Greg Brown’s River of Music
Greg Brown is not just an Iowa beatnik folkie with a voice like honey oozing over rust. He can also take you on a musical tour that is stark, nuanced, intelligent and poetic. Brown’s music champions community and family. His stories visit the good, the bad and the wacky. It’s music that lifts. It’s music that grooves. It’s music, he tells me in a recent interview, that comes from his Ozark mountain upbringing.
Beyond their musical strength, your songs establish a deep sense of place – and how and why to protect it. Where does that come from?
GB: I think it was in my blood. My father’s mother, Ella Mae, lived quite far down in the Ozarks, not far above the Arkansas border. She was a woman who had maybe a 3rd or 4th grade education – and then had to raise some of her brothers and sisters when her mother passed. And she was a poet. She wrote beautiful poems about the Ozarks. She was also a very early conservationist. In those days – and we’re talking about probably from the 20s and 30s on up – she was amongst other people that were fighting the clear-cutting, and opposed to damming up so many of the rivers. She loved the natural world – she wrote about it – and then she defended it.
And it was my nature too. I grew up very happy to be outdoors from the time I was little. My daddy had grown up in the Ozarks and he liked to hunt and fish and be outside and build things. Both sets of grandparents were what we’d probably call subsistence farmers nowadays. They had a small farm. They raised the cash crop and in the case of down in the Ozarks it was sorghum – they raised cane and then they made sorghum. And then they raised strawberries – that was another cash crop. They worked the field with a big old workhorse, I remember very well. They worked the field with mules too.
And then there were my mother’s folks up in southern Iowa. That grandpa, Harold, was a musician and a great storyteller – and he played banjo. He ran a little sawmill with an old steam engine from when he’d been on the railroad. They had a little place, which is now where I live, and grandma had great big gardens. So I just grew up surrounded by people who were getting their living off the land and who cared about it – and were singers and storytellers.
I think the way those things work is that you have to be receptive. If those things are available to you and you are receptive, and it’s your nature to learn to love those things, then you’ll go your way pretty easily there.
I know that you have always tried to do your part to “help the deal along.” A lot of your songs help me to make sense of a lot of stuff and I appreciate that. But I just wonder when you write, sometimes do you just sit down and think, “I’m going to change things with this song.”?
GB: No, I never have had that feeling. I don’t think of a song being able to change things. I think of all the stuff we can any of us put out on the love side or the positive, or whatever you want to call it – on the hopeful side of things – has a cumulative effect. I don’t think songs can really change anything, but I think they can be part of that whole – of a lot of people doing things to try and change. We are obviously, as a species even, I would say at this point, we are on the road to destruction – of ourselves. I don’t think we are going to hurt this world. I hear people talking about “Oh, we’re going to destroy…” – well, I don’t think people are going to destroy the world. I think the world will be just fine. But I think it would be nice if people could survive as a species and learn to make peace here.
It makes me sad when I think about the discouragement that Phil Ochs felt when he thought that his music wasn’t going to make a difference. Do you think that he is right?
GB: No one person’s anything is going to change very much. None of us becomes a musician by ourselves. We come out of a big bunch of people and events from the past – and a big river of music. If one of us was born and we didn’t hear the music that came before us, we’d have nowhere to go. Songs lead into songs. Poems lead into poems. I’ve always felt like I’m part of a big endeavour, you know, and that I’ve got one little drop of water in there. And I’m glad I do, but it sounds to me like Phil Ochs was maybe a very lonesome guy. I think you need to realize that all of us come from generations of people who were struggling and messing up and doing good stuff. What we do goes on down the line.
I think that’s one of the sad things that has happened in the world. It has increasingly become this momentary thing. I think we should always look down a number of generations – as far as we can see. We should consider the effects of what we are doing. We should look at the generations back, as far as we can, and we should think of what we are doing in terms of generations down the line. Not much of that going on.
When you speak about the river of poetry and song that’s behind you, I think of “Sleeper” – that one line – “you move through my dreams like a trout moves through a pool.” A friend of mine said that’s a nod to Pablo Neruda.
GB: It could have been. I like Pablo. I didn’t consciously. I think the only time I directly used to quote Pablo Neruda was his poem “On Weariness.” He talks about being weary of the way things are. He’s weary of chickens and he’s weary of the way the wind blows, you know, it’s a great poem. It’s got a lot of humour in it, and some sadness, too. But yeah, I like Pablo’s approach to things. He wrote the love poems in his youth and then traveling the world as a diplomat he wrote poems of alienation and sadness – they’re beautiful poems. And the way he really kind of kept going was he hooked back – as I was speaking of. He went back when he wrote the “General Song,” which incorporated much of the history of Chile, up into the present time. He himself was often giving a nod to the poets he loved, who came before.
