The Common Beauty of John Prine

by Thomas Dyja

Songwriters get Nobel Prizes now, and Pulitzers and all sorts of literary honors that were out of the question back in the 70s when John Prine went to his first open mic and played “Angel from Montgomery.” Those were bitter years, the 70s—Vietnam, Watergate, a nation curled up, scared and angry—and there were all kinds of young men with acoustic guitars: Truth tellers and revolutionaries; high-strung romantics playing their way into women’s pants; exiles from the conservatory; outlaws. They played on Bleecker Street or sat poolside in Laurel Canyon. They all aspired to poetry, and once in a while they made it.

And then there was John Prine, just a mailman from Maywood who liked to write songs. He was certainly one of the very best musicians Chicago has ever produced, but he was without question one of its very best writers, too, in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren. I’m looking out on a rainy day right now, at some dandelions popping up on the grass. Brooks once wrote about dandelions (and herself, I think), “it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower.”

John Prine was common that way. He wasn’t mysterious or reclusive, or trying to impress. He just lit up everyday life. Unlike those guitar players working so hard to be poetic, Prine knew that the poetry was in the lives he wrote about. Instead of peeking through gangway windows or throwing tantrums, he sat down in the front room, on the next bar stool, and listened. He made you care about people you’d rarely stop to think about otherwise, all the other dandelions out there, in there. He wasn’t afraid to say Hello.


Thomas Dyja
Thomas Dyja

Thomas Dyja was born and raised on the Northwest Side of Chicago. His 2013 book The Third Coast won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize and was named one of New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2013. Dyja was also instrumental in the formation of the American Writers Museum, serving as a Subject Matter Expert and lending his expertise to the curation of the Wintrust Chicago Gallery.

6 thoughts on “The Common Beauty of John Prine

  1. Kathryn Moery says:

    I appreciate this author. I wish he could do a presentation at AWM. The Third Coast inspired my fascination with Algren, and is my most beloved books about my beloved city. Please consider showcasing his talents in the future.

    • American Writers Museum says:

      Hi Kathyrn,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog! We love seeing our members names here. Tom Dyja was a lot of help when the museum opened as a member of the curating team. It’s not up to me, but I’d also love to see him in for a program some time. I’ll make sure to pass the suggestion on to our Programming Department.

      All the best,
      Ari Bachechi, Data Operations Coordinator

  2. Kathryn Moery says:

    Thanks for your reply, Ari. Maybe a spectacular show or exhibit on this poetic genius native son described by Dylan as a “Proustian existentialist” would be a welcome addition to the coming events, in the tradition of the Dylan exhibit that was so spectacular.

  3. Greg Borzo says:

    Yes, hello in there. Back in the 1970s, I was a college student living in Chicago looking for a way to help make the world a better place. The Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly had advertised for volunteers, so I made my way over to 1658 W. Belmont. The staff there put me to work, with “Schultz’s shopping on Sheffield.” And they insisted that I visit with Mr. Schultz after delivering his groceries.

    On my way out the door, shopping list in hand, I spotted a hand-written poster on the wall with words from a song by John Prine: “If you “spot some hollow ancient eyes, Please don’t pass ’em by and stare, As if you didn’t care, say hello in there, hello.”

    This was poetry. And the words to that song have never left me. Old rivers do grow wilder—and wider— every day.

  4. Kathryn Moery says:

    I secretly cry when I hear that song, and it has such relevance to my memories of my relationship with my parents, and haunts me now that I am one of those older wise ones…

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