"Dear Abby," aka Pauline Phillips, the celebrated advice columnist who died this week at age 94, already had been an American institution for decades when folk singer-songwriter John Prine immortalized her in his 1973 number titled — what else? — “Dear Abby.”
The acclaimed Chicago musician and former mailman tapped the everyday sort of gripes that populated her columns, which were syndicated in newspapers across the country including, for many years, the Los Angeles Times.
Dear Abby, Dear Abby, My feet are too long My hair's falling out and my rights are all wrong My friends they all tell me that I've no friends at all Won't you write me a letter, Won't you give me a call Signed Bewildered
Prine, naturally, supplied the response as well as the inquiry, answering:
Bewildered Bewildered, You have no complaint You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t So listen up Buster and listen up good Stop wishing for bad luck and knockin’ on wood
Then came three more mock letters — each receiving precisely the same response, Prine’s eye-winking acknowledgement of the essence of what Abby was really telling her millions of readers week after week.
In a case of life imitating art, Prine’s lyrics turned up in one of her columns years later. Somewhat surprisingly, she did not appear to recognize his words when a reader, presumably a Prine fan, sent a slightly paraphrased version of the song's final verse as a legitimate letter.
“Dear Abby, Dear Abby, Well I never thought That me and my girlfriend would ever get caught We were sittin’ in the back seat just shootin’ the breeze With her hair up in curlers and her pants to her knees Signed, Just Married”
I remember my thrill at seeing Prine’s words show up in her column, and the disappointment that she didn’t recognized the musical tribute and respond with Prine’s retort. As I recall, I even wrote a Dear Abby letter of my own pointing out the musical source of that letter, but I never heard back from her staff or saw my letter (or anyone else’s) published to give Prine credit where it was due.