Monday, April 13, 2020

A Hard Way To Go

John Prine at Yellowstone National Park in 2016

Just give me one thing
that I can hold on to
To believe in this livin'
is just a hard way to go
--John Prine
Angel From Montgomery

These days, as advancing decrepitude has begun to affect my hearing, I don't listen to much music any more. I also get "ear worms" that keep me awake at night, so try not to listen to anything with a lingering chorus, or a tune that won't go away. But the other day I started thinking about some of the folks who informed my youth--Steve Goodman, Joan Baez, Neil Young, James Taylor, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and John Prine. 

Some of their songs came wafting back into my consciousness, especially as the consequences of our current government's lack of scientific understanding has cost thousands of lives. I often wonder how the many folks who aren't as well insulated or comfortably ensconced as we are can even get by, and last week while this stuff was going through my mind, something else drifted in: John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery", and its haunting chorus. [Note: The Washington Post's article on this song includes Prine's performance for Austin City Limits.]

I had just read about his death from the COVID19 virus, and had spent most of the day teary-eyed and submerged in memories of my twenties and thirties and all the music that provided a score for my life at the time. And even though "Angel" was really about an old woman in a bad marriage, I had seen it as a sort of anthem for young women who wanted to avoid ending up like that. But this week the lines quoted above seem to resonate with different circumstances in these times.

While I was reading the Times obit, I found Margaret Renkl's opinion piece, "John Prine: American Oracle", written 1918, just after she had attended a concert in Nashville. She closes the essay with this recognition:
At the Ryman on Oct. 5, the night when Mitch McConnell announced he had the votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, the songwriter who once called the United States on its dirty little war in Vietnam made an allusion to the controversy when he introduced “Angel From Montgomery.” Dedicating the song to all the women in the audience, he said, “It’s a sad, sad day when women can’t be believed.” This country has never needed John Prine more.

I have spent the better part of half my life in Texas, which can't make up its mind whether to be a part of the south, or a part of the midwest. Or even the southwest. Its politics are problematic at best, unless one lives in the few (but growing in influence) enclaves where being a Democrat doesn't mark one with some sort of devilry. Most of my remaining friends live in the true south: Asheville, North Carolina; Nashville; Floyd, Virginia--and what we have in common is our left-leaning politics and hot, humid, tornado-prone weather. We're all hunkered down in our living spaces in areas ambivalent about the pandemic and thus likely to jump on the chance to "reopen the economy" long before it's really safe to do so. So it's hard to know how we'll fare in the end. We're all about John Prine's age (73), so we fall into the high-risk category, like he did.

In the decade or so I've been writing this blog, I've tried to be as politically neutral as I could--especially since many of my early readers were students with ambivalent politics and whom I didn't want to chase away before they had a chance to learn how to think critically about issues that were only just becoming important to them. But now these former students are out in the real world, trying to negotiate their young careers in perilous times. So I think it's important to remind them of what they stand to lose if politics-as-usual (or at least as "usual" since 2016) continues to mix with the realities of plague and pestilence.

In hopes of raising some consciousnesses, I'm closing this post with a link from a Medium article by Julio Vincent Gambuto, "Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting."* This is the most articulate description of our present situation I've come across, and the most convincingly dire warning I've seen on the alternatives that await us. It's a reminder that while I can spend time on my half acre enjoying the clean air and reduced noise, our relentlessly greed- and comfort-oriented political economy in the U.S. can easily resurge with a vengeance. As Gambuto points out, we have a chance to rethink our collective future once the worst is really over. But as rationally challenged as our current president is, as problematic as his presidency has been, and as increasingly malevolent as he seems to be, he could still be re-elected.

And then we'd have little at all to hold onto, and no John Prine to chronicle our despair.

*Medium has graciously made this article available without charge to non-subscribers.
Image Credit: Prine was a headliner at Yellowstone National Park's celebration "Evening at the Arch" on August 25, 2015. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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