I think you can split great public figures into three groups: the prophets, the mystics, and the sages.
The prophets have visions of the future. They’re the Martin Luther Kings and Michelle Alexanders and Wendell Berrys of the world—they condemn the present order and lead us toward somewhere new.
The mystics have a connection to the otherworldly—to the realm of the mysterious. They’re the William Blakes and John Coltranes and Stevie Nickses of the world, who try to bring you with them to—or, at the very least, bring you messages from—some spiritual plane.
The sages are different. They have no special access to the future, like the prophets do — or to another realm, like the mystics do. They aren’t trying to take you anywhere — neither to the promised land nor the other world.
Rather, sages are just really, really good at living here and now. They’re who we turn to for practical wisdom. And their wisdom is hard earned — it comes not from a prophetic insight nor a mystical trance, but rather from the sustained, ordinary work of putting in the years living and learning, listening and paying attention. Like cast iron skillets, sages only get better with age. And like the plant they share a name with, they have healing powers.
Some might say that the sage’s craft is the cultivation of wisdom, but I think that’s only a part of what sages have perfected. I think it’s more right to say that the sage’s craft is friendship. And friends, as the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott put best, “are not concerned with what might be made of one another, but only with the enjoyment of one another; and the condition of this enjoyment is a ready acceptance of what is and the absence of any desire to change or to improve.”
If you’re looking for a movement leader, you want to find yourself a prophet. If you’re looking to shake up your old ways, you want to find yourself a mystic. But if you’re looking for a good friend — that’s when you want to find yourself a sage.
And in being good friends to us, sages teach us how to be good friends ourselves. In not judging us, they teach us how not to judge; in accepting us as we are, they teach us how to accept others as they are. The sage’s wisdom is not just for you — it’s advice for how you can be friendlier, in the deepest sense of the word, to others.
I share this all to say: I think the world could use a few more great sages, because the world could use a lot more good friends.
For a first-class example of what I’m talking about, look no further than the life of the preeminent sage of American folk rock—the beloved songwriter John Prine, who died last week at the age of 73.
If you have ever heard a song by John Prine, you already know what I mean. But if you have had the misfortune of having never heard his songs, allow me to share a bit about the great Sage of Maywood, Illinois.
In 1970, fresh off a stint in the army, John Prine was a mailman in Chicago’s western suburbs. The son of a tool-and-die worker from Kentucky, he’d write songs on his mail route by day and play gigs in Chicago’s bar scene at night.
One night, by sheer luck, the popcorn at the theater where the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert had been screening a movie was too salty. As a result, the famous film critic wandered into the folk club next door to get a beer. Prine was playing that night—and Ebert (a sage himself) was blown away. The next day, he ditched his assigned movie review, replacing it with a rave review of Prine. With a headline about a “singing mailman” that “delivers,” Ebert’s review, published a day before Prine’s 24th birthday, launched the songwriter’s career.
What’s amazing about reading the review all these years later is how well Prine preserved the qualities Ebert loved about him. If you first saw Prine play in 1970, 1980, 2000, or even 2019 (when I last saw Prine live), it’s likely you’d have experienced the same thing Ebert did that October night 50 years ago:
“He appears on stage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight. He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you…
…You hear lyrics like these, perfectly fitted to Prine’s quietly confident style and his ghost of a Kentucky accent, and you wonder how anyone could have so much empathy…”
That’s the first thing that hits you about Prine—the empathy. When you listen to a few songs, it’s stunning: This quiet Illinois man had an almost endless capacity to respectfully feel for, and feel with, almost everybody.
In “Angel from Montgomery,” Prine’s most famous song, he’s an old woman with dashed dreams and a rusty marriage. As the flies buzz in the kitchen, she wonders: “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning, and come home in the evening, and have nothing to say?”
In “Hello In There,” Prine sings of an old couple growing lonely after their kids move away, hoping for someone to pass them by and simply say, “Hello in there, hello.”
There’s “Storm Windows,” about a man whose inspiration has faded — “the raven at my window was only a crow.”
There’s the waltz “Christmas in Prison,” where a lovesick prisoner, while imagining his sweetheart running to him, shouts “Wait awhile eternity, old mother nature’s got nothing on me!”
There’s “Donald & Lydia,” about a fat cashier and a young soldier “making love from ten miles away.” (Bob Dylan once called that lyric an example of Prine’s “pure Proustian existentialism… Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree”—whatever that means!)
On “Everybody,” one of my favorite deep cuts, Prine’s empathy even expands to Jesus Christ himself. After bumping into him one day out sailing, Prine says “Jesus, you look tired” (to which Jesus responds, “Jesus, so do you”)—and then proceeds to listen as Jesus unloads his troubles on him. Prine can’t get a word in edgewise because the Savior has a lot to get off his chest—but Prine understands, just letting him talk. “Everybody needs somebody that they can talk to,” Prine reminds himself. And furthermore, “any friend that’s been turned down is bound to be a friend of mine.”
