I once heard a friend of mine proclaim, “‘Happy people make lousy music.’” (He is the head of an independent school in Nashville.) “Where did you hear that?” I asked. “John Prine,” he said. “John Prine said that.” I have struggled with his assertion ever since. I thought I might pass it along to you today so that you can struggle with it, too.
I expect that by “happy people,” Prine meant something like “contented people.” One of the songs for which he is best known, Angel from Montgomery from his eponymous debut album, sings the story of a woman whose own life’s music has been muted by her marriage to “another child that’s grown old,” a man who comes home from work and has “nothing to say.” To make good music is to have something to say.
We lost John Prine this week. We lost Bill Withers the week before. John Prine’s people were from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. He became a mailman in Chicago in his twenties, then took a risk and became a songwriter. Bill Withers’ people were from Slab Fork, West Virginia. He became an aircraft mechanic in Los Angeles in his twenties, then took a risk and became a songwriter. Remarkably similar paths. (Withers didn’t trust the music industry enough to quit his day job, though. His own debut album shows him holding his lunchbox at the plant.)
If “happy” means only “contented,” neither Prine nor Withers was a happy songwriter. My own definition of happiness, though, is more forgiving. It means “sure” more than it means “contented”—sure of mind, sure of heart, sure of vision. You may recall my resolution that MICDS be “the happiest school in St. Louis.” What I dream for us is not that we be contented with ourselves, but that we be sure of ourselves. Comfort cannot write good music. Confidence can.
There is a scene from A.A. Milne’s stories in which Piglet speaks Pooh’s name as they are walking together. “Yes, Piglet?” Pooh replies. “Nothing,” says Piglet. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
Perhaps Bill Withers’ most infectious song is Lovely Day. “When the day that lies ahead of me seems impossible to face,” he sings, “then I look at you, and the world’s alright with me.” I like to think that happiness is being sure of ourselves and sure of each other. And I know for certain that Lovely Day is a happy song.
I have created for you on Apple Music and on Spotify what may be the only playlist on the internet that contains songs by John Prine and Bill Withers and no one else. I call it Withers & Prine. It’s not a law firm, but it’s missing a good chance to be. I wish you happiness in their good music and memory.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage.
Head of School