Ripples from John Prine


Upon hearing news of John Prine on a respirator with Covid-19, I was surprised at how much it affected me. I don’t think I ever saw him play and I never owned one of his records. As the days went by and I read comments from people I know who knew him and read accounts of his life, heard clips of songs I could surprisingly sing along with, I realized his early days in the Chicago music scene touched a lot of places around me.

The more I looked around, the more I became immersed in memories of the fabulous music scene in Chicago at the time I attended Northwestern University, Amazingrace Coffeehouse, friends who were involved at Amazingrace, musicians with whom I became acquainted just by going so often to hear them play…  And even though I didn’t cross paths with him, there he was in lots of places. Partial list of concerts at Grace over the years:

It turns out he was considered part of a “big three” in the folk scene emanating from the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The other two were Steve Goodman and Bonnie Koloc and I saw both of them dozens of times, both at Amazingrace and various other clubs around Chicago. Prine played Grace often enough I gather they were all friends with him. I saw enough people there only once that it’s possible I saw him and just don’t remember as I know there are quite a few of those — at this stage with few exceptions I mainly remember the ones I went back to see many times.

The group that founded Amazingrace came together at NU the year before I arrived, part of anti-war/Kent State protests. The year I hit campus, the group got permission to use an area of the (then) student union, Scott Hall, to bring in music acts and serve food. I think that was where I first saw Steve Goodman and fell in love with his music. [Great piece in Rolling Stone last summer on Goodman: ]

Before long the venue moved to a quanset hut on campus.  The “Gracers” as we called them, were familiar to many of us on campus, both as activist leaders and front of house figures at the coffee house.  In those days, self-effacing, shy, and utterly lacking in self-confidence/worth, etc. I watched from afar but it never occurred to me I could be part of their –to me–lofty group.

However I wound up being friends with several people who were involved though not part of the central group. Out of those friendships I met some of the other Gracers, dated Steve Goodman’s road manager briefly, met John Burns (that’s him riding around with Prine in top video and playing some of the best guitar you’ll ever hear), who for some years played in Prine’s band… Amongst all those were enough Prine connections that I heard his music often (hence the familiarity with his songs), some stories on occasion, and now, in the midst of his illness and death, I saw lots of pained posts/commentary from people who knew and loved him who are devastated by the loss.

I never stopped listening to Koloc and Goodman, but something about this odyssey through so many faces from those days sent me journeying through those times.  I found Koloc playing with Steve Eisen (sax) and Howard Levy (harmonica) in the band (two more Chicago musicians I’d seen so many times with many bands) Jethro Burns (John’s father) playing with Goodman. (below Burns and Goodman performing one of my faves):

The music scene is so entwined with my NU memories… My time at NU always felt golden and for years nothing else measured up.  Then I realized the comparisons must stop and as I forged ahead on my spiritual journey I let go while still holding a sacred space in my heart for the friends, political awakening, musical journeys, etc.

In hindsight I can see how much more I could have done and been had I been as calm, outgoing, and confident then as I am now.  I don’t care much for regret, but if there’s anything that grabs me now and then, it’s sadness that my own inhibitions meant much more standing on the sidelines than I’d have liked.

Amazingrace has a FB page and as I read the many posts from those “on a pedestal” folks, I’m sorry I didn’t get to know them.  As I read every article my bereft friends posted about Prine, he seemed like an amazing guy and I’d have enjoyed being in the circle who knew him. 

The clubs and the musicians and the joy in the clubs, talking to band members, etc. circles around my love of music, which, at the time, had been a lifelong ambition.  Watching the ones whose music touched my soul, I kept trying to see what in them let them get up there and put out music from the depths.  Wondering what in me couldn’t quite do it.