My favourite song of all time is “Rexroth’s Daughter.” When I first heard it, I took all of the books on Kenneth Rexroth’s poetry out from the library. I just love how this song holds everything that’s precious in life. I remember when it first came out, you were talking to Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion. You said you didn’t really care for it when you wrote it. But your daughter convinced you to work it up again.
GB: It was one of those songs I wrestled. Some songs come quite quickly. Other ones you really have to wrestle with. And I struggled with that song for a long time. Went through many different versions and at a certain point I felt like I had just lost my way with it. A song to me has an internal pulse. Like a living being does. I lost the feeling of the pulse in that song. It just had come to me in some scattered verses and when that happens more often than not, you throw away a lot more stuff than you ever keep. I had written a version of it and I think I even performed it once. I just didn’t think it was going anywhere, so I just abandoned it. I think somebody sent me the lyrics to that song – from the one time I performed it. I printed it out and looked at the lyrics and I thought, “Nothing going on there.” I tossed it on the desk. My middle daughter, Constie, picked it up, read it and said, “Oh that’s a beautiful poem, who wrote it?” I said, “I did, but I don’t like it.” And she said, “Well, you better stick with it.” So I did.
Do you like it now?
GB: I do. I got it to where I feel good with it now. At that point I’d had probably six or eight months from when it had been gone. I’d had some time to let it kind of boil up.
Your songs can savour the glory of good food. But there’s also a pinch of warning and more than a dash of encouragement in your songs as you observe people leaving the farm: “the small and local must survive somehow / if it’s gonna be your town now.” I think hope lies in the food movement. Do you see trends where you live now?
GB: Oh yeah. I do see trends. Down where Iris [Dement] and I are living, there are a lot more farmers’ markets than there used to be. There seems to be a lot more people who will find a local farm that’s raising chickens and pork – whatever they eat – in a healthy manner. And it’s happening a lot. And that’s a very hopeful sign.
I grew up with my grandparents on the little [Iowa] farm where I live now. Grandma had two milk cows – that was milk, that was butter, that was cheese. She raised a lot of tomatoes and potatoes and peaches. All that stuff was preserved. Your food was just right there. They raised a couple of pigs a year. You just walked outside and there it all was. You’d have to buy some things – Grandma would go into the store once in a while to get salt, some sugar and things like that.
And that was common. That was just two generations ago. That has changed radically in my lifetime. There used to be many small farms that would raise most of their own food for their family, right on the farm. Then they’d have a cash crop – maybe corn or soybeans, and they’d raise some cattle or whatever. Now that’s all gone.
Even big cities like Chicago and New York, and the outlying areas – there were a lot of orchards and farms – bringing stuff right in. You didn’t have airplanes to fly stuff all over the world. So even in the cities, much of the food was grown not very far away – until two generations ago.
I mentioned that I work at Alternatives Journal – Canada’s national environmental magazine. It’s housed at the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. Do you think there is a place for music when you are teaching activism to students?
GB: I think there’s certainly been a long tradition of music that has been in that vein. Going way back – well before the protest song movement – the labour movement – even going back just that far in the 20s and 30s the old wobblies forming the new society within the shell of old. Every one of them was full of songs and music. I think music has been used around the world in situations of active protest and things to bring people together and express some common – music has a place in there.
Is there any song that riles you – or you just love singing because you get that feeling?
GB: A lot of Woody Guthrie songs still have that effect on me. A lot of his songs spoke very directly to that. I’m trying to get at [remember] that one song of his – I used to do that song sometimes – it was about the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd and at the end of the song it says:
As through this world I travel,
I meet a lot of funny men.
Some will rob you with a six gun
Some with a fountain pen.
As through this world you travel
As through your life you go,
You’ll never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.
So those kinds of lyrics still give me the chills. And you know, he could turn around and write really goofy kid’s songs. He wrote so many different songs. One thing people forget about Woody Guthrie, you know, he was under the gun and I think he knew it. He had that terrible disease – Huntington’s. It killed him. So by 40, he was pretty much done as a writer.
You have a musical and a spiritual literacy that’s really connected to the planet. Is this something that you aim for when you are teaching students? Or, again, is it just something that those who will have it will have it, and they will seek it.
GB: Well, I do think it’s always a two-way street and I do think that it’s very important that a lot of people keep speaking out about these things and working on these things. And I think we have to hope that the receptivity will be there. I think it will, because more people will realize that we’re not really talking political stuff here any more. It’s a luxury just to put each other into two groups: “I’m for promotion, progress and more technology and more money.” or “I’m just gonna go and hug this tree.” We don’t have that luxury any more of dividing ourselves into camps. We can keep doing that but Mama Nature’s foyer is comin’ down. If we’re all standing there hollerin’ at each other when it comes down, it ain’t gonna do us much good.
Marcia Ruby designs and produces Alternatives Journal, which is Canada’s national environmental magazine. A condensed version of this interview appears in volume, 37:4 (2011) – special issue on music and environment.