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 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.