Courtesy | Wiki­media Commons

The front porch of the Chase Res­i­dence, where I stayed this summer in Hillsdale, was busy after work hours — fra­grant with cigar smoke, and loud with con­ver­sation and waving at passer­byers. Reminded of this image, I am thankful for the mem­ories of this summer in the Dale — the  summer I fell in love with localism.

And whether or not you get a chance to stay in Hillsdale for a summer during your time here, you too can fall in love with localism by lis­tening to esteemed folk singer, John Prine.  

The late John Prine, who died on April 7, due to COVID-19 com­pli­ca­tions, preached localism through his nar­rative, descriptive and rela­tional sto­ry­telling style. Lis­tening to John Prine invokes an appre­ci­ation for the local, but also a con­tem­plation of the beauty found in the ordinary around us, espe­cially here in Hillsdale. 

John Prine left an impact on both the music industry and how musi­cians under­stand sto­ry­telling. Many artists cel­e­brated his life — including Brandi Carlisle, Nathaniel Rateliff and Jason Isbel l— and posted covers of his classic songs. An even greater tribute is the influence he had among current artists. Adrienne Lenker, Kevin Morby and Phoebe Bridgers all incor­porate aspects of Prine’s com­pelling nar­rative style.  

No doubt Prine impacted the music industry, but beyond his impact on other musi­cians, Prine pro­vides the Hillsdale College student (par­tic­u­larly those of us coming from urban areas) with some­thing incredibly important: per­spective.

The tran­sition for many of us from Chicago, New York or DC to Hillsdale can be a culture shock. But John Prine can help. Prine’s reflec­tions on the ordinary remind us to admire the beauty around us here in Hillsdale, of which there is plenty. 

Take the first verse and chorus of his song “Fish and Whistle”: 

“I been thinking lately about the people I meet/ The carwash on the corner and the hole in the street/The way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet/And I’m won­dering if I’m gonna see tomorrow/Father, forgive us for what we must do/You forgive us we’ll forgive you/We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue/Then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.”

His the­ology might not be robust, but he encom­passes the entirety of life in a verse and chorus with sim­plicity and ease. Prine focuses on the par­ticular expe­ri­ences in a day, all while repenting, for­giving, and hoping. In a beau­tiful way, these lyrics tell the story of our exis­tence , which itself is the greatest thing imag­inable. Specif­i­cally, Prine invites us to interact with the freedom found in memory as we reflect upon the ordinary around us. 

Lis­tening to “Fish and Whistle,” I’m reminded of the nice lady who works at Sud‑Z drycleaning and the con­ver­sa­tions we had this summer. I’m reminded of driving down Lake Wilson while the sun sets. I am reminded of the husband and wife who made dinner for us every Wednesday at St. Anthony’s before RCIA during the school year, and the grandma who gave us hand-made quilted book­marks.

It’s this con­tem­plation of the ordinary that has shown me how beau­tiful Hillsdale was this summer, even in its imper­fec­tions. With Prine as your sound­track, the Midwest comes to life. 

“Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian exis­ten­tialism,” remarked Bob Dylan, Prine’s hero. “Mid­western trips to the nth degree.” 

He’s right.

Prine follows a certain Proustian under­standing of what it means to be an artist: a con­veyor of the observable, natural, world. Prine’s world is the Midwest. It’s Hillsdale. The lack of a mall, a huge concert venue, etc. does not mean that there is a lack of culture. Instead, Hillsdale’s culture comes from its identity as a small, inde­pendent, hard-working town that’s full of people who love where they live. 

This reflection on the ordinary is a good for three reasons. 

As an appre­ci­ation of beauty, it is a good in and of itself — an end to be pursued. Second, a par­tic­i­pation in the act of wonder, an attitude Prine’s music invokes, is a cul­ti­vation of the virtue of humility, and a reminder that there is more to life than the self. Finally, in an appre­ci­ation of the local, it reminds us of the impor­tance of having a sense of place.

Too often we neglect our home­towns — their local history or tra­di­tions, and, most impor­tantly, our fam­ilies who live there. John Prine and Hillsdale have taught me the need to be proud of where I come from, in both a familial and geo­graphic sense. 

So go to the farmer’s market, look past the prison decor of Local Eatery and enjoy brunch with friends, attend local city council meetings, and most impor­tantly observe the beauty in the ordinary around us in Hillsdale. In the words of Prine: 

 “Blow up your TV, throw away your papers/Move to the country, buy you a home/Build you a garden, eat a lot of peaches/Go and find Jesus, all on your own.”

 Add him to the Liberty Walk? I don’t know. Maybe that will be next week’s piece.