Sunday, October 21, 2007

Paradise Gone

“Daddy won’t you take me
back to Muhlenberg County
down by the Green River
where Paradise lay.

I’m sorry my son
But you’re too late in asking
Mr. Peabody’s coal train
has hauled it away.”

These lyrics and the tune that accompanies them are familiar to nearly everyone. I have met a few younger people who thought that the song was an old traditional song from the Appalachians. As much as it has been adopted by many traditional artists, “Paradise”, of course, was written by John Prine. I suspect that all of the riders on the Bus were aware of the song’s true origin.

What many folks don’t know is the story of Paradise and the Green River. The Green River flows through the heart of the Western Coal Field Region of Kentucky. The Green River starts in Lincoln County, just about in the center of Kentucky and ends about 300 river miles away at the confluence with the Ohio River. The river flows through Mammoth Cave National Park and drains the cave and surrounding area.

Starting in 1842, a series of four locks and dams were constructed along the Green River to facilitate barge traffic to the vast lignite coal fields, petroleum coke, and aluminum ore that were mined and produced along it’s banks. Muhlenberg County was at one time the largest coal producing county in North America and the Peabody Coal Company was, and still is, the largest coal company in the world. Peabody had several operations along Kentucky’s Green River, but it wasn’t Peabody that hauled away the town of Paradise.

Notice that Paradise is capitalized in Prine’s lyrics. Yes, there was a town named Paradise along the Green River. Peabody didn’t directly haul the town away, although it is possible that their influence and political power had much more to do with it than the records indicate. No, the town of Paradise was submerged below the Green River Lake in 1969, when the Tennessee Valley Authority impounded the river behind a new dam to provide flood protection, electricity, and improved barge traffic to the coal fields.

So the story of Paradise, the Green River, and Peabody’s Coal is not a traditional song, but John Prine’s response to the further damming of the beautiful Green River and the loss of the town of Paradise. Prine grew up in Indiana, just across the Ohio River from where the Green joins the Ohio. The controversy of the new dam and the submerging of the town of Paradise would have been local news to his home region.

The Green River and Peabody Coal were once again in the news just a few years ago. Peabody Energy, same company / new name, applied for permits to construct a 1500mw coal fired power plant near Central City, Kentucky, the largest coal-fired power plant to be built in America in the last twenty years. As proposed by Peabody the plant will not have flue gas scrubbers and will return the heated water to the river untreated and at high temperatures. The proposed site is only 50 miles west of Mammoth Cave National Park. Mammoth Cave already has the worst visibility of any National Park in the United States, the proposed power plant would add to the white, sulfurous haze that hangs over the Park nearly continuously. The EPA filed its arguments against the construction of the plant as proposed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also filed an objection based on the Peabody’s plans to build a large barge unloading dock and water supply and discharge structures on the banks of the Green River. Shortly after Peabody, its subsidiaries, and principals donated over $300000 to the Republican Party, the EPA and Fish and Widlife requests for impact studies were withdrawn. Thanks to the actions of the citizens of Kentucky, the proposed power plant has yet to receive a permit for construction.

The fact that "Paradise" has been adopted by many traditional artists is a testament to the songwriting skills of John Prine and the timeless subject of his song.

Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys - Paradise.mp3

Seldom Scene - Paradise.mp3

John Prine - Paradise.mp3

Note: The Bus is still having conection troubles, but the phone and TV are working now. I suppose 2 out of 3 ain't bad.


Blogger kjk said...

"I suspect that all of the riders on the Bus were aware of the song’s true origin."

Not me. Before today, I've only heard the John Denver version. As always, Ed: Thanks for the education!

October 21, 2007 10:15 PM  
Anonymous john said...

Pretty good song for a mailman from Chicago!

The Arlo Guthrie concert Sat night was GREAT!

October 22, 2007 11:47 AM  
Blogger Jim H. said...


Ditto kjk -- I am glad for the history lesson. There are a couple of little towns up here on the iron range that had to be relocated as the taconite companies chewed up the landscape, but none that were drowned!

Another of Prine's songs -- Iron Ore Betty -- was inspired by the spunky women of Minnesota's iron mining region (what we call simply 'da range').


October 22, 2007 1:24 PM  
Blogger Jim H. said...

My mother in law grew up in Hibbing and was an acquaintance of a Mrs. Zimmerman, whose boy Bobby went on to achieve some fame in the music business. He knows about da range!

October 22, 2007 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is one small error - Prine grew up in Maywood Illinois - his parents were from Muhlenberg County - never Indiana.

Thank you for the article

October 22, 2007 2:10 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Well, I guess I should know better than to make assumptions about the riders on the Bus. Y’all are a diverse lot.

Jim, I suppose ol’ Bobby Zimmerman does know about da range ;-), Kinda neat that your mother in-law knew Bob’s mother. I have been wanting to put something together on the Iron Ore Range. I have a fair collection of topical songs, I just haven’t gotten a round to it, but it’s on my list with a bunch of other half-baked ideas.

It sounds like the Arlo concert was great. He was in our area about a month ago and I was out of town (at another concert), hated to miss him.

Our anonymous friend is correct. Since my internet connection is only on for about three minutes at a time I worked on this post offline and from memory. I didn’t have time to check my facts. Thanks for setting the record straight. Although, I could swear Prine started his mail carrier career as a rural carrier outside Indianapolis.

October 22, 2007 6:54 PM  
Anonymous john said...

Nope, Johnny walked a route in the Chicago 'burbs. He's sorta the Patron Saint of Mailmen. I still remember those damn flag decals in the Reader's Digest that gave him such great inspiration.

October 23, 2007 4:38 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

John, "Your Flag Decal..." , and many of Prine's songs have always been favorites of mine to sing around a campfire.

October 23, 2007 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I'd like to join the others in thanking you for the education, Ed. About the latest Peabody plan - government bodies are far more responsive to money than voices, sadly. Votes only count on election day, and after that politicians BS their way around anything unpopular. I believe it's called "spin". Peabody will get their way, and more. The only answer is to have our politicos both north and south of the border be held personally accountable by being able to sue them. I'd love to see a few reps, senators and members of parliament (here in Canada) reduced to flipping burgers for the rest of their lives to try to pay for their lies. Being a realist, I know that will never happen. The rich and powerful cover each others' asses really well. Anyway, thanks for the great versions of this very important song.

October 25, 2007 5:57 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Well said, Dan.

October 25, 2007 7:48 PM  

<< Home