the museum of americana

a literary review

A Brief Walk With John Prine and Vivien Thomas–by Michael Lauchlan

Increasingly, I notice things which are amazing but not surprising. It is utterly amazing that we would find the Post Office under attack at the very moment that countless people crave connection and need items delivered to the door. During a pandemic that has taken so many (and so many post-office employees), it is unsurprising that we have also lost some treasured musicians, song-writers, and artists. It is amazing to behold the void where an old letter-carrier/song-writer once stood.

When I learned that John Prine had worked for the Post Office, I became aware of something elemental to his music–Prine’s ability to pull together disparate images at a walking pace. Prine seemed to be in a continual process of rediscovering the ways we collapse and the ways we continue. He also willingly received and passed along human moments that were genuinely funny. Prine’s songs do hold leadership up to ridicule (“Flag Decal”, “Some People Ain’t Human,” etc.) but they most often uncover human elements that baffle the songwriter as well as the listener. He eschews a wit that illuminates his own brilliance. Explicitly in “In Spite of Ourselves” and by inference in “Dear Abby,” one finds Prine chuckling along with his befuddled characters. 

After reading the dispiriting news of Prine’s death, I replayed a great many of his songs and found myself thinking of a film I saw years ago. A biopic, it wasn’t a perfect film but managed to portray an amazing soul–Vivien Thomas, who helped Johns Hopkins physicians pioneer the open heart surgery that saved “blue babies.” He was black and poor and never went to med school, but his sutures were so perfect that the presiding physician referred to them as “something the Lord made.”

My point is that there are a lot of fine John Prine songs that no one else could have written. Part of the pleasure comes from knowing and loving the particulars of his writing voice. But the very best of his songs don’t seem to have been written by anyone. I hate lists, but I might include “Paradise,” “Souvenirs,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and several others. Part of the joy is that we’ve heard them covered by so many fine artists for so many years. But, in the writing itself, they are fundamental to our idiom and our humanity. They are larger than one writer’s voice. 

This is a perilous area of discourse. There are many streams feeding the idiom of the American song. We may encounter a Vivien Thomas kind of perfection within different traditions. Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” or Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” came from real people with individual stories. But what they made of the anguish in their lives became elemental to the American story and to the American songwriting idiom. It came to sound like something the Lord made. 

In the moment, I don’t think we can know if we are approaching that quality in our songs and poems. But that’s the Keatsian promise that keeps me sanding. Of course, Vivien Thomas is remembered because his stitches brought healing. “Paradise” would mean nothing to us if it weren’t also located and driven by rage and love. Prine’s songs walk us door to door through our own lives and the lives of others. The deep compassion they offer us again and again is an element utterly essential to us, if we are ever to learn to hear each other, if we are ever to heal.

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Michael Lauchlan has contributed to many publications, including New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The North American Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Citron Review, Sugar House Review, Louisville Review, Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, Rhino, and Poetry Ireland. His most recent collection is Trumbull Ave., from WSU Press (2015).