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Studs Terkel discusses the songs by Steve Goodman and songwriter John Prine

BROADCAST: Jul. 29, 1975 | DURATION: 00:13:14


Studs Terkel comments on folk music entertainers Stever Goodman and John Prine. He discusses a little about their life and names a variety of their song titles. The musical performances have been erased from this edited version of the recording. Includes an excerpt from a previous interview with John Prine who speaks about his grandfather and a song he wrote about him.


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


Studs Terkel This morning's program will be a tribute to two very gifted songwriters and performers who worked the Chicago enclave that's very rich indeed in this matter, John Prine and Steve Goodman. So we're playing some of their -- I've just chosen almost at random some of the recordings of various albums of Steve Goodman and of John Prine and some other songs. There are so many to pick, I've just chosen a dozen or so almost at random to give you an idea of their their talent. The first song of John Prine that I've chosen, he sings and a song he wrote, is deliberate. I think of the film "Nashville," Robert Altman's film that some have called a landmark in cinematic history. I think it's far from a landmark. We have a tendency to engage in hyperboles, and is another example. It's a damn good film, Altman's metaphor for this country as he sees it, and it's a fascinating film, but a landmark? No. The songs are okay. There is some good music in it, but far from great songs. Good but not great. So I'm Woody Allen now: "I said to Hemingway, 'You're good but not great,' and he punched me in the mouth," says Woody. "I said to Gertrude Stein, 'You're good but not great,' and she punched me in the mouth. I said to F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'You're good but not great,' and he punched me in the mouth, so I went back to New York to see my orthodontist." And so in this case, "Nashville," a good film, but no song to match the idea that is in "Nashville" and as John Prine has written, "The Great Compromise" from his second album and it's Johnny, who came from western Kentucky, mountain country, and came to live in Maywood became a mailman who wrote, remembers and has traveled about, sees the countryside and the people. And he sees trailers, the great trailer society that we have, and could easily, in a sense, have been part of "Nashville," too. And this is Johnny's "Great Compromise." You can call that one of John Prine's metaphors, of course his great paean to loneliness is "Donald and Lydia" and later on a tribute, his attitude, air concerning the treatment of the old in the country to Steve Goodman, his colleague. Now here's Steve from the big city, Chicago, Johnny from a small town, both meet and they help one another, each with his giftedness. Stevie also travels around and about the country and he by some process of, what, creative osmosis, seems to absorb everything and so he's -- This is an experience everybody has shared who has been on the road in the motels whether they be Holiday Inn or Marriott, the chain motels. Not so much the ma and pa places, but it's par for the course, these places are, and this is Steve's interpretation, another aspect to our country. "This Hotel Room." There you have it, the Goodman view, the Holy Bible and the TV Guide and all this and Magic Fingers, too. Back to John Prine and he wrote a beautiful song about memories of a town destroyed by the strippers, the town he lived in, called, ironically enough, "Paradise." And by the Peabody Coal Company was furious because of Johnny's song, indicating the power sometimes of the artist. They are furious about this song because he named Peabody Coal Company as the predator, the number one predator of this particular community in western Kentucky. And so we come to John and his view of old people. He says a newsboy, when he came to Maywood, he delivered stuff to old people's homes and they'd talk, as lonely old people do, to strange kids, and "Hello in There" is I think a classic. And no doubt John and Steve will be singing his song tonight, John, no doubt will be singing this one tonight, too, at Ravinia. "Brian's Song," that's worth a whole sociological study on the idea of the aged in our society. And Steve Goodman has a remarkable facility, back to Steve now, his references, his his all-around knowledge is wild. One day he and David Amram, the composer, got together, and "Let's do a song about 'Moby Dick.'" And this is almost the opposite number to Woody Guthrie's "Tom Joad" and Woody saw John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" in film form. He saw it four times, didn't read the book, but saw the film, and he wrote a six-minute version, "Tom Joad," that's a classic. I think this is, it's "Moby Book," and it's Steve Goodman's interpretation, believe it or not, of Melville. "Call me Ishmael." Why not the tale of the Pequod as a fast blues? Why not? And John Prine and Steve Goodman travel a great deal; concerts, colleges in different towns, and festivals, and the automobile often, but more often I imagine the airplane. And so at airports there you see them. There you see the shaven head and the pigtail and the saffron gowns of the male Hare Krishna people, also female Hare Krishna people, and so this is his perverse tribute, John Prine, to the idea. "Come Back to Us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard." No, not many a bewildered parent may be saying, "Come Back to Us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard" as John Prine. Steve Goodman, again, anything, anything is his oyster, anything is a basis for a song. And so when he read Mike Royko's columns about Ross Cascio and the Lincoln Towing Service a few years ago, how they'd pull those cars away and what a tough time it was getting them back, he wrote a song, a tribute, and he calls it the "Lincoln Park Pirates." As Steve says, he played this in different cities and they all understood it, as though every city has its own beloved Ross, and so here is his tribute to the "Lincoln Park Pirates," a tribute to a local hero. Resuming the program involving the songs and the artistry of John Prine and Steve Goodman, and John -- In Johnny's repertoire remembrance plays a tremendous role as memories of his boyhood in Muhlenberg County, the coal country in Kentucky and he has a memory of his grandfather, it becomes the basis of a song, "Grandpa Was a Carpenter." You'll hear sort of a sound in the background, well, that's the air conditioner in the office, I was interviewing John at the time. This is memories of his grandfather. Oh, the last one, about your grandfather.

