By 1971, weariness and frustration over the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War had grown to a point where many protest singers bashed the war in their songs. Yet there weren’t too many songs that addressed the plight of the soldiers who were fighting the war, particularly as pertaining to its lingering aftereffects on them upon their return home.
John Prine had been in the Army during the Vietnam War, although he was stationed in Germany and avoided the conflict. He saw veterans returning home and struggling, so he wrote a song that showed sympathy for soldiers at a time when it wasn’t exactly fashionable to do so. “Sam Stone” turned out to be one of those rare songs so powerful and insightful that it not only entertained people with its sad beauty, but it also may have enlightened a few folks who viewed all soldiers as remorseless killing machines.
In a 2010 interview with American Songwriter, Prine spoke about the origins of “Sam Stone.” “Well, I had just gotten out of the service myself,” he said. “I always thought one of the great mistakes they made in the service is if they spent half the time that they do getting you ready, and the intensity that they put you through in basic training for combat, if they spent half that time bringing you down and teaching you how to be a civilian, it would make a big difference. I would liken it to a person who has done prison time. They all speak of how difficult it is to be back on the street, and how difficult it is to accept freedom once you get used to living incarcerated. So, all my friends that were over there were affected, like I said. I wasn’t writing about anybody specific. I made up the character of Sam Stone, obviously, just ‘cause he rhymed with ‘home.’”
Over acoustic guitar and funereal organ, Prine, who was just 25 when “Sam Stone” appeared on his debut album in ’71 but already sounded like a crusty old codger, tells a story with an outcome that’s hauntingly inevitable. The protagonist’s tale begins with the physical conflict already in his rear view but the mental and emotional anguish only beginning. Pain from an injured knee is only alleviated with morphine, so his takeaway from the war is “a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back.”
His attempts to get a job are overwhelmed by his drug habit, so he starts stealing. “And the gold rolled through his veins,” Prine sings. “Like a thousand railroad trains.” By the final verse, there can be no other outcome but a tragic one: “Sam Stone was alone when he popped his last balloon.” Prine implies that his death is preferable to the hell his life has become: “But life had lost its fun/ And there was nothing to be done/ But trade his house that he bought on the G.I. Bill/ For a flag-draped casket on a local heroes’ hill.”
And yet the consequences for his family are dire, as evidenced by the refrain’s most memorable couplet: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes/ Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.” It’s hard to measure the impact of the song because there have been so many others that subsequently mimicked its empathy for Vietnam Vets when it became more politically correct to do so. But Prine got there first and “Sam Stone” still towers over the rest of those that followed in its wake.