Rolling Stone magazine once called John Prine — who died on April 7 at the age of 73 due to complications from COVID-19 — the “Mark Twain of American Songwriting.” Bob Dylan once said Prine’s “stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
Anne E. Prine Sorkin, a longtime River Forest resident and former educator, simply called him “Uncle John.”
“I recognize his gifts and talents, and have always enjoyed his music, but I admired and loved him even more for family things,” said Sorkin during an interview on April 10. “He had a really good heart and from the time I was a really young kid, I recognized that.”
Sorkin, the daughter of Prine’s oldest brother Dave Prine, said that she grew up next to her grandparents’ Maywood house, which was a block south of Proviso East High School, where she, her father and her three uncles attended.
“I enjoyed being with John and I was so proud of all of my uncles,” she said. “My dad is the oldest of the four brothers and still lives in Maywood. I was next door with my grandma probably more than I was at home. My Uncle Bill, the youngest of the brothers, was seven years older, so he was more like a big brother to me.”
Sorkin said she was no more than “seven or eight” when Uncle John, still working as a mailman, would play his songs for his family before they caught the attention of the world.
“I remember vividly when he played ‘Angel from Montgomery’ for the first time in my grandparents’ living room,” Sorkin recalled.
The song is from his 1971 self-titled debut album and is classic Prine: unpretentious (responding to Dylan’s “Proustian existentialism” compliment, Prine once said: “I can’t even pronounce that”), blazingly simple and focused not on himself, but on the interior lives of the less powerful and the marginalized.
There’s the injured Korean War vet “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back” who becomes addicted to drugs. The vet’s children, who notice “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” The old retired couple who do nothing all day, but perhaps think about the son they lost in Korea — “Don’t know what for; guess it doesn’t matter anymore.”
One night in 1970, a young Chicago Sun-Times writer happened to pass by the Fifth Peg, a folk club in Chicago, where Prine, back then just a 23-year-old mailman and aspiring musician, was playing. The writer wasn’t the newspaper’s music critic, but he wrote a review, anyway.
“Prine’s lyrics work with poetic economy to sketch a character in just a few words,” wrote Roger Ebert. “In ‘Angel from Montgomery,’ for example, he tells of a few minutes in the thoughts of a woman who is doing the housework and thinking of her husband: ‘How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, come back in the evening, and have nothing to say?'”
That was the very first review of Prine’s music and, along with the strong support of country singer Kris Kristofferson, would help launch the Maywood native’s career.
Lois Baumann, the founder of the nonprofit Maywood Fine Arts in Maywood, was a year behind Prine at Proviso East High School, where the budding songwriter was a member of the gymnastics team. Prine’s fame never went to his head and he regularly returned to his hometown years after making it big, Baumann said.
“In 2000, we needed a roof on the MFA building at 25 N. 5th Avenue and we appealed to him, because we didn’t have a dime and that building needed a roof,” Baumann recalled. “That’s when he came out and did his first concert for us. The next concert was in 2010, when our dance studio burned down. He was such a good guy and he’s been a friend to Maywood for a long time.”
Prine’s pre-fame years were informed by other west suburbs, too. Prine delivered mail in Westchester. He had an apartment in Melrose Park. He frequented Val’s halla Records in Oak Park, where he visited for the final time last year while promoting his newest album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.”
“He loved Russell’s Barbecue in Elmwood Park,” said Sorkin, who taught elementary school for two decades in Forest Park schools and lived in the village before moving to River Forest. “We used to go over there and get the Russell’s sauce and cook chicken in my grandma’s backyard.”
Journalist Bill Dwyer, an Oak Park native, wrote recently that unlike the famed novelist and Oak Park native Ernest Hemingway — another writer praised for his narrative economy and simplicity — Prine “realized there were the haves and the have nots in this world, those who did things to others, and those who had those things done to them. He saw the human toll of the inherent pecking order of this world that so often restricted personal choices and ultimately foreclosed on people’s dreams.
“Hemingway crafted interesting, entertaining stories masterfully written, but he generally lacked any empathy or concern for the humanity of others,” Dwyer wrote. “He celebrated masculinity and dominance, romance and faraway places populated with privileged, monied people absorbed with their wants and needs.”
Prine’s muses were places like Maywood and Paradise, a “backwards old” coal-mining town in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, “where my parents were born,” Prine sings in “Paradise.”
Prine’s father, Bill, grew up in Paradise before moving to Maywood to find work as a tool and die maker at American Can Company. Bill drilled his native land deep into his sons, which explains John’s “ghost of a Kentucky accent,” as Ebert described it.
“One time, I went to school and they asked us all to find out where our roots were,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2017. “It’s goin’ around the class, and the kids were going, ‘I’m Swedish-German’ or ‘I’m English-Irish.’ They get to me and I said, ‘Pure Kentuckian.'”
Each year, there’s a family reunion in the Prines’ native Kentucky and every night during those reunions, “there’s a jam session, because we have a lot of musical people in the family,” Sorkin said. “We’d have good food and good music. We’d always sing ‘Paradise.'”
That song, Sorkin said, was “very special and dear to my family.” She said she believes her Uncle John wrote the song for his father.
Throughout the song, Prine pleads for his father to take him to Paradise, but it’s too late, his father tells him. The coal company “came with the world’s largest shovel” and “tortured the timber and stripped all the land” and “dug for their coal till the land was forsaken,” then they “wrote it all down as the progress of man.”
But the young Prine is insistent, still pleading with his father to “take me back to Muhlenberg County, Down by the Green River where Paradise lay … When I die let my ashes float down the Green River, Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam, I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’, Just five miles away from wherever I am.”