During winter break I traveled to the south for a vacation with my partner and their family. While we were passing through Kentucky, I sat in my seat gazing out the window, reading each street sign for a respite of some kind of entertainment. During my little game of “read the sign” I noticed a familiar sounding name of “Muhlenberg County, Exit 96” or something to that effect. That sounded so familiar. Where have I heard of Muhlenberg County before? It couldn’t have been some past internet tangent that lead me to central counties of Kentucky, as that’s not something I usually tend to devote my time towards. This was also my first time visiting the south, so it wasn’t a physical familiarity, but rather just those two words that moved my curiosity. Something about that sign triggered my brain to subconsciously scour every inch of my memory. My brain must have found the file because a few minutes later, I found myself with a seemingly unrelated melody at the forefront of my thoughts. The way music passively remains in our minds truly amazing. Subconsciously I began to sing a measly song under my breath. It was then I realized my ear worm had been solved. I successfully recalled my familiarity of Muhlenberg County for it was featured in the chorus of “Paradise” by John Prine, which goes: “And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River where Paradise lay.” John Prine’s music was quite pervasive throughout my childhood, with my parents being exceptionally devote fans of his. Even now, as I told them of me writing this, they took it upon themselves to tell the stories of concerts, and their close memories they have with his music. It is clear to me that his work is exceptionally meaningful to those who listen. My being around the environment that inspired some of John’s music was enlightening and interesting to experience. And I’m sure the wintered landscape didn’t do it justice. Because of this, I felt inspired to listen to a few of his albums to accompany the scenery and pass the time.
I felt it was necessary to give a listen to the song that started this whole fiasco, and so I popped in Paradise on my phone. According to John Prine, the song was written for his father, and his family’s memories of the “backwards old town” of Paradise, Kentucky. The song appeared on his debut album in 1971. Hearing his lyrics it is clear the themes he presents in his song are still vitally relevant to our world, more than fifty years later. In the song, John recalls his memories of his family’s time in Western Kentucky. John is speaking through his younger self, asking his father if they can go back to Paradise, Kentucky where they shared so many wonderful experiences; like traveling along the green river, or practicing shooting “but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.” His father has to tell John : “ I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” This metaphor is referencing the Peabody Coal Company’s fossil plant in Paradise, Kentucky. The town relied on the the PCC’s employment at the local Paradise Fossil Plant. However due to the decline in coal usage the people of Paradise were left without jobs, that and the neglect from the PCC resulted in large economic disaster that effected the whole town. John described their malevolence as “they tortured the timber and stripped all the land … they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken, then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.” This story’s relevance should not be forgotten. Across the world, the “progress” of large companies (especially that of coal and fossil fuel) are at the expense of the worker and the environment. And as we enter a new age of renewable energy, it’s important to acknowledge that there are communities that are built around these archaic industries. These communities are therefore imprisoned to that system. It is pivotal that the communities must be helped in their transition to new fuel sources, lest they face the same fate as Paradise. And it's important to hold these companies accountable for the mistreatment of their workers and the land. This way, the natural world and the families that live there can remain strong, healthy, and everlasting. So that you can show your kids, your Paradise.
John Prine’s lyrics are the epitome of “music for the people” in that he is able to surmise the trials of human condition in his stories. His songs resonate with generations of people, making his music forever prominent. As my father put it: “it’s like it was written yesterday.” John Prine sadly passed away in 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the song “Paradise” he states: “when I die let my ashes float down the Green River, let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam.” His wish was granted and with half his ashes placed “down by the Green River where Paradise lay” with the other half buried next to his parents in Chicago.