"Hello in There" features some of the most poignant lyrics John Prine ever wrote -- and that's saying something, considering he's got a catalog of lump-in-the-throat songs -- "Sam Stone," "Six O'Clock News" and "Souvenirs" among them.
Prine earned an early reputation for being able to write "old." "He was unlike anyone I'd ever seen," Kris Kristofferson said. "Such a young kid and yet he's writing songs like 'Hello in There.'" Most of the song's narrative is told from the perspective of an aging factory worker. He's retired, the kids have scattered to the winds, he doesn't have much left to say to his wife or his friends. The tune shuffles along, as if in time to the gait of the aging protagonist.
"Hello in There" seems to be building toward a rebuke of its narrator for (to borrow a phrase from a Townes van Zandt song from around the same time) waiting around to die. That wouldn't be surprising, given that Prine wasn't even 24 when he composed "Hello in There," at the height of the 1960s youth culture. But, that's not the direction he takes the song. "Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers grow wilder every day," he observes with sadness. Yet, "old people just grow lonesome." For the song's coda, Prine steps out of character and admonishes his peers not to pity or ignore the elderly. "Don't just pass them by and stare, as if you didn't care. Say 'hello in there.'"
The song, which was later covered by Bette Midler, Joan Baez and others, appeared on Prine's incredible 1970 debut album. But, the version posted here is a re-recording from Souvenirs, released 30 years later. Prine's singing on the original recording lacks some of the vocal finesse he developed over his career. In middle age, Prine brings fresh perspective to the song. He still offers up the lesson to those who too quickly dismiss their parents. But, in his performance, you can also sense Prine's realization that he's closer in age to the main character in "Hello in There" than he is to the songwriter who composed it.