Brilliant Songs #22: Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter”

One of the things I love about Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter” is Brown’s refusal to offer any kind of explanation or backdrop to the somewhat mysterious title, which is encompassed in the only line he repeats in the song’s 72 lines: “I’m lookin’ for Rexroth’s daughter.”

This is consonant with a certain strain of creative artist who simply wants to have his or her work stand on its own, meaning what it means to anyone who comes across it, without shaping a viewer’s/reader’s/listener’s response via either explanation or the creator’s biography.

That said, we can surmise easily enough that the reference is to the great poet Kenneth Rexroth, often called the “father” of the so-called “Beat Generation” literary movement that grew up around him in 1950s San Francisco, and which included the poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among many others.

Rexroth was a self-taught intellectual bohemian of both deeply romantic and rough-hewn sensibilities, precious little artifice or pretension clinging to him. Much like Brown, it occurs to me—minus the self-taught part. Brown is the son of an English teacher mother who played guitar and read poetry to put him to sleep at night in his early years.

For his part, Rexroth, orphaned at 13, wrote rapturous love and nature poetry with a healthy bent of mystical longing while also taking defiant stands against capitalism and the military-industrial complex. He had two daughters by his second wife, who were shuttled this way and that as their parents’ marriage broke up and Rexroth lived, in what sounds like a paradox but isn’t, the standard unconventional poet’s life.



There’s little doubt that Brown’s imagination was fired by Rexroth’s poetry and the imagery of two daughters caught in the crosshairs of a family breakup with multiple moves, subsequent step-family complications and the like. (Brown has one daughter from his first marriage, two more from his second, and has been married since 2002 to his third wife, the folkie Iris Dement, with whom he adopted a daughter from Russia.)

Brown does not make clear which of Rexroth’s daughters he is “looking for,” and it hardly matters, because he’s not really  looking for her in particular. (There is no record of him meeting with either of them, though it is certainly possible.)

Instead, he is “workin’ up my farewell” to someone in the second line of the song, to whom he turns in the third stanza and, by way of explanation as much for himself as for her, relates that he’s “looking for Rexroth’s daughter/A friend of a friend of mine.”

In other words, an unknown idea of a person, a feeling, an image of that magical “something else,” that for all too human reasons occupies at least part of his brain.

This is a song of searching, longing and loss, and Rexroth’s daughters, their innocence not sparing them, would appear to be stand-ins for Brown’s excavation of what all humans face in coming to grips with life as the decidedly mixed bag it is, full of joy-jumping meetups and mournful departures, where every “hello” is “rolled into goodbye.”


All great songwriters are poetic to their bones, and Brown, 71, has few peers after more than a half-century of writing songs that sing themselves right off the lyric sheet and ricochet between a listener’s gut, heart and brain.

He delivers it all in a bass voice whose clarity and resonance undergird what a 2000 New Yorker magazine profile once described as “emotionally complex songs…steeped in rural testosterone…as if Johnny Cash sang Joni Mitchell songs, and meant them.”

And then there’s his way with a metaphor: How’s “Clouds roll in from Nebraska/Dark chords on a big guitar” for getting us going by the end of the second stanza? (Brown is mostly a lifelong resident of Iowa.)

I doubt I will ever again note purple storm clouds on the horizon without thinking of a guitar and the sure-fingered picking that Brown and his longtime accompanist Bo Ramsey do on this song.

Let’s give it a listen now on the clearest audio version I could find on You Tube, though we’ll end further below with a live version featuring Brown and Ramsey that is well worth an additional round. Lyrics immediately below if you care to read them first.



Coldest night of the winter
Workin’ up my farewell
In the middle of everything
Under no particular spell

Dreamin’ of the mountains
Where the children learn the stars
Clouds roll in from Nebraska
Dark chords on a big guitar 

My restlessness is long gone
Standin’ like an old jack pine
But I’m lookin’ for Rexroth’s daughter
A friend of a friend of mine

Can’t believe your hands and mouth
Did all that to me
Are so daily naked
For all the world to see

That thunderstorm in Michigan
I never will forget
We shook right with the thunder
With the pounding rain got wet

Where did you turn when you turned from me
With your arms across your chest
Ya, I’m looking for Rexroth’s daughter
Saw her in the great northwest

Would she have said it was the wrong time
If I had found her then
I don’t want too much
A field across the road and a few good friends

She used to come & see me
She was there & gone
Even the very longest love
Don’t last very long

She’d stood there in my doorway
Smoothing out her dress
Saying,  “Life is a thump-ripe melon—
So sweet and such a mess”

I wanted to get to know you
But you said you were shy
I would have followed you anywhere
But hello rolled into goodbye

I just stood there watching
As you walked along the fence
Beware of them that look at you
As an experience

You’re back out on the highway
With your poems of city heat
And I’m looking for Rexroth’s daughter
Here on my own side street

The murderer who lived next door
Seemed like such a normal guy
If you try to swallow what they shove at us
You run out of tears to cry

I heard a man speak quietly
I listened for a while
He spoke from his heart to my woe &
When he bowed & smiled

What is real but compassion
As we move from birth to death
I’m looking for Rexroth’s daughter
And I’m runnin’ out of breath

Spring will come back I know it will
It’ll do its best
So useful, so endangered
Like a lion or a breast

I think about my children
When I look at any child’s face
Pray that we will find a way
To get with all this amazing grace

It’s so cold out there tonight
So stormy I can hardly see
I’m lookin’ for Rexroth’s daughter
And I guess I always will be.



