influenced you that has been the music of the region then, too, country music.

John Prine Right. Yeah. My father always listened to country music, you used to listen to Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights, and sit in the kitchen, listening.

Studs Terkel Of course, just as when you were a mailman carrying "Reader's Digest" gave you the idea for the flag decal song, so I supposed Paradise in Kentucky has given you the bases of so many songs. You mentioned "Old People," too, there's a song called Paradise, too, isn't there?

John Prine Right. Yeah, this is about the -- I got one about the town itself and what they did. It was Peabody Coal Company that strip-mined it all, and Peabody's the head of some sort of environmental commission now, or the head of Peabody, I don't believe, I don't know if there's any Peabodys left in Peabody Coal Company, but they were involved in an environmental commission. They passed some state laws a couple of years back down in Kentucky. You know, concerning strip-mining. And I guess they weren't real rigid, and anyway, they didn't do a whole lot about it, and they said like within 20 years maybe the land would be able to hold cattle without 'em sinking in the ground, you know. So that's why there's a line in a song about the air smelling like snakes down there and I always felt like most of my songs explain themselves, but that particular line, I'd kinda like to explain it. When I was a little kid, there's this old Civil War prison, and the only way you'd get to it was go down the river, and we'd go down there every once in a while. When we're down, when we go down to Paradise, we go down to the prison and just knock around down there, and there's a, it was just a nice place to go when you're a little kid, you know, and we were going down there once, and this aunt of ours told us that if we were going over there we'd better take a pistol with us, because she said there are snakes all over Adry Hill, she says, and if you smell anything that smells like cantaloupe, you'd better start shooting, because she says that's just exactly what they smell like, you know, and we wasn't very old, maybe eight or nine. And it took about 40 minutes to get over to the prison, and by the time we got over there, just about everything up there smelt like cantaloupe to us, you know, we was that scared, you know?

Studs Terkel Yeah. That's ironic, of course, here's where Paradise becomes very ironic, indeed, the name. I'm thinking also, John Prine, why you're so effective a songwriter; poet, really. Is your memory of childho-- says everything tasted, smelled like cantaloupe, and you recall the color of the little, almost miniature-looking train of Peabody, too. It's these childhood memories that are so strong, too, aren't they?

John Prine Yeah. I don't know, I get, I could go to different places and get and just right away get different feelings. Like, Paradise was always the same. You go, I go back to a lot of other places and a lot of them never look like what you remembered them to be, but that's what I always got a kick out of down in Paradise, 'cause it was always, as soon as I got there, it was just like I remembered

Studs Terkel It didn't look smaller? Very often when you return after you reach young manhood, or manhood, and you remember the little kid, it seems, looks so much smaller.

John Prine Maybe approaching the town, it looks smaller, but once I get in it and there were just a, just the idea of being in there is like being in a big house, almost, you know, because it was just like one, or just one street with eight or nine houses lined one side and on the other side, too.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about, too, your eye, and your ear and your one other thing I'd call the understanding heart, of course. You spoke of old people. You spoke of the older people leaving. You have a song about old -- What made you write the song, that, that -- It's called "Old People," we have the other name for it.

John Prine "Hello in There."

Studs Terkel "Hello in There." What led you to write

John Prine There's a lot of reasons. When I was little, old people used to take to me real fast, for some reason, and I used to take to them real fast, and I always spent a lot of time with my my grandfather. He's a carpenter and oh, for a while there I delivered papers in an old people's home, and it'd kind me of a tune. It wasn't -- It aas just very depressing, and it was a better, more supposedly in one of the better, I mean it was a private institution.

Studs Terkel One of the Better Homes.

John Prine Yeah.

Studs Terkel And that depressed you. The idea even of the segregation of old people, the putting them away.

John Prine Yeah. They just sat around and, oh, I imagine they had recreation for 'em, and some of them would, but most of them just seemed like they were kind of just waiting around to die.

Studs Terkel Out of it, out of it came.

