Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Songs for a Sad Season

James Chandler

Singer-songwriter John Prine fell ill with the Covid-19 virus in March and eventually succumbed to it on April 7. He was a balladeer of the common man, a poet of everyday life with a knack for folding narrative fragments into an elemental lyricism very much in the manner of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads. He got his start here in Chicago in the early 1970s when he was working as a mailman and playing regularly at local spots like the Earl of Old Town. I saw him play there not long after I first came to Chicago in 1972. Up and coming comedians at Second City like Bill Murray remember crossing Welles Street after their shows to catch Prine’s act. Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson to listen to Prine at the Earl of Old Town one night, and this led to Prine’s first album in 1971. Prine released many other albums over the years, and his music eventually reached wider audiences, but he has always been something of a musician’s musician.

Prine’s struggle with the virus this spring was well-known, and even before his death there was an outpouring of support from the musical world. When he died the tributes were legion, with musicians releasing covers of their songs from the confines of their own homes. Through it all, Prine has emerged as something like the presiding muse of the pandemic in America. I suspect his symbolic role owes much to his precocious anthem of old age and isolation, “Hello in There,” one of the songs he wrote and recorded in his twenties during the early Chicago years. It appeared on that first album with two other remarkable songs, “Sam Stone” and “Angel from Montgomery” (later covered by Bonnie Raitt). Over the decades, “Hello in There” itself has been covered by Bette Midler, Joan Baez, and Jason Isbell, and more recently in some of those online tributes. Brandi Carlisle performed it beautifully earlier this month as part of Stephen Colbert’s effort to honor the memory of his old Chicago friend. Many of the covers of “Hello in There” are available online, but here is a later version recorded by Prine himself, live in New York in 2000, four years after a bout with neck cancer.

The song has been haunting me. What I love about the lyrics is the way in which the interiority implied by “in there” ultimately shifts from a physical residence, a place behind a “screen door,” to that lonely habitation behind the “ancient hollow eyes” one passes on the street—a decidedly Wordsworthian moment. What I love about the harmonic structure is the deft use of the wistful B-minor chord within the G-major composition to mark discordant moments in the third line of each verse and, of course, in the third line of the chorus where we hear that, unlike old trees and old rivers, “Old People just grow lonesome.” And what I love about the melody is the poignancy of its descending patterns: the cascade of notes falling with seeming inevitability from the top of the G scale to the bottom of it, with the voicing of that final solitary “hello”—an overture, so to speak, that is also a closure.

The Cambridge History of English Romantic Literature edited by James Chandler

About The Author

James Chandler

James Chandler is William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He ser...

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