How John Prine and other songwriting geniuses discovered the poetry in real life
Songwriters are often praised with the backhanded comment that their lyrics are so great it means they are not mere songwriters, but poets. As if being a songwriter now, in the 21st century, is a lesser calling, creating an art which is popular but not as important as poetry.
That idea belongs to the past, though it is still prevalent. Sure, the point isn’t to put down songwriting, but to distinguish a certain kind of poetic song. But as songwriters know, as do lovers of song, in songs there is beautiful poetry in the use of the language as it’s spoken. Great songwriters are playing with other dynamics than poets; given the poignancy and power of music, when wed perfectly to a lyric, even the most conversational, real kind of language becomes poetic. So the songwriter doesn’t have to invent poetry where there is none. The songwriter discovers the poetry in real life.
John Prine was a master at this. Much of that mastery is connected directly to his big heart and empathetic spirit. No one could write a song as genuine as “Hello In There” without real empathy for the accumulated sorrows of getting old. There’s the big stuff, like illness and death, of course. But more is found in the pervasive grief caused by the constant accumulation of small losses, all the the loved ones and friends who are distant or gone.
But he does this not with lofty poetry, painted in words from on high, far removed from lowly human existence. He does it in our own words, yet rhymed so gently you hardly notice, with language exactly as your own grandma might say it, or the old guy on the bus, with the usual sad resignation of the elderly.
And it’s in that expression, finding the poetry within the prose of regular language, that the essence of song is crystallized. Because, as we know, when sung with a tune as poignant as Prine’s, this becomes something far different than poetry, and perhaps much more powerful. It’s not poetry, it’s song.
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown
A life of their own, left us alone
John and Linda live in Omaha
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean war
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore
From “Hello In There”
By John Prine
This discovery and usage of conversational, real language in songs is a separate pursuiit than that of poetry. But it isn’t an easy one to do well, given that conversational language is always around us. The songwriter has to take that language and fold it into a song in a seamless way, so that it seems natural. Prine does this so well that it makes it seem easy. But doing that, contriving a lyric so seamlessly that it doesn’t seem contrived at all, but simply right, takes genius. Woody Guthrie knew this too, as did Hank Williams. People don’t talk like Shakespeare these days. So you sing to them in their own language. “Any damn fool can be complicated,” as Woody would say. But simplicity requires some genius. And it makes all the difference.
It also allows the songwriter to use the occasional enriched, abstract or poetic line if a genuine foundation to the song is established first with the real language. As Prine said, if you give the listener enough solid imagery so that they can fill in the emotions first, then they will be able to understand more poetic language. If a song starts with abstractions, and uses poetry only, it doesn’t create a genuine connection that regular expression can allow.
John seemed to know this instinctually, as he did it from his very first songs on. He’s always had a knack, of perhaps genius, for focusing on those small, poignant, human aspects of life that can resonate in song more powerfully than poetic language.
Because, as he knew, it’s not the language that matters, or the choice of words. What matters is conveying the actuality of human truth in a way that it’s understood immediately.
He does it with symbols, like a great movie-maker. In “Sam Stone” there’s the broken radio. In “Angel From Montgomery” there’s the flies buzzing in the kitchen. In “Paradise” there’s the “empty pop bottles.” In “Hello In There” there’s the endurance of old trees growing taller and big rivers growing wilder, while “old people just grow lonesome” and fall like kids into a well.
Prine always said he learned much of this from Dylan’s songs, and based “Donald and Lydia” on Bob’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Though Dylan gets more acclaim and attention for the expansive, poetic epics he wrote, he’s also shone with genius in his use of real language. Prine and Dylan also both learned a lot from Chuck Berry, also a master at this use of song language, as he did from Hank and Woody, and built whole new empires of song on their humble but timeless foundations.
John’s amazing “Angel From Montgomery” is built on the abstract symbol of the title, the mystic angel representing meaning in a meaningless life. He gets there with conversational language direct and simple:
“I am an old woman, named after my mother …” Later, he presents a vivid image of sorrowful ennui, those eternal flies in the kitchen, which he delivers as a presence you sense even if you don’t see the – “you can hear ’em there buzzin'” which is linked to the existential question at the heart of great poetry, yet posed so conversationally here that it goes beyond words:
How the hell can a person go to work in the morning
And come home in the evening and have nothing to say?