Music is a language that helps us process loss. Throughout 2020, Americans have had to call on that language time and again as more than 223,000 of our fellow citizens have lost their lives to COVID. Overall, “25% of U.S. adults say they or someone in their household was laid off or lost their job because of the coronavirus outbreak, with 15% saying this happened to them personally.” On top of this health and economic crisis, we are facing the potential loss of our democracy to minority rule.
So many have suffered personal losses during this year, holes in their lives that shake their soul. For those who find nurture in roots, country, folk, and acoustic music, the death of singer/songwriter John Prine to COVID early in the pandemic still creates a void that is difficult to fill.
But we try.
Thankfully, music provides a way to remember lives and process loss. For this Saturday Soundtrack, I want to focus on the remembrance of a song that, in itself, is about loss: John Prine’s Paradise, from his remarkable first album.
Paradise, located in Muhlenberg County, is Kentucky’s most famous ghost town…thanks to Prine’s musical tale. In his telling, Paradise is well-named, until the arrival of Peabody Coal Company and strip mining. But that wasn’t the only negative impact on the community. Ash from the Paradise Fossil Plants began “pouring from the air like warm, toxic snow” according to one account. The Tennessee Valley Authority stepped forward and convinced the remaining townsfolk to vacate their community, paying them “miniscule amounts to abandon their once happy lives in Paradise.”
I’ve mentioned this song before in my writings, and I was delighted to come across a deeply moving tribute to John, posted earlier this month, by some of my favorite musicians and performers as they sing one of his best-known tunes.
This celebration premiered October 3rd on, “Let The Music Play On”: A Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Broadcast, featuring many of John’s friends. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is a Bay Area institution in San Francisco and Prine was a regular. His full sets from 2014 and 2017 are available to watch on the HSB website.
The artists in the tribute range from a handful of our most cherished roots musicians to some of the youngest and most innovative performers of our times. These are the type of people who are attracted to John’s music and his sensitivities as a songwriter. As you watch the video you will see in the order of appearance*:
- The roots music band Birds of Chicago (with Allison Russell, also of Our Native Daughters, playing the clarinet) (0:00 and again at 0:30)
- Kieran Kane and Rayna Gilbert (playing fiddle and bouzouki) (0:09)
- The breezy and boozy Robert Earl Keen (0:53)
- The inimitable singer and songwriter Patty Griffin (1:03) (who comes back around to sing harmony with Bonnie Raitt at the 2:50 mark)
- Austin’s hot Los Coast (when you hear that high tenor) (1:14)
- San Francisco roots artists Bo and Lebo (1:49)
- West coast bluegrass queen Laurie Lewis and guitarist extraordinaire Nina Gerber (2:01)
- The amazing Rhiannon Giddens singing harmony with Laurie (2:10)
- Americhicana artist Carrie Rodriguez (on fiddle and voice) (2:19)
- And the one and only Bonnie Raitt (2:45)
- Then everyone comes back in and out to take it home.
“When I was a child my family would travel / Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born / And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered / So many times that my memories are worn.
[Chorus:] And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County / Down by the Green River where Paradise lay / Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking / Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River /To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill / Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols / But empty pop bottles was all we would kill. [Chorus]
Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel / And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land / Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken / Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man. [Chorus]
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River / Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam / I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’ / Just five miles away from wherever I am.” [Chorus]
Paradise is, of course, a song about loss. Loss of youthful innocence and the loss of our environment. In accordance with Prine’s wishes, half of his ashes were spread in Kentucky’s Green River. The other half were buried next to his parents in Chicago.
In my youth, my father took me to Paradise to see “the world’s largest (steam) shovel.” Because that’s what engineers do. I think Daddy came to the realization later in life that Prine’s perspective was right. When Peabody filed for bankruptcy in 2016, many stories referenced that song in their reports.
John Prine was all about the details of life in a world that was cruel at times, but also where love shows through. And those details often focused on the everyday…until he spun them around through his quirky sensibility to see the wonder around us.
Enjoy this celebration of one who left too early.
More to come…
*There is no listing of the performers on the official site, so this is taken from the comments section and from my knowledge of some of these musicians.
Image: Paradise Main Street, before Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled it away