There’s much to speculate on and unpack here, most all of which I will leave to you. Let me just point to a few particularly intriguing or insightful notes.

A lover appears over two stanzas, whose “…hands and mouth/Did all that to me,” and who “shook right with the thunder” through a memorable Michigan storm.

Of course there’s no believing one’s good fortune, ever, to be so blessed. Almost goes without saying, but Brown says plenty here, with a poet’s economy of words.

In the seventh stanza, the narrator shifts suddenly to the third person— the mythical Rexroth daughter, perhaps? “Would she have said it was the wrong time?/If I had found her then? he asks.

He conjures this person for two more stanzas before addressing his fleeing lover directly again with the devastating observation that he’s been watching all the while that she has been on “the fence,” uncommitted. He concludes with the bitter warning: “Beware of them that look at you/As an experience.”

Then a “murderer…next door” who “seemed like such a normal guy.” The darkness that lurks in everyone, normal as can be?

But a man then speaks from his heart, conjuring compassion, with spring and children and a prayer for “amazing grace,” that iconic song, following in his wake. Hope abides, is required, available, a port but not a permanent resting place from the cold storms that keep our hero “lookin’ for Rexroth’s daughter,” as he guesses he “always will be.”

Is he “looking in all the wrong places,” as another song and all religions suggest? I doubt he’d say so. It’s the journey that’s the thing, and Greg Brown has been on it for a very long and deeply rewarding time.


And the live version…


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On Flickr:

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Woman at window by Kazu Ahmed, Oxford, UK

Searching the heavens by Cristofer Jeschke, Portland, Oregon

Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown by Kentucky Country Day

Storm by Johannes Plenio, Munich, Germany

11 comments to Brilliant Songs #22: Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter”

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I’m so pleased to see Greg Brown on your list of brilliant songs. I think every one of his songs is brilliant – but I hadn’t heard this one. I love how you’ve heard and explained what the title might mean; a whole field of ideas sprang up in me in response. The phantom lover, always just beyond the horizon, making all prosaic efforts at love seem inadequate. I’ve lived in the shadow of that Rexroth’s Daughter, it is tough. His state of mind gives me compassion for the seeker of that phantom.

    Speaking of daughters, once in a live show in a tiny place, I heard Greg Brown sing an ode to his own: “I’m a man who’s rich in Daughters.” I heard him in the 80’s a number of times in small venues, and each time I felt intense, concentrated artistry in his bones.

    An album of his I’ve loved a long time is “Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience.” Brown spun that series of William Blake poems into pure gold. Here’s a tiny one that starts the LP, “The Piper.”
    I’m so happy to hear this voice, and this soul, again. Thanks, Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Very glad you mentioned “Songs of Innocence…” Jeanette. Had it for a long time, don’t think the CD survived my move from California (Oh, the chaos of those last days!), but I really should swing back to it. An album inspired by William Blake—who does that? (Greg Brown does!) I know he has an intense and loyal following; not surprised you’re among them.

  • Moon  says:

    Leave it to me, and my selective memory, to remember that in the late 60s, a certain Mary Rexroth was featured in a playboy magazine spread. Pretty good looking back then, and maybe Hefs way of getting adolescent boys to appreciate The Beats!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Hella memory, Moon—all I remember from Playboy back in the day were, of course, the interview subjects! :-)

      Indeed, that was the one & same Mary, later changed to “Mariana” in order to leave various bits of baggage behind. Some folks speculate Brown may have been referring to her porn days in his erotic stanza, but I suspect he was talking directly to his old love then. I didn’t want to get lost in that detail, though, so didn’t mention it. She was a pretty fierce proponent of free love in ’60s SF, adopting it as a philosophical position, while never letting folks forget she was spoonfed Proust & Sappho & all the Greek tragedians as a child—a rather atypical porn star! Later, she became adult education coordinator at a Catholic church in The City—gotta love that detail, too!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    The lyrics to Greg Brown’s “Rexroth’s Daughter” work so well because they encompass much of what we all feel or have felt more than once in our lifetime. Life’s duality is threaded throughout this song. His description (Life is a thump-ripe melon—/So sweet and such a mess) is deliciously accurate. Haven’t we all experienced the finding and then loss of love (She used to come & see me/She was there & gone/Even the very longest love/Don’t last very long)? Life is a constant struggle between desperately wanting to hold on to something that is impossibly elusive (I would have followed you anywhere/But hello rolled into goodbye). Mass shooters are described as either quiet (The murderer who lived next door/Seemed like such a normal guy) or angry. People grow apart because they want their lives to go in opposite directions (You’re back out on the highway/With your poems of city heat/And I’m looking for Rexroth’s daughter/Here on my own side street). As an aside, Greg Brown’s wife Iris Dement is a wonderful songwriter in her own right. Her compositions are a rich mixture of folk, gospel, and country. Her “Our Town” is a hauntingly beautiful song. Give it a listen, especially if you like country or the T.V. show “Northern Exposure.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Robert, have been a fan of Iris Dement’s for quite some time— her and Brown would seem to be quite the musical powerhouse couple; I’m glad it’s lasted. I gave her a shout-out here a few years ago…