John Prine Yeah, in a way, I had that, I very rarely write a tune before I write the lyrics to it, usually they both just come at the same time, but I had this tune and I was going to write a love song. And I sat down and just wrote a song about old people. [content removed, see

Studs Terkel I don't know what to say. I think that's going to be a classic just in hearing it. You have everything in it, don't you? A complete shutting out of old people and the feelings they undoubtedly have that you were able to evoke an experience, quite remarkable.

John Prine I believe I'd hate to sing that song for old people.

Studs Terkel Oh, yeah

John Prine I did, one of the first concerts I ever did was a thing for some old people over at the YWCA on Dearborn, and I wasn't writing too much then, this was a long time ago. I just did it to help out my brother once and it was kind of strange because they really enjoyed, they enjoyed every song, you know, they enjoyed the whole show, and they and we did one kind, every kind of music you could think

Studs Terkel See, how'd they feel about this song?

John Prine Well, I didn't have this one written at

Studs Terkel Oh, you didn't have

John Prine No, this was like five or six years ago, at least.

Studs Terkel Well, I think I don't know how very old people feel, but I think that somehow they would find that song theirs. I mean, the idea is to be recognized, you're saying, "Hello, in there," you know?. And it's that nonrecognition, it's that being thrown away like a used orange rind as Willy Loman said in "Death of a Salesman," and/or as the old grandmother battled, and you know Edward Albee's "American Dream," the play, remember that? She refused to be taken away, but they took her away in that cart and she fought it all the way, you know?

John Prine I watched that three times when they had it on recently, they had it on on television last year, so I.

Studs Terkel It's a powerful song, oh, boy. Everything. And they're talking about also lost manhood. Meeting his friend the factory, what's new, and the same old news, too, it's almost a picture, it's almost, you've written, it's almost a powerful short story there that you have.

John Prine I kind of wanted to pick names that, I didn't want to pick strange names, I just wanted to pick names now that if you're born that long ago that you might be named, you know, because names usually get popular

Studs Terkel Fashions in names change.

John Prine But I didn't want to make the names too strange.

Studs Terkel No, you got Fred and you got daughter Loretta and son-in-law.

John Prine Rudy's the dog, lives across the street.

Studs Terkel Yeah,

John Prine I say they always call him in around five o'clock in the afternoon, and I was writing that and I heard them calling for Rudy, and I figured, well's that

Studs Terkel My guest is, is John Prine who is, as you can probably guess by now, about the most imaginative and moving of American songwriters and singers today. The -- You say you had a melody all set, but you had a love song all set for it. I mean, you had the melody set

John Prine But I didn't have any words, I was going to, I planned, I figured that tune was pretty enough for a love song, and I sat down to write one and instead I wrote about old people.

Studs Terkel Because there's one that perhaps some -- What else do the people like, when you sang for them, because there's so many of your songs that least 10, we'll only hear a bit of those. I want to save "Sam Stone" for a moment.

John Prine This is a short one I wrote when I was 14. I call it "A Frying Pan." I liked Roger Miller a whole lot then, he was writing all that stuff. [content

Studs Terkel You were 14 when you wrote that, you say? So it's the Roger Miller influence, but also was also things you observed and saw, you know, the breaking up of homes, too, running away, and I suppose you may have seen that, too, as a kid? Did you, as a -- Here again, the combination of influences on you, I suppose.

John Prine Yeah. I don't know where that went from. It just it's that sometimes I just write a little bit faster than I think and I have to sit back and see what I wrote.

Studs Terkel You were 14, when did you start?

John Prine When I, when I first, my brother taught me a couple of chords on the guitar and I started writing right away. I wrote a song one night and took me, my first song took me about three hours, and I went downstairs and I told my mother I wrote a song, and so she sat down to listen to it and I got about halfway through it and I was picking it, and she started singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." I got so embarrassed that I I don't know, I don't even know a word to that song today, I just threw the lyrics away and I didn't write anything for a little while after that, you know, and I didn't know, I thought I had my own tune or anything else,

Studs Terkel Oh, it was "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"? Oh, your mother -- Did your family sing

John Prine Oh, my mother, her father lived down in Paradise. He used to play guitar a lot. Merle Travis is from, you know, in Byrd County , and so is Ike Everly, Everly Brothers' father, and a whole lot of people used to pick down around there.

