By DONNA URSCHEL
Well-known singer-songwriter John Prine offered a rare glimpse into his songwriting artistry during an event with Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry Ted Kooser that was held at the Library in March.
Prine enthralled the large Coolidge Auditorium audience with details on why and how he wrote the lyrics to many of his venerable songs, and, with guitar in hand, he sang six of them, including "Hello in There," "Sam Stone," and "Your Flag Decal Won't Get You Into Heaven Anymore."
Kooser had invited Prine to take part in "A Literary Evening with John Prine and Ted Kooser" at the Library. "We're here tonight to hear about writing songs, about living life, and about the courage of good people, and to listen to an American master talk and play," Kooser said. During the event, the poet laureate interviewed Prine, asking him about his technique and his inspiration, and Prine asked Kooser to read a poem. The two men, who did not know each other prior to the event, displayed an easy rapport.
"I bought John Prine's first album, a long time ago as a 33 LP and knew at once here was a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people," Kooser said. "John Prine takes ordinary people and makes monuments of them, as I see it, with great respect and love."
Kooser asked Prine how he writes songs: "Do the words come first, or [does] a snatch of melody come first, or do they come together?" Prine responded, "Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time, and it takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it." For example, he said, "Souvenirs" came to mind as he was driving in a car on the way to a bar.
He explained further, "The best songs, they come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, ‘cause if you mess around, the song is liable to pass you by, or it will be harder and harder to remember that moment."
Prine, who served in the U.S. Army and delivered mail for six years in the west suburbs of Chicago prior to his success, does not set aside a regular time to sit and write songs. "I just learned to be patient. Sometimes, it doesn't come for a very long time. When I first started writing, I used to really, really get into another world, like just walking down the street delivering the mail or sometimes driving a car. I'd get very far away."
He said that his song "Illegal Smile" was about this daydreaming trance and not about any drug-induced state. "I'd just walk down the street with a half grin on my face cause my little world was fine, and I called it ‘Illegal Smile.'"
One thing Prine doesn't do is whip off a song to express an immediate strong emotion. "I hardly ever write out of anger or misunderstanding right away. I may get mad, but I don't go right into a song. It's not what I do. I let everything sit for a while," he said.
The audience submitted written questions that Kooser then posed to Prine. One question drew a quick answer from Prine and applause from the audience: "Is there a role for protest music anymore?" "I think there's a full-time job," he retorted.
Prine expanded further on the subject of protest songs. "If that's what you're going to set out to do, mostly, you're going to fail. You got to keep in mind that politics don't come first, even for the big boys whose politics you don't like. So, maybe they've got the same white shirt on that you do, and that may be your song."
He then explained a technique that can apply to many creative processes. "If you're looking for the big picture, you have to get a really small frame sometimes," Prine said. And Kooser agreed: "What you just said is interesting to me, because I've told students that when you try to write poetry, often you can't start with a big idea. You have to start with some little snatch of something. If you have a big idea, the big idea will emerge through the small things," Kooser said.
"If you have a very strong feeling that overpopulation causes all the woes in the world, that's the worst thing to address straight on. But if you're writing a poem about a garden, that idea on overpopulation can emerge," he added. Kooser's point also was illustrated in the poem he read to the audience, "Tattoo," which talks about a man's tattoo but brings into clear focus the inevitability of aging and the fading of dreams and possibilities.
In another question, an audience member wanted to know what musical artists Prine listened to. "Bob Dylan always does it for me. Van Morrison I still love to this day. Gordon Lightfoot I'm listening to lately and he's better and better all the time, and of course [Kris] Kristofferson — his stuff is so lyrical."
At the end, the enthusiastic audience gave Prine and Kooser a standing ovation. The tickets to the event were free, and for many there that night, the event was priceless.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.