This is a song written by RB Morris and recorded by folk singer-songwriter John Prine (1946 – 2020), who died from COVID-19 earlier this week, age 73. Its cryptic lyrics tell how moral rot destroys the soul of a man and a nation from within. It featured on Prine’s grammy-winning 2005 album ‘Fair and Square’.
John Prine is from Maywood, Illinois a suburb on the outskirts of Chicago. While working as a mailman, he wrote songs and played at local bars, which caught the ear of Kris Kristofferson. Prine then opened for Kristopherson in New York and released his first (self-titled) album in 1971. Its standout track is Sam Stone. Arguably his best, it tells a sobering tale of Vietnam veteran’s struggle with heroin addiction. Through both tune and spoken word, Prine’s songs often touched deep subjects, others were lighter and humorous. All told stories with a personal touch. He wrote most of his own songs with That’s How Every Empire Falls being a notable exception.
Prine never broke the mainstream, but in his life attracted a dedicated fanbase and was an icon in folk circles. His biggest fans included Johnny Cash, Roger Waters, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Murray and Bob Dylan. In total Prine received 11 Grammy nominations and won three, including a lifetime achievement award in 2020, a few months before he died.
‘That’s How every Empire Falls’ is not his best, or even most popular song, (I personally love Lake Marie) however in the context of his death, and the state of America right now, it is certainly the most prophetic.
He caught a train from Alexandria, just a broken man in flight
Runnin’ scared with his devils, sayin’ prayers all through the night
But mercy can’t find him, not in the shadows where he calls
Forsaking all his better angels: That’s how every empire falls
The bells ring out on Sunday morning like echoes from another time
All our innocence and yearning and sense of wonder left behind
Oh gentle hearts remember, What was that story? Is it lost?
For when religion loses vision, That’s how every empire falls
He toasts his wife and all his family, the providence he brought to bear
They raise their glasses in his honor although this union they don’t share
A man who lives among them was still a stranger to them all
For when the heart is never open, That’s how every empire falls
Padlock the door and board the windows, put the people in the street
“It’s just my job,” he says, “I’m sorry,” and draws a check, goes home to eat
At night he tells his woman, “I know I hide behind the laws”
She says, “You’re only taking orders”: That’s how every empire falls
A bitter wind blows through the country, a hard rain falls on the sea
If terror comes without a warning, there must be something we don’t see
What fire begets this fire, like torches thrown into the straw?
If no one asks, then no one answers: That’s how every empire falls