Studs Terkel So you really come, you come from that very rich region, then. Well, you see -- Do you mind, just for the moment, I happen to love "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," just the melody

John Prine I don't even know

Studs Terkel No, just the phrase, because that's what your song was. Is that what your song was, that melody? The one you wrote when you were

John Prine I don't even know if I can remember. [plays guitar] I can't even remember the tune now.

Studs Terkel Yeah, but that's the one that you, but your mother picked you up on that though, I mean as you were singing.

John Prine Oh, she just kind of unconsciously, I started picking it, and she started humming and singing the words to it.

Studs Terkel You know, I'm talking to John Prine and you'll soon be hearing his songs on Atlantic, and undoubtedly John will be known throughout the country, too, as rightfully he should be, as one of the most imaginative of America's songwriters today and singers. And it's, we take a slight pause for a moment and we'll return with John and of course, "Sam Stone" among other songs, and how he came to write these songs, too. In a moment, after we hear from our friend across the glass in the control room, we'll return to singer/songwriter John Prine. And so, John, as we pick up the conversation, it's quite a distance from Paradise, Kentucky, distance and time, yet not too many years ago, was it, to Chicago, where you've been living for some time now. How many years since you left Paradise?

John Prine Oh, I didn't -- I was born up here.

Studs Terkel You were born in

John Prine My family comes from from Paradise. And we just used to always go back down there during the summer

Studs Terkel Does your family, on that subject, does your family still think even though you were born here, your family, being Kentuckians, still think of that as home?

John Prine Oh, you mean Kentucky. Right.

Studs Terkel That's home.

John Prine Right.

Studs Terkel Yeah, that's always the case.

John Prine First thing my father used to tell everybody. He's the last of a dying breed. Kentuckian. Pure Kentuckian.

Studs Terkel It's funny, Appalachian people, mountain people, and Back people from the Deep South invariably speak of home as where they came from, not where they are, at this moment in Chicago. So we come to the Great Society.

John Prine "Conflict Veteran's Blues."

Studs Terkel "Veteran's Blues," or "Sam Stone." And perhaps the singer -- We'll talk about it after you do it. Or you want to talk about it before?

John Prine That's all right, I'll sing it. [content removed, see

Studs Terkel Wow. That song really says it all. You wrote that song, how long ago now?

John Prine Three years ago.

Studs Terkel Three years ago and it's since then, information has come to our country, and to people about the

John Prine -- Yeah, about two weeks ago.

Studs Terkel About the heroin, the addicts in Vietnam. And that's it, too, isn't it, the songwriter, a certain kind of writer of songs, and a certain kind of poet, is also able to judge and prophesy, too, can tell the feelings. You heard, is that it?

John Prine Well, more or less. I didn't sit down to write a song about about a veteran on heroin. It was just the two, the two things. Well, heroin usually doesn't end any place and it was kind of there was kind of a just a futile feeling when you're in a service. I wasn't in Vietnam, I was in, they sent me to Germany for two years. But throughout the whole army, you know, when you were in over in Germany it was just you didn't feel like you're doing too much there, like you had no business, and it was that plus the image of somebody on heroin. And that's the only reason I combined the two, it was more than trying to write a song about a veteran on heroin, and it was kind of strange that it ended up. Now there's a lot of amount of heroin.

Studs Terkel It's funny how it worked out. You had the image, the idea in mind, the symbol in mind. And the reality came into being. Irony. Most of this -- It's funny, in listening, as I listen to "Sam Stone" and then to "Old People," this, there's a connecting thread here in which both are counting for nothing in the way, whether it's the young soldier or whether it's the old couple. And in your songs you are, by implication, of course, throughout, without any soapbox saying it, you know, "look at me," each one doesn't have to be. This song, what a use of lines, use of "little pitchers have big ears," you using old homilies, too, and often they become very ironic.

John Prine I was surprised how many people had never heard that before, 'cause stuff we'd say, "Oh, where's that? What's that?" And I just thought everybody used that, and

Studs Terkel And "Sweet old songs don't sound the same on broken radios."

