It has been about one month since we lost singer-songwriter John Prine to complications from COVID-19. He was an incredibly talented musician, becoming one of the most recognizable casualties out of thousands during this pandemic. If Prine himself was ever distressed at the prospect of death, his feelings did not seem terribly evident; “When I get to Heaven, I’m going to shake God’s hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand,” he said in his unmistakable weathered, friendly voice at the beginning of his 2018 song, “When I Get to Heaven,” before cheerfully telling us everything he intends to do once he has settled in. He freely embraced a mindset which, for many of us, might be difficult to reach during such a distressing time: Looking towards and celebrating the more positive side of a life well-lived and accepting our inevitable passage into the next, rather than grieving for those who have left us. And it is that exact mindset that lingered throughout the State Theatre’s tribute show to John Prine on May 5, composed of musicians performing their favorite John Prine songs and thanking him for the person he was — all broadcast through Facebook.
Of course, the show itself still opened under the looming phantom of COVID-19 pandemic — “As you can see right now, we’re completely empty,” said Executive Director Doug Levine during his introduction while motioning to the State Theatre’s 1,600 chairs, devoid of eager faces. However, that pall soon cleared as the show’s participants came together to celebrate the music of the man who so touched their lives and art. As Levine continued to mention, John Prine performed at the State Theatre twice over the past decades, always remaining quite down-to-earth and unassuming, just like his songs. While the show came to be in the aftermath of his tragic loss, it was still filled with happiness and fondness as a community showed their gratitude for what he gave them.
Many performers dropped in to share their thoughts about Prine and their interpretations of his work, including Joe Crookston, playing “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” with an elegant steel guitar; Tim Walsh, who recalled that he first heard of John Prine when his friend sung one of Prine’s songs on the shores of Lake Ontario one night in 1972 before launching into a rendition of “Bruised Orange,” conjuring a similarly rustic and carefree atmosphere; Erin Mae, singing “Storm Windows” in a plaintive, mellow voice, making the words to ceaselessly flow through your entire being; Hiss Golden Messenger, who was accompanied by his two children; and many others. Perhaps most surprisingly, singer-songwriter Joan Baez appeared as well, one icon bidding farewell to another. Collectively, it was enough to reduce anyone to tears.
There were many personal anecdotes recounted throughout, as well; Doug Levine remembered how, before driving him home after a concert in 2013, Prine asked him if they could find wings, beer and pizza before departing, and Dan Smalls talked about Prine’s favorite cake. For his part, musician Ketch Secor recounted how he waited in an unbelievably long line in Ithaca to buy a copy of Bruised Orange for 50 cents. Indeed, everyone contributes to the portrait of a kind, thoughtful singer who only wanted to write music and touch people’s hearts. As these anecdotes continued, though, another icon came into focus: That of the State Theatre itself, the common point for all of these musicians and Ithaca as a whole, currently shuttered, but still waiting patiently to reopen — bringing a community back together in a way only it knows how.
As this lovely tribute show demonstrated, a community separated by uncontrollable circumstances can still be united through the appreciation of a life well-lived, the loss of which makes the rest of us appreciate our lives and those within it even more. Later during “When I Get to Heaven,” John Prine states his final intention upon arriving: “I’m going to find my mom and dad, and good old brother Doug — why, I bet him and cousin Jackie are still cutting up a rug. I want to see all my mama’s sisters, because that’s where all the love starts — I miss them all like crazy, bless their little hearts.”
And maybe that’s all any of us should be doing right around now.
Note: The State Theatre’s John Prine Tribute Show can be seen here.
John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He currently serves as Blogs Editor on the editorial board. He can be reached at [email protected]