When I was 18 years old I got my first paid gig at an art festival in Waukegan, Illinois. Right after they offered me a spot in the festival, I realized I should probably learn some songs by other artists to give the audience a break from just hearing my original songs one right after the other. One of the songs I learned that year, nearly 30 years ago now, was “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine. Prine’s songwriting first caught my attention as a girl of maybe 8 or 9 years old. I clearly remember being in the back of my parents’ car when one of his songs came on the radio, and I felt so moved by his music and words that I wanted to do that, to be able to write like he could write and play music like he could play. I wondered how people learned to write songs like that. I still wonder.
So, when I heard that John Prine had COVID-19, a rigid fear gripped me. It followed me through my days, intruding into my thoughts with things like, “I may not ever get to see him in concert again,” and “The world may miss out on any songs he would have written after this had he not gotten this terrible virus.” His songs on Tree of Forgiveness added so much to the body of art he created in his lifetime and I wanted more. I wanted him to have the chance to write and perform and record more if he wanted to. (If you missed that album, give it a listen.) All through his illness, I checked for news on his condition daily, and then my fears came to pass April 7. I learned that evening that he had not made it. He had succumbed.
I felt devastated. I realized then how much more than an inspiration John Prine was to me. His presence and his music reached deep into my childhood as a source of comfort and wonder. I felt hollowed out knowing he was gone.
That night, I sat with my sorrow, staying in my solitude and feeling the loss. Then a feeling of pressure building prompted me to get my guitar. I thought, “I will play a song for John Prine, to honor him and thank him for his contributions to the world.” As I tuned my guitar and strummed my thumb along the strings, I realized a song wanted to be born. It wanted to be in A major, and it wanted to show appreciation for the country folk style John Prine did so well. So, I did my best to serve it, to help it find its way into the world. I tried to stay out of the way and let it come forth.
Below is the song I wrote that night. It’s a personal song about a relationship I had with an amazing artist and human who I never met other than to attend concerts where he was on stage and I was in the audience. I hope, even though it’s close and personal, that it offers some universal comfort to all of you living with loss right now. The loss of cultural leaders like John Prine, and the loss of people who held no widespread fame, and yet inspired and contributed to the people in their world.
The song is one response to the question I keep asking myself, “How do we respond to so much loss, so much anguish? How? How do we cope under the pressure of this horrid situation?” I hear and see other answers to this question every day, beautiful answers that illustrate human kindness and resilience. For me resilience has always been connected to song. So, here is a simple phone recording of my song for all of us missing John Prine and others whose voices have gone quiet after death. Wishing you all comfort now and always. With special thanks to Prine in appreciation of his work and his warmth.
In the Silence (c) April 7, 2020 Kaia Fowler, Verdant Indigo Music