Legendary Letter Carriers - John Prine, The Singing Mailman
The Singing Mailman Resurrected
I confess that I wasn't a John Prine fan until after he died this April 7th, 2020, due to complications of COVID-19. That was when I saw him eulogized on my Google Chrome news feed. In particular, I chanced upon Bruce Springsteen paying tribute to the man, calling Prine "a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages."
In the same Google feed, the legendary Bob Dylan dogpiled on the praise, saying John Prine's music is "pure Proustian existentialism," "midwestern mind trips to the nth degree." Roger Waters of Pink Floyd added his admiration, quoting that "(Prine's)...is just extraordinarily eloquent music." The list goes on.
This dearly departed songwriter, just marginally famous among the general public, certainly had a profound influence on his musical peers. What I gathered reading these tributes was that Prine wasn't a pretty face behind a microphone, by his own self-effacing admission he didn't have a great voice, but he was a poet of extraordinary skill, so much so that his words imprinted themselves upon the psyches of rock and country's greatest musical bards.
I don't know what prompted me to continue reading about John Prine, maybe I was just bored sitting there on the can, scrolling through my phone, but one of these articles also mentioned that he used to be a letter carrier.
Whoa Nelly! Now they had my attention. My interest was instantly sparked, not because I am a letter carrier but because I also dabble in words, and a few years ago I had an idea to write articles about letter carriers who who had risen into the limelight. So far, my Legendary Letter Carriers lineup had three entries, and two of those were postal workers who were not letter carriers at all. Nevertheless, due to a dearth of material I snuck them in anyway, thinking that since their jobs did involve carrying letters from one place to another, they qualified on a technicality.
Why are there so few famous Postal employees? - I had to ask myself as I pounced upon this prime Prine nugget. I concluded that it's not because we are unintelligent, or untalented, it is because we are unassuming. We avoid the spotlight. We don't lust after fortune, fame or power. That is why we work for the Post Office, because it provides a low profile life that is good enough to pay the mortgage, put food on the table, and have enough left over to play a little on days off.
When I started reading about legendary letter carrier John Prine, I understood that he fit this mold perfectly. He started off as a simple, unassuming mailman who liked to play guitar and write songs on the side. Quite by accident, The Singing Mailman was discovered in a Chicago coffee house and pulled from obscurity, to bless mankind with his profound poetry, some of it penned while slinging a mail sack in a Midwestern City.
He Doesn't Show Off...He Starts Slow...But Then He Has You
Fate uncovers some diamonds and leaves others buried, depending on her fickle moods. By all accounts, John Prine's songwriting talent was revealed to the masses by the pure caprices of destiny. One night the young singing mailman was prodded by his companions into an open mike competition, there in some suburban Chicago java joint. John got up to play one of his own creations, which thoroughly wowed the audience. The owner immediately signed him up as house entertainer.
Sometime later, young movie reviewer Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times, the rather pudgy critic who would later achieve national fame as skinny Gene Siskel's TV foil, was performing his journalistic duty at a nearby theater. When the popcorn in that cinema proved overly salty, he was forced next door into a coffee house or bar, depending on what article you read. Accounts vary, but by all accounts he was looking for something to wash the brine down. By pure dumb luck, (or was it?), he stumbled upon John Prine's set.
The next day, instead of that failure of a film, Ebert penned a glowing appraisal of Prine's show. Nobody remembers the movie he was supposed to write about, but it was obviously not good enough to endure badly cooked kernels. So fate shifted its attention from a flop to a phenomenon, and people now flocked to see the guitar picking poet, of which Ebert wrote glowingly:
“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight...He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”
Singer/Songwriter/Actor Kris Kristofferson read, or somehow got wind of the article, and went to see the show. So utterly awed was he that he helped John Prine secure a contract with Atlantic records, back in 1971. The Singing Mailman gave his feet a rest and slung the guitar strap where the mail bag had once been. He was still wearing it 50 years later, when the coronavirus took him home to the halls of the immortals.
No doubt Prine gathered a slew of fawning famous sycophants around him, but after switching careers from mailman to entertainer he remained largely in the musical shadows. Although he recorded several critically acclaimed albums throughout the years, his work mostly achieved renown when it was covered by better known artists.
Mailmen love independence, that is why we move to the street as quickly as possible, instead of staying cooped up in the stifling atmosphere of the Post Office all day. We live for 721, we avoid 722 like it was coronavirus. John retained this ethos when he went into music, keeping his mind and his songs independent, refusing to conform to the standards that Nashville tried to impose upon him. After recording several albums that didn't exactly propel him to superstardom, in 1981 Prine started his own label, Oh Boy Records.
Perhaps the music behind Prine's dozen and a half discs did not catapult him into the limelight overnight, but his lyrics are legendary, recognized as such by other masters of the art. Here are a few characteristic snippets:
If dreams were thunder
And lightning was desire
This old house woulda burnt down
A long time ago (From Angel from Montgomery)
Wine was flowing so were beers
So Jesus found his missing years
So he went to a dance and said "This don't move me."