      I’d be interested to hear tales from your brother about Rexroth as a teacher. I suspect he was highly opinionated, among other things, but jeez, he was second to none too many in sheer erudition, so just watching him pace in front of the class while talking out loud to himself would likely have been a treat.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I talked to my older brother about a month ago & somehow Rexroth came up in our conversation. He took a couple of classes from him while at UCSB. Only Moon would remember a playmate Rexroth. He still amazes me 50 years later.

  • Marie-Elise ("Mimi") Wheatwind  says:

    Dear Andrew,

    I have never heard this musician, so this is also his first song for me, memorable because I attended a private poetry “salon” with a handful of others in Kenneth Rexroth’s Montecito cottage back in the mid-70s, before (and then after) a Guggenheim grant took him to Japan. Rexroth’s mentoring changed my life, for the better. I continued to see Kenneth and his wife Carol over the years, and I met each of his daughters–once, briefly, at different times–at that home.

    His younger daughter, Katharine was there just after having been accepted to (and was en-route to) medical school, somewhere on the east coast. Mariana was someone I’d heard about in asides during salon evenings, and listened in during one of her visits as she talked quietly to a few others. In the salon Kenneth had alluded to Mariana’s involvement with a poet (a younger contemporary of his) with clear disdain and disapproval. I think I secretly admired her for her rebellious act, and her spirit, not unlike his own. I also learned that she had trained as a ballerina, but found work in the Bay Area as a belly dancer in her twenties. I never heard him speak of a Playboy Magazine photo, but given the free love philosophy of many creative ones on the west coast, I’m not surprised. He had many other reasons to speak with pride about both Mary and Katharine. What many do not know is that Kenneth’s older daughter published her own poetry in a chapbook, published by Two Windows Press, as Mary Rexroth, titled “The Coffee Should be Warm Now,” back in 1970.

    I would say both daughters would have said they were “shy,” for good reason. Their lives were clearly shaped by someone who was already an icon beyond their own generation, but they each managed to forge good paths on their own. Kenneth, meanwhile would remain a legend to those of us who acknowledge his brilliant talents, which live on as his legacy.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Mimi, I’m so glad you shared this with us. First, I’m pleased for you to discover Greg Brown, a poet in his own right and whose music I’m pretty sure you will enjoy, given your admiration for the song subject. More importantly, I am on board with you on Kenneth Rexroth changing my life, too, though I never met the man. I’ve probably spent more time on his poetry than anyone else’s in my life, and his volumes of “Shorter” and “Longer” poems and his translations of the ancient Chinese and Japanese poets have been ever at my side over many decades now. There’s a purity to his language and imagery, stripped of all but the essentials of emotion and observation, that feels completely real and present. And his mix of both clear-eyed Western rationalism and Eastern mysticism always rang true and important to me. Not easy to pigeonhole, not fake holy, but wholly in control of who he was.

      Funny about Rexroth’s disdain for the young poet suitor of his daughter. Don’t know if you’ve seen the commentary from his biography, but he apparently had very rigorous standards, with his biographer writing, “No beatniks for his daughter. He wanted Mary to attend Radcliffe and marry a Harvard man.” Such a mix of anarchist and classicist he was!

      I’ve got a poem of Rexroth’s I’ve wanted to write about for a long time now, and I think that’s just moved up in the queue—thank you!

      • Marie-Elise ("Mimi") Wheatwind  says:

        Dear Andrew,
        I have discovered a few musicians I’d not heard before, thanks to your blog. In fact, it was because you match a piece of music (usually a perfect song choice) with most of your blogs that I decided to subscribe, instead of waiting for a mutual friend of ours to forward a blog to me. I have also tried to respond to past blogs, but somehow missed all the steps in first registering. Now I look forward to reading more about Rexroth, and hearing more music selections paired with your thoughts.
        In response to Rexroth as both an “anarchist and classicist” (in his rigorous standards for his daughter), I remember learning later that the poet Mary was involved with fell far short of those rigorous “high standards” of her father, and may have been disapproved of because of his less-than-honorable intentions, which I suppose all fathers expect for their daughters.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Andrew, I’ve long known of Greg Brown, primarily as a fan of his current wife and singer/songwriter, Iris Dement, however I must confess to never having taken the time to critically listen to him… you most certainly changed that score! More of a poem set to music this is the kind of song a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan would be proud to have penned – loved it and appreciate the insights of your readers. The contradictions and complexities so poetically presented in Brown’s song seem to be mirrored somewhat in Rexroth’s writing and personal proclivities – those delicious dualities noted by Robert Spencer. (I too resonated with the line “Life is a thump-ripe melon—/So sweet and such a mess”)
    Will definitely be spending some time with Mr. Brown!

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