John Prine sang the grief of losing places like mine

John Prine (PHOTO: Eric Frommer, Flickr CC)

John Prine died Tuesday from complications of COVID-19. He had been critically ill with the disease for days following years of battling cancer. The singer-songwriter with his high gravelly voice was best known for brilliant working class lyrics brimming with pathos, humor, and sometimes uncomfortable honesty.

As the New York Times pointed out, Bob Dylan — the only songwriter to win the Nobel Prize for Literature — listed Prine first among his favorite songwriters. Prine was a master of the craft, one of the few capable of using words themselves as a musical instrument.

Prine wrote songs about everything that mattered, so of course he wrote several heart-rending lyrics about death. Of all the good ones, my favorite comes from his song “Paradise,” an elegy for the Kentucky mining town where his father grew up.

After establishing warm boyhood memories of the place, he explains that the coal mines erased the town from the map. We hear a hint of anger, but mostly grief. We can lose places just the same as people. Our memories remain but they, too, will pass.

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my affinity for the song probably has much to do with where I’m from, northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.

Different from the hills of Appalachia, the Iron Range landscapes of my memory are similarly impermanent. As old men and women die they take with them all meaningful evidence of the way it used to be. (Pictures lie, of course, just like the papers).

It is quite something to mourn the loss of a whole place. New people may enter our lives, papering over the holes left by lost loved ones. But when the very ground beneath your feet is, as Prine said, hauled away, well, what of this life may be truly counted on?

Nothing, of course, but that is the point. We’ve got to grab hold of something else. God, or ideals, or each other — so long as we can.

I drive by the junkyard where I grew up in Zim but it’s gone. I drive by my old school but it’s not the same place anymore. The old brick building is dust.

For the past three years I’ve been researching a town that doesn’t exist anymore for a book that I hope one day does. You might have heard of the town. It’s called Hibbing. Yes, that’s right, the same village where Mr. Dylan grew up.

Now, you might doubt my claim because your map shows a place called Hibbing. Perhaps you live there. But that’s the new one. The one they built after they condemned the old one to a premature death in 1918.

Yes, the Hibbing I’ve been rendering from a foggy ether of hazy memories is thoroughly gone. Gravity prevents us from walking its streets because you would tumble quite inelegantly (and likely fatally) into the pit at Hibbing Taconite.

Day by day, I’ve read the accounts of this ghost town the way a traveling salesman might page through a local newspaper at the desk in his room. This salesman’s stay has dragged on far too long. Yet every time he opens the door of his hotel room the whole place vanishes like the end of a dream.

If these dead from this dead place could tell you anything it’s how certain they were that they mattered. And they did, whoever they were. John Prine knew about them. That’s what we lost. That’s what we’ll keep losing until the day we join him at the Tree of Forgiveness.



  1. I realize that his song Paradise was literally written about a real place, but I always felt like it was a metaphor for anyone who lost their favorite natural sanctuary to greedy resource extraction.

    The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel,
    They tortured the timber and stripped all the land.
    They dug for the coal till the land was forsaken,
    Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

  2. Chris Canelake says

    Thanks for writing this article. I always loved that John Prine song, too. It reminded me of precious memories of growing up on the Iron Range, and the fragility of the places we love.

  3. Aaron – this may already be in my Top-5 MN Brown posts, and I’ve only read it once (so far). Two years ago, my buddy and I splurged and traveled to NYC to Prine, Carlile and Simpson at the RCMH. Hearing John live was a sublime experience. Your application of what he wrote about to places here in Minnesota is eloquent and accurate – thanks for sharing with us.

  4. I feel this loss every time I drive up from St. Paul to the Iron Range. I’ve been visiting the Arrowhead Region for most of my life, with family ties now growing thin. I travel east from Virginia through Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik, Aurora, Hoyt Lakes, and Palo (Town of White). There are ghost towns along the way: some moved, some disappeared. Merritt disappeared; McKinley, and Sparta barely remain. As I was told by my parentsl, one town on Hwy 135 was moved from one side to the other. What once seemed stable, now feels tentative. My heart, my history is still there, but the landscape on The Range ever changes.

  5. David W Kannas says

    I agree with every post. Your article about John Prine and his roots in a town that no longer exists on a map, and your future book chronicling the life and death of North Hibbing (Strange that it’s known as North Hibbing now when it was just plain Hibbing when it was still on the map.) connect in emotional ways for me as well. It’s not just that I love the sounds and stories coming from John Prine, but the simple fact that I, too, was born in Hibbing in 1943, two years after Bob Dylan was born in Duluth then moving to Hibbing shortly after. After my birth in Hibbing, I was moved to Balsam Township where I spent my early days wanting out. Now that I’ve been out for most of my life, I’m drawn back by my good memories of the place, forgetting the bad. Thank you, Aaron, for the work and heart you put into the place that you call home. In the interim, I just visit from time to time.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.