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.”
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.