They wrote it all down as the progress of man

Somebody played this great old John Prine song at our local bluegrass jam the other night. I’d forgotten it completely, even though it’s been covered by everyone and their brother since it was written. I added it to my set list immediately. The man’s an American legend as far as I’m concerned.

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
There was a backwards old town there I’ve often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And 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

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

Paradise, John Prine


5 thoughts on “They wrote it all down as the progress of man

  1. I’m a huge fan of John Prine, I first saw him in 1984. The geek in me just loves how he tortures the language to make it even more evocative. In Paradise, there is the bent metaphor “…and the years just roll by like a broken down dam.” His lyrics tend to have aspects of storytelling, but the stories just careen randomly until they dissolve. It always feels like you can almost understand what he is talking about: “wine was flowing, so was beers, Jesus found his missing years.” Among the careening storylines, “The Late John Garfield Blues” stands out:

    “Midnight fell on Franklin Street
    And the lamppost bulbs were broke
    For the life of me, I could not see
    But I heard a brand new joke”

    • Nice! Thanks Matt.

      Why I haven’t spent more time exploring his work I can’t explain, but it appears to have been a large-ish mistake. From your description and example, it sounds like his lyrics are squarely in much of the Dylan tradition of “keep ’em guessing”. And I love the understated Kentucky drawl as well.

      Ever listen to The Folk Sampler on NPR? Terrific show, guy’s been doing it for 30+ years, from Arkansas. Not every station carries it though. You’d love it I’m sure. Last night he ended with this one from Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer; chords/lyrics here. Dave passed away several years ago but Tracy is still very active.

    • I just checked and I can stream The Folk Sampler on line. Thanks for the tip, I will give it a try!

    • Nice job on that Andy, in weird circumstances for sure.

      The session I play in has several, possibly most?, of its members from KY and WV, some with family mining backgrounds. I believe they came up to work in the local gypsum mine. There are also some pro-coal signs on the walls of the building. They play the song anyways and seem to have no problem with it. Things are rarely as black and white as they’re portrayed, I find.

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