John Prine "And sweet songs never last too long on broken radios."

Studs Terkel I love that line "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where the money goes."

John Prine I was kind of thinking about, I had those two lines, that's what started the whole song off with, I had "that sweet songs never last too long on broken radios" and "there's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes," and I was kind of thinking of, in a way, like some political cartoon, like the humor they use in political cartoons. And I had, I had just kind of a picture of a fellow shooting money into his arm, you know, with like a rainbow of money just falling down into his arm. And that's where, that's where I got that line.

Studs Terkel So that's how, that's how it works then, so there are a couple of images you have, and out of it, your observation, experience hearing

John Prine If the image is strong enough, then the rest of the song will develop out of it, it seems, if the first couple ideas of the song. Then I don't have as hard a time, like that was one of the easiest songs I ever wrote

Studs Terkel Really?

John Prine Because after I had that, those two lines, the rest the song just poured out of me.

Studs Terkel Is that, is that, that's how it works sometimes, just flows sometimes, sometimes more difficult.

John Prine If the idea is kind of sketchy in the first place, then the song usually takes me a lot longer because every line after that is a little sketchy and I don't want to get too far away from the original thought.

Studs Terkel You have the monkey, the monkey on the back, too, I suggest, Nelson Algren I remember

John Prine

Studs Terkel -- With First used that Purple Heart in "The Man with the Golden Arm." Well, go ahead, John. So it's the city. It's the city plus the, plus the mountain country, the city plus the country, both have had their impact on you. An observation, so go ahead because the songs just flow -- How many songs have you written, by the way, have you kept track?

John Prine Somewhere between 25 and 30.

Studs Terkel Right.

John Prine Yes. I use most all of them. I run into a lot of people, they say, you know, they written 500 songs or something, but you never hear more than about 40 of them at the most, you know, usually.

Studs Terkel Should point out that Kris Kristofferson, while visiting Chicago and playing at The Quiet Knight, heard John Prine and, as you probably could guess, flipped and urged he come to The Bitter End in New York where Kristofferson was playing, and during a couple of

John Prine Stevie Goodman

Studs Terkel Nights

John Prine Helped out, he was playing with Kris

Studs Terkel And Steve Goodman, too

John Prine And he brought Kris over to see me over at The Earl, kept telling him to come over, and he got him over there the last night he was in town.

Studs Terkel At The Earl of Old Town. And he did. And that was it, and of course, what happened in New York to the various guys, critics, others came to hear John so you'll be soon hearing and buying, I trust, his recordings on Atlantic. He's going to Muscle Shoals, it's interesting, going to Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

John Prine Yeah, I hope so. It's, it's kind of a toss-up between there and New York, and I hope to end up down in Muscle Shoals.

Studs Terkel This is an interesting development, isn't it? In Muscle Shoals, Alabama where the dam is, as you point out, halfway

John Prine There's a big TVA dam

Studs Terkel TVA dam.

John Prine As they've got one at Paradise, that was before they strip-mined it, they had a, they built a TVA dam a long time ago, and I ran across the, I was looking through my grandmother's trunk once, this is, we were running through, this is about five or six years after she had passed away, and I ran across a postcard between her and her cousin that was talking about, this is back in the late '30s or so, was talking about how they were going to ruin the whole -- Building t his TVA dam, you know, and it was really, it was really strange the way it was so up to date with the strip-mining they were doing, too.

Studs Terkel The TVA, of course, had a wholly different purpose in mind, providing power for the

John Prine A lot of people didn't want, there were a lot of people that lived around right around there, didn't want it at the time.

Studs Terkel Strip mining, of course, a wholly different purpose.

John Prine Well, it, yeah, a lot of jobs came out of there for a lot of people

Studs Terkel Come back to the songs. You go ahead, you name your, name your poison.

