Pop Culture
Jun 07, 2024, 06:28AM

John Ford and John Prine

Prine's "Paradise" against Ford's 1941 classic How Green Was My Valley.

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Walking home from Baltimore’s Charles Theatre after a revival of How Green Was My Valley, I started singing John Prine’s “Paradise.” I wasn’t fully aware I was singing; it just popped into my head. But it wasn’t out of nowhere: Prine’s song and John Ford’s film have a similar structure and themes.

Set in a Welsh mining town during the late-19th century, How Green Was My Valley tells the story of the Morgans through the eyes of Huw, the family’s youngest member. The film’s one long flashback: an unseen adult Huw provides narration while guiding us through the trials of his childhood. The Morgans and their fellow townspeople love their valley, but they're slaves to the coal mine. Besides low wages and dangerous conditions, they struggle to wash the coal from their skin; the mine itself is photographed as a domineering and fiery tower looming over the village, constantly coughing thick smoke across their landscape.

But the miners still take pride in their work—the job is “honest”—and their identity, along with the community at large, is defined by the mining industry. The mine gives the villagers purpose, and without it, their town wouldn’t exist at all. Two of the Morgan brothers leave for America after being laid off; without the mine, there’s nothing for them in the valley.

When Huw must finally decide whether to go to school or the mine, he chooses the latter, even after it killed his oldest brother. This might be the “wrong” decision, but nevertheless noble: he’s trying to uphold the legacy of his family and preserve his identity. Huw’s attempts are naïve: the valley’s a slag heap and his family has splintered across continents. Huw stays in the valley until he’s 50, the town now a ghost of its former self. While he laments the changes, he isn’t wallowing in the devastation, but, rather, relying on his memory to keep the past alive: “There is no fence nor hedge around time that is gone. You can go back and have what you like of it, if you can remember. So, I can close my eyes on my valley as it is today, and it is gone, and I see it as it was when I was a boy…”

“Paradise” begins with a narrator—in this case, Prine—using childhood memory to reclaim the past: “When I was a child my family would travel/Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born/And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered/So many times that my memories are worn.” Prine, unlike Huw, wasn’t from the place he’s “remembering,” but one generation removed; Prine’s parents were from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. After they moved to Chicago, it became a frequent destination for the family. In the song’s second verse, Prine remembers these formative family trips with great fondness, but he does so by recalling strange details, like how they’d travel down the Green River to an abandoned prison and shoot empty bottles “where the air smelled like snakes.”

“Paradise” is a lamentation of the destruction of Muhlenberg County at the hands of the Peabody Coal Company. Unlike the Morgans, Prine doesn’t harbor any sentiment or nostalgia for coal, but he’s still mourning the death of an idyllic place at the hands of capital. During the chorus, Prine asks his father to take him back to Muhlenberg County, “where Paradise lay,” only for his father to reply, “Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.” Prine, like Huw, must rely solely on his memories to recapture both the beauty of his homeland and the innocence of his youth—and his familial identity. The actual town of Paradise, Kentucky, like the village in How Green Was My Valley, eventually became a ghost town; it was disincorporated, abandoned, and essentially razed in 1967 due to its unhealthy proximity to the coal plant.

In the final verse, Prine sings, “When I die, let my ashes float down the Green River/Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam/I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’ /Just five miles away from wherever I am.” Prine, who had health problems throughout his life and survived cancer twice, died in April 2020, one of the first celebrities from Covid. In accordance with his wishes, half of his ashes were spread in the Green River in Muhlenberg County, poetically returning Prine to Paradise—his green valley.

A few more things came to mind on my walk home: first, it feels like Ford and Prine are artists we’ll never see again. Today’s filmmakers have little to no understanding of mise-en-scène—what Alex Lei calls “a crisis of mise-en-scène”—and today’s top songwriters would never dare write “Muhlenberg” into a chorus.

I thought about how Prine wrote “Paradise” for his father, to prove to him that he could be a songwriter; but also to honor him. Huw immortalized his father as well: “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still—real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever.”

When Prine brought his father a copy of “Paradise,” he allegedly listened to it in the dark “to pretend it was on the jukebox” and cried. And I thought of my father—and how he cried when he heard Prine had died. And my own past: how far I’ve strayed from where I am from, the memories that take me back, and all the things I’ve lost.


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