LINCOLN PARK — Folk singer-songwriter John Prine, who died last year of COVID-19, has been remembered with an honorary street sign near the site of the club where he got his start.
Local leaders unveiled John Prine Way Oct. 9 at the northwest corner of Armitage and Dayton avenues in Lincoln Park.
The sign is just steps from La Colombe, 858 W. Armitage Ave., which used to be the site of the Fifth Peg, a folk club that Prine and other Old Town School of Folk Music students visited in the ’60s and ’70s, according to the school’s executive director, Jim Newcomb.
One night, Prine was at the club with a few other teachers and students during an open mic night, and he ended up giving his first performance in front of a live audience, Newcomb said. The club’s owner was so impressed they offered Prine a permanent gig at the venue.
Then one night in October 1970, Prine unwittingly got his first, high-profile rave review.
“And after a few short months of doing that, the late movie critic Roger Ebert was spurred to come in and have a listen, and he wrote a glowing account of this completely unknown singer-songwriter folk musician,” Newcomb said. “That was John Prine.”
Prine’s career blew up from there, Newcomb said.
“Other than going on to be this iconic songwriter, Prine’s story is really normal,” Newcomb said. “It’s so consistent with what went on at the school back in the ’60s. Students still form friendships around music and hang out together, go to clubs and perform together on a daily basis over here.”
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who helped push the street dedication through City Council, called Prine one of the “most celebrated alumni of the Old Town School of Folk Music.”
“John Prine also really exemplified the Old Town School of Folk Music’s spirit in the early ’60s,” Smith said. “And he’s known for his storytelling, sharing the stories of real people.”
Prine started attending the Old Town School of Folk Music with his brother in 1961, Newcomb said. After serving in the U.S. Army, Prine returned to Chicago in the late ’60s, working as a mailman and writing songs as a hobby.
Prine drew on his experiences as a mailman and the people he met for his songwriting, which was known for honoring the ordinary lives of people, Newcomb said.
“It was really cool to be able to recognize and honor him in this way because he really catalogued people in the city of Chicago in the same way that Mark Twain catalogued people in Missouri and the American South,” Newcomb said. “John’s writing is like that. It’s plain-spoken and honest.”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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