John Prine Well, this is a song about when I was in the Army, these, I was down in Louisiana most of the time. And just about every army camp in the States has a small town right near it where all the soldiers go and usually the whole thing's made up of, you know, saloons and maybe five or six saloons and a beauty parlor and that's about it, usually. And the people in these towns always kind of seemed, seemed just a little bit different. It seemed like they had to put up with a different -- Like, almost like a tourist town, except offseason or something, because the soldiers would come to town but they never, none of them ever wanted to really be there. So they really didn't -- They just really raised hell, you know, all the time. And I got to thinking about the people living in these towns. So I wrote this as a, it's a love story. I usually say it's about, it's about couple of lovers that never met, is what it is. It's about two people I picked, and they don't meet in this song at all. And it's partially about masturbation, too, because I thought both these people were alone. I mean, mentally, too, they spend a lot of times just with themselves. [content removed, see

Studs Terkel Yeah. John, more and more it appears that your songs are so powerful, they really are dramas, too, the dramas, this could easily be, just as it look at it, this powerful, aching sort of short story of these two people, of loneliness, of course, and all of that unfulfilled, of dreaming and a fantasy. Lydia, Donald and love.

John Prine I tried to, a couple of times, I used to liked to write. And I could never write anything longer than a short story. I just couldn't, I had, I want to get everything right away.

Studs Terkel Well, you do. That's the point. The short story, so it's also a poem. Well, I suppose poetry and short stories get to things immediately, too. And also the, the - you said it was just, the, yeah the Army town, the town near a barracks and the feeling you get. You also capture here middle America, small-town America and yet also people in the big cities, too. Along with everything, Lydia and Donald also could -- Are here, too, you know.

John Prine Yeah. Right.

Studs Terkel What you capture in that one place. So the song comes to you then, almost any source. For you. The basis of the song you write.

John Prine Yeah, yeah. I'm getting to where now I like to, I almost like to pick some sort of theme and work around it, you know? Get some kind of foundation and work around it. Now, just to just more or less to challenge, see what I can do with it. What's that -- "Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, if possible, play."

Studs Terkel The sign there, yeah.

John Prine That's one I had, I had to these two lines I had, "She was a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol and I was just a soldier on my way to Montreal" and I wanted to mix, I was [still wanted?] to mix like politics and romance, you know, up together, you know, see what come out of it. And I guess it's kind of like the American Dream is in a way what came out

Studs Terkel Yeah, a soldier on the way to Montreal tells us

John Prine I call, I call it a "Spanish Pipedream." [content removed, see

Studs Terkel It's a, that's not a bad recipe at all.

John Prine That song was a whole lot of fun to write.

Studs Terkel Now that, these are songs we get a great kick writing, too, the humorous songs and the light, at the same time making that point, too. That's great. How does that line go again, that she was a dancing girl on the road to alcohol?

John Prine "She's a level-headed dancer on the road to alcohol"

Studs Terkel "And I was a soldier"

John Prine "And I was just a soldier on the way to Montreal." I figure if I can't get a song out of that, I couldn't write any more.

Studs Terkel That's a beauty, though. And found Jesus on their own, too. That's, that's interesting, too. Well, you know, there's so much to John Prine, that all we do is just hear a bit of him during an hour, and we look forward, of course, to the album, no doubt there'll be several albums and we're just meeting today, at least I am, at least for the first full hour I heard before a very, I think someone who is a quite powerful and important songwriter in America today, and John, what's a good way, aside from wishing you good luck down in Muscle Shoals, and Atlantic and the songs you will sing and we hear you sing, what's a good, what's a song, with so many others, to say goodbye with for the moment?

John Prine Oh, boy.

Studs Terkel So many. It need not be a farewell song, just a song, you know. You have "Quiet Man," "Far Me [sic]," and "Illegal Smile" Oh,

John Prine -- Oh, I got one.

Studs Terkel "Blue Umbrella."

John Prine It's called "The Flashback Blues."

Studs Terkel "Flashback Blues." And so as John Brown sings -- John Brown! I like that, too, it's not

John Prine Well, I might change it.

Studs Terkel Hey, John Brown, he too, is a powerful man, too. John Prine sings that. I thank you very much indeed. Best of luck.

John Prine Thank you.

Studs Terkel This is our program for this morning and tomorrow's guest after this message. Tomorrow my guest is Judy Collins. Some of her songs, other songs that she sings so beautifully. Until then, take it easy, but take it.