The Library of Congress Blog featured a post on the passing of John Prine today. The following is a response to the news, and a recollection of the famed singer-songwriter, from 13th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Ted Kooser. ”A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser” took place in the Library’s historic Coolidge Auditorium on March 9, 2005, during Kooser’s first term in the position. The resulting webcast is one of the Library’s most popular.
A couple of months after being installed as poet laureate, I made a series of stops on my way to Washington. At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, after a poetry reading I gave there, a group was gathered backstage, as I recall it, and someone asked me what I had in mind as special projects for my laureateship. I said that what I’d love to do would be to persuade the singer-songwriter John Prine to come to the Library and talk about songwriting, but I had no way of even contacting Prine to ask him.
R.B. Morris, a poet and songwriter and performer, was in the group and he said, “I know John! I’ll talk to him about it!” A lucky break for me, the first of a number of lucky times I had during my tenure.
So over the next few months I worked long distance with John’s long-time manager Al Bunetta, and we put together a date and a rough idea of a program. Pross Gifford, who was then supervising the laureates, was concerned about having a huge audience show up since John had just done a concert at Wolf Trap to 6,000, and the Coolidge Auditorium wouldn’t hold a tenth of that many, so when we announced what we were doing we billed it as a conversation about writing. Of course I was hoping that John would play and sing, which he did.
He still had some die-hard fans there, and on the morning of the event one of the custodians at the Library found a fan asleep in the auditorium. Somehow he’d been there all night.
On the afternoon of our onstage interview, John and a couple of helpers met me at the auditorium early, and he and I had a good talk sitting on stage in the empty auditorium. I hadn’t known it before, but John and I had had the same kind of head-and-neck cancer operated just six months apart, seven years before we met. So we immediately found common ground there, and we had lots of other things in common, including our mid-country roots. I liked him immensely at once.
That evening we had a dinner after the event and I got to meet John’s lovely wife, Fiona, and their sons, handsome black-haired Irish boys. Other of their old friends were there as well.
I was told by someone at the Library, perhaps Pross, that it was the first time a folksinger had been on that particular stage in that grand auditorium since Woody Guthrie had been there in, I think, 1936.
Over the intervening years I’ve had occasional cards from John and Fiona, and Oh Boy Records has sent me a number of complimentary copies of CDs and LPs as they’ve come out. A year or so ago, John inscribed his book for me and sent it along.
About a year ago he had a concert in Omaha, about 70 miles from where we live in rural Nebraska, and Fiona phoned me to see if I’d like complimentary tickets, but I had to decline because we were having family visitors that weekend. Today I wish I would have made more of an effort. But I do have all of his recorded music going back to his first LP album, and it would be the music he’d want me to spend time enjoying, not just his friendship and generosity.
He was a remarkable man. I wrote to Fiona this morning and told her that I once stayed in a B&B in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I learned at breakfast that the owner had been a B24 pilot in WWII, flying bombing missions out of Africa during the allied bombings of the oil fields in Romania. After he told me about his service—he had been the plane’s captain, at age 21, and his crew were 18 and 19—he said, “Ted, there are people who go through their entire lives and nothing significant happens to them. I knew a man who carried in his billfold a tattered newspaper clipping with his name included as the witness to a car accident. That was his claim to fame.”
Think how many significant things happened to dear John Prine during his life, starting out as a mailman in Chicago, persisting in his love of singing and songwriting until he had hundreds of thousands of followers. And yet he never was anything but humble and gracious. A sizable portion of the world is today mourning his passing. I’m just one of them.