Caring for the elderly has never been a widespread subject for songs by singer/songwriters, but the older I get the more I appreciate them. In fact, John Prine’s ‘Hello In There’ has been a favourite of mine since I first heard it sung by the man himself at a club in Greenwich Village in, I think, 1974. Until then I wasn’t familiar with Prine’s songs but even on first hearing this song – and ‘Sam Stone’ with its immortal line: ‘There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes’ – struck me as something special, and it’s another of those songs that I never tire of hearing.
‘Hello In There’ is a plea for understanding from one generation to another, from the old to the young, couched in verses that echo the experience of those whose life is slowly ebbing away. For my money, its first verse contains one of the saddest triplets ever set down: ‘We lost Davy in the Korean War/ I still don’t know what for/ Don’t matter anymore’.
Prine sings his song from the husband’s angle in folksy style with melodic guitar fills between the verses that balance its sense of wistful melancholy with a more upbeat tone, but the better known, heart-wrenching version by Bette Midler, which swops genders to the voice of the wife, is markedly different; softly sung and simply beautiful, dignified, accompanied solely by a stately, unfussy piano. Regardless of which version I hear, I love the imagery that evokes the weariness of a creaking marriage, the emptiness of retirement and of trees and rivers growing stronger and wilder while we mortals grow weaker and more infirm. In the shortened final verse Prine makes his life-affirming appeal for tolerance and kindness: ‘Don’t pass ’em by and stare as if you didn’t care, say hello in there, just say hello’.
I came across Prine talking about his song in the internet, this from a site called Performing Songwriter: “I heard the John Lennon song ‘Across The Universe’, and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – ‘Hello in there’. That was the beginning thought, then it went to old people
“I’ve always had an affinity for old people. 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.
“It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing ‘Hello In There’. Nothing in it wears on me.”
Joan Baez has also recorded ‘Hello In There’ and there may be other cover versions for all I know but an otherwise rather disappointing compilation video/DVD by 10,000 Maniacs in my collection closes with a heart-stopping version of the song performed live by Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe, accompanied solely by sturdy electric guitar chords from Billy Bragg. It’s at some outdoor event in Scotland – and I reach for a tissue just about every time I watch it. You can find it in YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPIpyB_ZtJ0
You can also find John Prine singing it over a series of photographs that portray the song’s imagery, very literal but still very moving.