When he saw the Facebook post, Gabe Whitney said to his wife and children, “We have to do this.”
The mayor of Gulfport planned a tribute to singer John Prine, who was in intensive care, suffering from coronavirus. At 18 hours. On Monday, residents were asked to leave their homes, where everyone was in quarantine, and play a Prine song. Or sing really loud.
“I thought the Prine family should know how close and dear they are to Gulfport,” wrote Mayor Sam Henderson on his home page. “Do some hootin and hollerin at a safe distance … Show their love for them.” “
Prine, 73, has owned a house in Gulfport since 2005. He and his wife often spend time in their sea-green bungalow, one block from the beach. Residents exchange views of the songwriter at the car wash, eat pasta, quarrel with local musicians.
For Whitney, the connection is personal. The first music he ever heard was that of John Prine; his father played the first albums while Whitney was still in his cradle. The first song he played on air was one of Prine’s songs, when Whitney was in sophomore year. A Prine song helped Whitney court his wife.
“He made me a better musician, a better songwriter, a better storyteller,” said Whitney. “His descriptions are so simple, but in the small lives of these people, you see the world as a whole. “
With hundreds of Prine songs to choose from, covering Whitney’s life, which one should her family band play on their patio?
Prine was a Chicago postman who started writing folk songs for his friends in the late 1960s. Eventually, they convinced him to perform at an open mic party, where Kris Kristofferson heard it . Kristofferson prompted Prine to record her first eponymous album in 1971 – which earned her a Grammy nomination for best new artist.
Over the next five decades, Prine recorded 21 other albums and won two Grammy Awards. His basic chord progressions and poignant words about life, love and loneliness have influenced musicians like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Roger Waters.
“The Prine thing is purely Proustian existentialism,” said Dylan to Huffington post in 2009. He quoted Prine’s Sam Stone, “With the wonderfully evocative line:”There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes, and Jesus Christ died for nothing, I guess. “No one other than Prine could write like that. “
In 1998, Prine had squamous cell cancer on the right side of her neck. The surgery damaged his tongue and salivary glands, but after a year of speech therapy, he started to sing again – with a much lower voice. In 2013, she was diagnosed with left lung cancer, which was removed. Six months later, he was back on tour.
He was scheduled to perform in Australia next week. But on March 29, Prine’s wife and manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, tweeted that he had been hospitalized. “He needs our prayers and our love,” she wrote, “just like the thousands of others who are seriously ill.”
Dozens of people shared the post of mayor of Gulfport, promising to participate. Soon, other people across the country left messages. Everyone had a story about how Prine’s songs touched them, how much they needed him now.
“Okay, are you all ready?” Let’s see that, “said Whitney outside her home at 5:50 pm Monday. He had set up a desk in the front yard, put his phone on it to record.
His wife, Jennifer, was rocking a ukulele. Her son Quin, 16, supported an acoustic bass. Daughter Lyla, 11, had a guitar.
“Can we all stand on the steps?” Whitney asked.
“I’m going to sit on the side,” said Jennifer, perching on the top staircase. “Do you know all the words? “
Whitney smiles. ” I get it. “
He wanted to sing This is how the world turns. Lila likes It’s a big, crazy old world. Quin prefers Led Zeppelin.
Jennifer suggested dear Abby, since it was their song.
They had started going out when they were in college. Each time they went out, she got nervous and her stomach rumbled. So he played Prine’s song which includes the line, ” My stomach makes noises every time we kiss. Jennifer fell in love with music and Whitney. They are now 44 and 43 years old.
When their son was 4, he begged to learn the guitar. Whitney tried to teach him lessons, but no one would take such a young student. Whitney quit his job with a private investigative firm and opened a music school in downtown St. Petersburg. He named it after another line of dear Abby: Noisemakers. Whitney teaches John Prine songs to all of his students.
“Okay, let’s do that. 1, 2, 3, 4… ”
In other yards around Gulfport, people pulled beach chairs in a circle and sang Smile illegal. A couple wearing masks stood under their house banner: “Dear John, Get Well Soon, signed by Gulfport, and Rick and Roger. Their neighbor pulled out a guitar, installed an amp, and played Hello in while his new wife sipped white wine and sang.
People on bikes, walking their dogs, walking in the park stopped to listen. A man on a motorcycle honked his horn and saluted. A toddler in a pink tutu was dancing in the grass.
Whitney strumming the guitar in his steps, singing to his wife and children, hoping that karma would somehow help his hero. In a world of locks and looming uncertainty, Prine’s words seemed more premonitory than ever:
You have no complaints
You are what you are and you are not what you are not
So listen well, and listen well
Stop wishing you bad luck and knock on wood…