One of the greatest songwriters that has ever lived passed away this week after contracting COVID-19. John Prine penned classics like “Hello in There”, “Angel from Montgomery” and “Sam Stone.”
Maybe you’re not a music buff or not a big Americana fan and you aren’t familiar with Prine. Let me sum up his influence and talent this way, the single greatest songwriter of all time, Bob Dylan, revered Prine.
I’m far from Prine’s biggest fan, I can’t tell you about his deep tracks or the details of his long career in the music industry. There have been numerous incredible obituaries written about Prine from people far more qualified to do this than me. What I wanted to write about was one specific song, one specific line, and one specific truth that we all need in this time.
Prine’s “Sam Stone” is regarded by many as his greatest song. It’s certainly his most devastating. The song is about a Vietnam veteran returning from the war with “a Purple Heart, and a monkey on his back.” That line alone is better than anything 99% of songwriters have ever written. Sam Stone soon becomes addicted to morphine and spirals into a death by overdose. It’s a deeply sad, hopeless song, but one illustrative of the experiences of many veterans returning from war. The song could apply to Vietnam, World War II, Afghanistan, or Iraq veterans. He perfectly captures the hopelessness and helplessness that many feel.
The chorus of the song has two very famous lines, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes/Jesus Christ, died for nothin’, I suppose.” When Johnny Cash covered the song, he didn’t sing the second line. I understand where Cash was coming from. As a Christian, you immediately recoil upon hearing a line like that. But, with all due respect to Cash, who is my favorite artist of all time, I think he misinterprets the line. To me, Prine is actually showing how powerful and important and hope-filled the death and resurrection of Christ truly is.
I don’t have any idea on the state of Prine’s soul or what he personally believed. I do know that Jesus shows up in a lot of his songs, from “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” to “Spanish Pipedream” to “Jesus, the Missing Years.” It’s obvious Prine had a fascination with Jesus.
From Rolling Stone’s obituary: “I was trying to say something about our soldiers who’d go over to Vietnam, killing people and not knowing why you were there,” Prine told Rolling Stone in 2018. “And then a lot of soldiers came home and got hooked on drugs and never could get off of it. I was just trying to think of something as hopeless as that. My mind went right to ‘Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose.’ I said, ‘That’s pretty hopeless.’ ”
Prine believed that a world where Jesus Christ died for nothing, meaning a world where Jesus was just a mortal man who died at the hands of Roman executioners in a backwater province of the mighty Roman empire two thousand years ago was as hopeless as you can get. Of course, the reverse implication is that if you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, sent to pay the penalty of sin and redeem the world through his death, burial, and resurrection, then you have hope. You have hope even if you’re a war veteran with PTSD and an opioid addiction. It’s when you give up on that thing that gives you hope in a hopeless world then Jesus’s death becomes just another death in a world full of darkness.
We live in a world that desperately seeks hope. I don’t mean that just in reference to the global lockdown and economic turmoil that we are stuck in at the moment. Sure, hope may be in shorter supply than ever, but even before this we lived in a world with high rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, eating disorders, addictions, violence, wars, famines, and more. People live their lives like Sam Stone — as if Jesus Christ really did die for nothing.
Those of us who believe the opposite, that the death and resurrection of Christ is the one key to hope in the world, have to go about the business of telling people about that hope. People will go on being Sam Stone unless they know about the hope of Christ. If this hopeless world is all there is, there is no reason for hope. Fortunately, through Christ’s death we will be raised with Him. This isn’t the end of the story. Sam Stone is just a character in a song, but because of the genius of John Prine he’s more than that. He’s your neighbor, he’s your family member, he might even be you.
Jesus really did die for something, and I suppose John Prine knew that when he wrote that line. I hope he knew that when he himself died this week, too.