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: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
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: email@example.com
Woman at window by Kazu Ahmed, Oxford, UK https://www.flickr.com/photos/kazkapades/
Searching the heavens by Cristofer Jeschke, Portland, Oregon https://unsplash.com/@cristofer
Bo Ramsey and Greg Brown by Kentucky Country Day https://www.flickr.com/photos/kentuckycountrydayschool/
Storm by Johannes Plenio, Munich, Germany https://unsplash.com/@jplenio