Folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs often recorded covers for their b-sides; a smart move, as they showcased how cool their record collections were, and Natalie Merchant’s affected accent always gave their versions a point of difference. ‘Hello In There’ was featured on the b-side of their 1989 single ‘You Happy Puppet’. It’s a cover taken from the rich back-catalogue of John Prine, the Illinois singer-songwriter.
“I wrote ‘Hello In There’ on the mail route.
I’d heard the John Lennon song Across The Universe, and he had a lot of reverb on his voice. I was thinking about hollering into a hollow log, trying to get through to somebody – Hello in there. That was the beginning thought; then it went to old people. I’ve always had an affinity to old people. I used to help a buddy with his newspaper route and I’d deliver to a Baptist old people’s home where you’d have to go room -to-room and some of the patients would kind of pretend that you were a grandchild or nephew that had come to visit instead of the guy delivering papers.
That always stuck n my head. It was all that stuff together, along with that pretty melody. I don’t think I’ve done a show without singing Hello In There, nothing in it wears on me.”John Prine
Writing about old people isn’t a common rock star move, and Prine was in his mid twenties when he released his classic debut album, from which ‘Hello In There’ is drawn.
Prine’s original is the keeper for me, but I’m glad that we have 10,000 Maniacs version too, drawing attention to a superlative songwriter who has often flown under the radar. The second disc of 10,000 Maniacs’ Campfire Songs is a surprisingly enjoyable listen, featuring other covers of David Bowie, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, and Morrissey.
We had an apartment in the city
Me and Loretta liked living there
Well, it’d been years since the kids had grown
A life of their own left us alone
John and Linda live in Omaha
And Joe is somewhere on the road
We lost Davy in the Korean war
And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore
Ya’ know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
Me and Loretta, we don’t talk much more
She sits and stares through the back door screen
And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen
Someday I’ll go and call up Rudy
We worked together at the factory
But what could I say if asks “What’s new?”
“Nothing, what’s with you? Nothing much to do”
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”