He hiked up his pants and he went to a movie
On his thirteenth birthday he saw "Rebel Without A Cause"
He went straight on home and invented Santa Claus (From Jesus, The Missing Years)
The cuckoo clock has died of shock
And the windows feel no pane
The air's as still
As the throttle on a funeral train (From Mexican Home)
Poetry like this has been covered by the likes of Bette Midler, Bonnie Raitt, Johnny Cash, the country supergroup The Highwaymen, all household words in the music biz. Prine's words are not technical descriptions, they are not fine brush lines, they are diffuse dancing lights, shadows, and sensations that deliver a vivid burst of vibrations into the soul of the listener, leaving a more lasting impression than a precisely painted landscape could.
Starting around 2005, John Prine rested his muse for a decade plus, then in 2018 rebounded with a vengeance, releasing the album The Tree of Forgiveness. This was the collection that brought him closest to superstar status, shooting to number two on the country charts, number 5 overall.
Regrettably, John wasn't around long to enjoy his celebrity. In early April 2020 he succumbed to the effects of Covid 19. As is often the case, it was only in death that his life was truly celebrated.
The Maywood Mailman
But the main point here is how John Prine evolved from mailman to musician, from postal to poetic. Maybe it wasn't so much evolution as elevation from one quantum state to another, to a level he could have dropped back down from just as easily as he was propelled into it. John Prine was not a celebrity trapped inside a working man, he was a working man trapped inside a celebrity, but the words within him, straining to burst out, could not be contained. If he was a star he wasn't a supernova that lights up the sky, he was more like the collapsed black hole at the center of the galaxy, working its gravitational effects invisibly, unseen save for a handful of astronomers in on the gag.
John Prine's beginnings were humble. His father was a tool-and-die maker from Muhlenberg County Kentucky, that same town of Paradise that Prine pined about in the song of the same name. Although he was born and raised in Maywood, Illinois, his family traveled back and forth to their Old Kentucky Home, and Prine considered himself "Pure Kentuckyian." You can hear the stain of the bluegrass in his singing voice.
John started picking guitar at the age of 14, preparing himself for his future vocation. But as is the case for many of the academically under-motivated wayward sons and daughters that wind up in the Postal Service, his school days seemed to be sucking him down toward the satchel. "It was the first job I had after high school," he says. "I couldn't go to college 'cause my grades were so bad." Because his Father was active in the steelworker's Union, when John joined the postal service, around 1964, "the first thing I did was join the union because I knew what the power of the union was."
Prine says the pay was good, starting at $2.18 an hour. "And there was plenty of work...I was there when they didn't pay subs overtime. They'd work me 12 hours a day, six days a week. Then a year later, when they made me regular, that's when they passed the law saying they couldn't work subs without paying them time-and-a-half."
One reason his eventual escape may have been so easy is that he didn't sell his soul to the service. Prine laughingly recalled his attendance record. "I never had more than 8 hours of sick leave. I'd get 8 hours and take a day off."
John had a boss at the Post Office, named Sam, that he later wrote a lyric about. "Hello Sam / I am / calling in today / My battery died / in the cold outside / and I won't be in 'til May."
The musical mailman's beginning at the bottom of the postal pecking order was the same sad song that CCAs still can't get out of their heads today. "I started out as delivering mail to Maywood, and then Broadview, and ended up with Westchester...routes nobody wanted." The drudgery of the dreaded Readers Digest, a publication that was almost a door to door coverage back then, inspired a Vietnam protest song. "...they just stuck these plastic flag decals in their magazine, no reason, they just stuck them in there. The next day there were flag decals everywhere." So John sang:
But your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven anymore
They're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven anymore
Suburban Chicago summers must have been miserable for mailman John Prine, and the windy winters frozen murder. Nonetheless, the songwriter that rose from the ashes of an unwanted Maywood mail route recalled that it was fertile ground for the songs that sprouted from his active imagination.
"I likened the mail route to being in a library without any books. You just had time to be quiet and think, and that's where I would come up with a lot of songs. If the song was any good I could remember it later and write it down."
The Postman Poet Is Now In Paradise
The silent inspiration of the mail route is something a lot of letter carriers of a creative bent can relate to, I think. As a humble blogger and would-be writer myself, I cannot count how many ideas I have snatched out of the air while dragging the mailbag mindlessly along. Some of them I manage to write down, most of them I lose before I can get to the notepad on my phone. The isolation of empty streets induces a meditative state, a canvas onto which the contents of the soul are splattered, more than they are painted. I can definitely dig how John Prine captured these nuggets of revelation from his spirit out there, then rearranged them into song for thoughtful mortals to enjoy.
But the humble singing mailman John Prine has now delivered himself to immortality. He has passed on to the hero's halls of Valhalla, graciously leaving behind his power. His body is now deceased, but his words will linger on forever.
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.— John Prine - Paradise
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