That’s what most everybody was to Prine—someone bound to be a friend, if we only stopped and listened. We’re all, as he titled his second album, “Diamonds in the Rough”—just waiting for somebody to see past our outsides and circumstances to our shine within.
(Prine was so devoted to this craft of friendliness that he once told Terry Gross that he was happy about what his neck cancer did to his voice because “it dropped down lower and feels friendlier.”)
In many ways, Prine was like a musical Edward Hopper—a student of American lonesomeness. But Prine’s portraits were not all dour. Take “Iron Ore Betty”—the 1978 banger is just a hardware store worker waxing poetic for two minutes and forty-three second about how happy he is to be going steady with his iron ore miner girlfriend.
Or take “Grandpa was a Carpenter”—it’s just Prine, with absolutely no editorializing except “he was level on the level,” itemizing cool facts about his grandparents on top of a joyous beat.
In “Spanish Pipe Dream,” a soldier on his way to Montreal meets a topless dancer who has a message “up her sleeve”:
Blow up your TV. Throw away your paper.
Go to the country. Build you a home.
Plant a little garden. Eat a lot of peaches.
Try an’ find Jesus, on your own.
But Prine’s infectious affability didn’t stop him from speaking his mind, even if it would anger some of his bipartisan fanbase. He once told a reporter, “If I get hit by a bus I would sure like the world to know that I was not a Republican.” But whereas so many political songwriters of his generation lapsed into artless propaganda, Prine made his argument the way he knew best — by sharing full portraits of the human consequences of political decisions.
With “Sam Stone,” Prine avoids hitting you over the head with “War: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!”-like lyrics, instead opting to tell the story of a single Vietnam veteran “shattering all his nerves” overseas and dying of an overdose after coming home. From the perspective of the veterans’ child, he grieves, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.“
With “Paradise,” he talks about the destruction of the coal industry not by focusing on the destruction itself, but rather on the affection he had for the small town on the Green River that got hauled away by “Mister Peabody’s coal train.”
And when stories didn’t work to make his point, Prine used jokes. “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” says everything you need to know about faux-patriotic warmongering right there in the title.
But John Prine’s greatest lessons weren’t about the politics of the moment — they were about those ever-present challenges all we fallen humans have faced, do face, and will face throughout the ages. You know the stuff: anger, guilt, longing, regret, grief… the problems that can’t be solved by political prophecy or mystical revelation, no matter how perfect; the pains that can only be healed, at least almost, by the pairing of good friends and time.
In “Bruised Orange,” Prine calls on us to let go of anger:
You can gaze out the window get mad and get madder,
Throw your hands in the air, say “What does it matter?”
But it don’t do no good to get angry,
So help me I know.
In “Fish and Whistle,” he plans for everyone to forgive each other “‘til we both turn blue.”
And in “That’s the Way The World Goes Round,” Prine has this stanza and chorus that is such a beautiful distillation of the need to “take things as they come,” that I consider it my personal honky-tonk Serenity Prayer:
I was sitting in the bathtub counting my toes,
When the radiator broke, water all froze.
I got stuck in the ice without my clothes,
Naked as the eyes of a clown.
I was crying ice cubes hoping I’d croak,
When the sun come through the window, the ice all broke.
I stood up and laughed thought it was a joke
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
You’re up one day and the next you’re down.
It’s half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown.
That’s the way that the world goes ’round.
And as is often the case with people who have let go of so much pettiness—who have cut their worldly troubles down to size with an open heart and a hearty laugh—Prine, at least lyrically, seemed unafraid of death. He opened his final song on his final album: “When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand, thank him for more blessings than one man can stand.”
And of course, in pure Prine fashion, he didn’t end there—he also wants to “smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.”
That right there is everything you need to know about John Prine’s way of seeing and being in the world—it’s all a little bit beautiful and a little bit goofy.
* * *
So in the spirit of the latter, I conclude with a simple proposal: We ought to rename the post office in Maywood, Illinois after John Prine.
Yes, I know changing post office names requires an act of Congress—and, yes, I know they have too much on their plate right now. But we owe so much to the singing mailman of Maywood that, honestly, changing the name of his hometown’s post office to The John Prine Memorial Post Office is the very least we could do to express our gratitude to our old friend.
This may seem a small tribute to pay to a great sage. But Prine’s art has always been about things small and sincere, delivered humbly and consistently, without embellishment or extravagance. He doesn’t need an airport or an annual festival. He deserves something unpretentious, common, friendly, and American. A post office will do.
Listen to these songs in a Spotify playlist here.