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Commentary

On John Prine, and prophetic witness to real costs of Covid-19

Sean Kirst

The death of any musical legend always sends communal ripples through a vast and often regionally disconnected audience. The bridge is often the simple way that iconic songs – almost in the fashion of the aroma of early blossoms in the spring – have the power to open unexpectedly vivid doors toward aching points in life.

Even so, it is difficult to contemplate a passing so mystically attuned to a historically uncertain moment as the loss this week in Nashville of the singer and songwriter John Prine, 73, to Covid-19 – particularly when one of his most beloved songs is lifted, if such a thing is possible, to an even higher and keener form of meaning.

The virus has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 in New York State alone, including 46 as of Thursday morning in the Buffalo area. That sorrow has hardly been reserved to any one generation, but certainly one of the most searing elements of this cascading tragedy is the number of elderly women and men dying alone or in the intensive care units of hospitals, with those who love them unable for safety reasons to go to their bedsides.

The collected magnitude of these solitary deaths is incomprehensible, at least beyond each mourning family. These are the witnesses, the storytellers, the beacons of community memory in an era of accelerated change, the ones whose narratives all equate to one-of-a-kind civic treasures.

[Related: 'A Buffalo guy' lost to Covid-19: 'He deserved a better ending']

I will leave it to peers of far more technical and artistic knowledge to explain the sweeping brilliance and cultural importance of John Prine, who performed at Shea's Performing Arts Center less than a year ago. What I would simply offer is that his "Hello In There," written when he was a young man and a work that today is a fixture of the American songwriting pantheon, now ascends as an impossibly to-the-instant portrait of so much being lost, and beyond all else as a statement on an outstretched hand, amid isolation.

In 2016, Prine offered this account to Lynn Hutchinson at PerformingSongwriter.com on the emotional foundation of what came to be "Hello In There":

"I’ve always had an affinity for old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old peoples home where we’d have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head."

For me to offer the lyrics here, against the backdrop of everything happening right now, would only diminish what they mean when you hear them. If you know the song, you feel it. If you do not, here it is.

That Prine was taken in his 70s by a virus exacting such a toll on elders he already saw in full transforms the song into the rarest kind of art. The totality of that brilliance – even though celebrated so early in Prine's career – is both revealed and elevated in the hard final journey of its maker. It is indicative of why Joan Baez, upon hearing last month that Prine was ill with Covid-19, offered a new version as a video expression of hope and fraternity for Prine and his wife, Fiona.

For the nurses, physicians, paramedics and other medical staff going face to face with this pandemic, asked all too often now to share in unbearable vigils, I suspect that for the rest of their lives they will think of one thing, if they happen to know this song.

It will return them to the days – amid the soft, constant mechanical hum and whisper of pumps and machines – when understanding what Prine meant by the words "hello in there" became a prerequisite to each goodbye.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com.

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