[Koloc with Steve Eisen and Howard Levy in the band]:

The music dreams died when my one later band attempt went sideways and I found peace with just being a fan who sings in the shower. I’m grateful for the changes I can see, the many ways in which I’m more content, more happy with who I am than in those days.  But boy those were some magic times.  I’m sorry it was John Prine’s death that sparked this wander down memory lane, but there were a lot of lovely stops. Thanks JP! RIP

Reminiscing, finding threads…

I finished putting together my playlist — took a few things off the original list and finally found my way to a missing thread I’d had trouble remembering and finding.  Been listening to the playlist quite a bit.  [I’ve not been able to get Spotifiy’s embed codes to actually embed the list, but you can get it here.]

Part of my criteria for the list was everything had to be from the era in the 70’s when I was in college and graduate school and hanging out with hippies.  The original impetus came while listening to someone’s playlist of  current stuff and remembering how much music at that time was influenced by folk and country and fused in various ways with rock.  In the end I’m not sure whether anyone else would find a line from my list to the list that inspired mine…

I felt like there was a thread to follow musically speaking but as I trailed the music and then really listened to it, I found other threads as well.

Much of the music was so familiar when I encountered it again, but I’d not listened to it in years.  Quite a few came to me originally as recommendations from friends and I liked the music at the time but listened to it a lot for a while and then not again.  Those old songs brought dear friends to mind but didn’t have strong emotional associations.

Some of the music was stuff I adored at the time and listened to so much I can still sing every word.  And I realized with a giggle how much of it was sad, depressive stuff.  At that stage of my life melodrama ruled and I especially loved to wallow in melancholy, listening to sad love songs, etc.  Even though some of the music is great and stands the test of time quite well, I’m just not such a drama queen any more nor do I enjoy wallowing so I tend not to listen to such music.

What a long road I’ve traveled from that melancholy girl, pining for some imagined fairy tale prince who was never coming…

The Universe decided to do a little orchestrating so I suddenly received a long letter a couple of days ago from my college roommate and long-time friend after she’d been silent for five or more years.  It felt so amazing to hear from her in the midst of listening to this music and noting a number of the recordings were things she played in our apartment all the time.

Another piece involved so many memories of the magic of those times.  I loved being a hippie (not sure I ever stopped 🙂 ) and hanging out with my friends.  Loved our fervor for changing the world, our thirst to know how things really worked…

Central to all that at Northwestern in those days was Amazingrace Coffeehouse, started by some of the hippies a class or two ahead of me during my freshman year.  They started with local Chicago scene folk singers in a basement in the old student union and then were given their own small building (ironically the former ROTC headquarters), at which point the parade of talent grew broader in scope and brought in small-scale national talent as well.

So much about this thread of folk/country/rock fusion traces back to acts I saw there, recordings my friends from that scene introduced me to, etc.  And I see the start of the path I’m still on as starting there.  I alternate between moments of teary-eyed nostalgia and pleasure at seeing the growth since then and how it really started there.

Some years back a friend from those days who’s still a little more cynical and strident, as we were then, and a little uncomfortable with my path, asked me what got me started on this spiritual journey given where we used to be. I thought for a moment and told him that I see this as the natural progression from the longing for peace and justice we had then.  The only thing that shifted is that I no longer believe in a revolution in the streets, I believe in a revolution in our hearts.

Otherwise, the same longing for a better and more peaceful world still drives me…  I have more to say about a couple of these threads so there will be more…

And seguing back to the music, I’m still a little sad about losing my recordings of so much of that great Chicago music –most of which never made the upgrade to CD or MP3 — and that I was unable to include any but a couple of Steve Goodman recordings (thank goodness for those!).  I really wished that I could find a way to put up some Redwood Landing, a long time fave of mine.

Several years ago Amazingrace had a 40 year reunion week full of concerts in the Chicago area, including a reunion of Redwood Landing for what they claimed would be their final concert.  I got to go and was able to buy a couple of CDs, so I do have that music but I couldn’t figure out any way to get it on here.  But trying to figure it out led me to discover that someone filmed the reunion concert and there are lots of clips on YouTube, so I can’t resist closing out by sharing some of their great music: