John Prine, Battling Coronavirus, Always Knew Loneliness as the Public Health Crisis It Is Today | Opinion

Editor's note: John Prine died Tuesday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was 73.

A few years back, I returned to Philadelphia to visit my father, who was in his final months, living in a nursing home. On the long ride from the airport, I tuned into WXPN, the public radio station where I worked in my 20s as a DJ, spending hours putting together sets combining blues, rockabilly and bluegrass.

As luck would have it, after a few songs by artists I'd never heard of, the DJ played John Prine's classic about old age and loneliness, "Hello in There." It was an all-too-fitting prelude to my father's lonely, isolated days in the nursing facility.

Ya' know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev'ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, "Hello in there, hello."

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Prine was the prophet of today's loneliness epidemic long before anyone put that label on it. But, as his 1970 song reminds us, that epidemic was already underway long ago, infecting millions of older people.

Then as now.

How sadly ironic it is that Prine has taken ill with the coronavirus, just as the virus has taken social isolation to the forefront and the front page. Older people, this time behind nursing home windows, are still wondering if anyone knows they are there.

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For all of the song's reminders of how this country writes off its older population, I find a source of hope in the circumstances of the tune's birth. Prine was just 24 years old when he wrote it.

"I've always had an affinity for old people," he said in 2016. "I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route, and I delivered to a Baptist old people's home where we'd have to go room-to-room. And some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit, instead of the guy delivering papers. That always stuck in my head."

John Prine
John Prine performs at Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, on September 25, 2019, in Nashville, Tennessee. Terry Wyatt/Getty

What a tribute to Prine's empathy and the value he placed on the intergenerational connections he made on that paper route. And what a reminder that all of us—at least those who are lucky enough (and Prine's been plenty lucky, having survived multiple bouts of cancer)—will grow older. Will we also grow stronger, wilder or just more lonesome?

There is something particularly moving about watching Prine singing his 50-year-old song as an old man. Behind all the epidemiological talk about the consequences of loneliness, Prine brings its sadness, its sense of spiritual death, to life. And, at song's end, he underscores our ability to change it.

So if you're walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don't just pass 'em by and stare
As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello"

Well-wishes from fellow artists and fans have been pouring in for Prine. Joan Baez performed her classic cover of "Hello in There" and dedicated it to the singer-songwriter, while Stephen Colbert shared their previously unseen duet of "That's the Way the World Goes Round."

Let's be glad Prine's music about older people, and the socially isolated more broadly, is finally getting the attention it deserves. Loneliness is a public health crisis too, and Prine knew it.

But most of all, let's hope he makes a full recovery.

Marc Freedman is founder and CEO of Encore.org, a nonprofit working to bridge generational divides, and the author of How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

John Prine, Battling Coronavirus, Always Knew Loneliness as the Public Health Crisis It Is Today | Opinion | Opinion