John Prine Oh, the carpenter. I got to thinking about my grandfather one night. He died when I was, he died when I was maybe eight or nine. I spent a great deal of time with him. And as long as I was sitting around there thinking about him, I thought I better, as bad as my memory's getting, I should sit down and write down the things I really remember about him. And after I started noticing that the third line rhymed with the 17th line, and so I started putting the lines together so they'd rhyme together like a song, and I just wrote down exactly what he, exactly what he did.

Studs Terkel Your grandfather was a carpenter.

John Prine He was a carpenter and every night he wore he wore a suit to dinner because that's just the way he was. He just would wear a suit to dinner, he would come home and shower up and wear a suit to dinner. He didn't ask anybody else to dress up, but he would always dress up for dinner. And my grandmother, she was a schoolteacher down in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She'd once traded in, a salesman came along and she traded him the cow for, she had a Singer sewing machine and she became a seamstress after she didn't stop teaching anymore, you know, and she always called her husband 'Mr. Prine,' instead of his first name.

Studs Terkel Really? Yeah.

John Prine And it was just interesting to me. Now, the chorus, a lot of people don't understand, in particular I used to sing at a lot of colleges and I'm sure kids don't understand it. But [unintelligible] was a carpenter, he built houses, stores and banks, chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, and hammered nails in planks, and he was level on the level. Besides being a carpenter, he was an honest man. And he shaved even every door so the doors didn't stick. You know? And he voted for Eisenhower 'cause Lincoln won the war. He was a staunch Republican.

Studs Terkel Well, we come back to this, it's remarkable, the thing about your grandfather who dressed formally, because in "Hard Times," a guy named Doc Hollister tells about his father, during the Depression, no matter what, he'd always be dressed a certain way, formally, see, but he went to work and come back, you know, very dapper. And that's part of it, you remember the formality of it there. That guy was a square shooter, though, your grandfather.

John Prine Right. Right. You know, and he was a staunch Republican and my father, first time he ever voted was for Roosevelt in '32, and when he came home and told his mother and father that he'd voted for Roosevelt, they just about went through the ceiling, you know. And the main reason that they were Republicans is that Kentucky was a neutral state during the war, and they sided with the North, and they were, there was, you know, Lincoln was a Republican. And then so they just carried that right on through to Eisenhower and they voted. Last time he got to vote I believe it was in '52, and then he'd gone out and voted for Eisenhower and I always figured when I asked my dad about the whole political thing, when, you know, because he was a Democrat he, you know, probably, you know, it's they all date back to the Civil War. So I figured in this song I'd say he voted for Eisenhower because Lincoln won the war. So here I am. If the South had won the war, it could have been a different.

Studs Terkel John Prine and Steve Goodman, aside from being gifted, are very, very generous and very openhearted, indeed. This seems to be perhaps a Chicago aspect of the folk writers' and folk singers' circle. They exchange songs and they pay tribute to one another, and very generous indeed, and so an example is Steve Goodman singing the song of a colleague, Mike Smith, always paying him tribute, it's called, "The Dutchman," and it has I suppose you might say has a Jacques Brel quality, though it's definitely Smith and definitely Goodman singing it. Steve Goodman singing a colleague's song, "The Dutchman," and, see, it's very difficult to choose, what, three or four more songs, no doubt tonight at Ravinia John Prine will be probably singing "Sam Stone," I'm sure, as well as "Donald and Lydia," and Steve will of course be singing, I'm sure, "City of New Orleans," it'll be requested if he doesn't sing it. There's "Illegal Smile." That's one of John Prine's songs and this again is his observation. "The Illegal" -- I think no preface needed for this, it just speaks for itself. As you see that illegal smile so pervasive you take a deep whiff of the air and it smells so sweet. And as narcosis is dealt with by John Prine "Escape" and so another form of escape is dealt with by Steve Goodman, "Lookin' for Trouble." By the way, they have a share of that club, the very excellent folk song club on Lincoln Avenue, called Somebody Else's Troubles, it's a very nice place to go to all the time, they and the Holstein brothers and this is "Lookin' for Trouble," Steve Goodman's approach. What's interesting, too, about Steve Goodman and John Prine always when they record or perform surround themselves with musicians whom they respect very much and what comes out, of course, is awfully good music. John Prine has a comment about the six o'clock news, six o'clock news on all the channels, and I guess each of us thinks about it at times, too, how it does not really affect us and the commercials come in there and statistics rather than humans are talked about and Johnny remembers a friend of his childhood, what happened to him. A sudden tragedy and violence and suddenly he is on six o'clock news, but as a statistic rather than as a person who John once knew, and thus, "Six O'Clock News," John Prine's interpretation. Perhaps to end the program, combinations. John and and Steve shift gears very quickly indeed, from a biting comment, a serious comment, to humor, and to joy, to delight, and "Jessie's Jig" is the name of Steve Goodman's new album, by the way, Johnny's new album is called "Common Sense," and both are excellent. And, well, Jessie, named after Steve's little girl, first child. And so "Jessie's Jig" and all the musicians get together and they just have a good time.