Today, one of my very favorite songs ever. Ain’t Life A Brook by Ferron.
It’s one of the very few songs, indeed few works in any media, that I have so completely absorbed, that it is part of my perspective on the world. There are times when I think about something and am reminded of “Ain’t Life A Brook” and, rather than thinking “oh, there’s an image that relates” I think, “I’ve already been thinking about the situation in ways informed by ‘Ain’t Life A Brook.'”
That’s an extreme statement to make and, obviously, that says as much about me, and accidents of circumstance that this specific song would have such meaning for me. Even looking at it based on “objective” merit, however, I would say it’s a fabulous song.
It’s one of the best narrative songs that I can think of. It describes the evolution of emotional states of the narrator, over a period of years, in way that is economical and also very clear and specific.
Like the polished stone from the song, the language lacks any unnecessary ornament. Every word has a purpose in the song, and feels well chosen for the emotional tone.
Just read the opening lines
I watch you reading a book
I get to thinking our
Love’s a polished stone
You give me a long drawn look
I know pretty soon
You’re gonna leave our home
And of course I mind
It does so much in seven lines. It sets up a scene that is domestic and both peaceful and troubled. And how much pain is captured in the understated “of course I mind.”
Despite the fact that it’s a break-up song, the ways in which the song has influenced me don’t necessarily relate to break-ups. The phrases that are most likely to pop up in my head are:
… life don’t clickety-clack
Down a straight-line track
It comes together and it comes apart
I know love’s a gift
I thought yours was mine
That I could keep
Both of those are just beautiful phrases about the contingencies of life and love.
In both of those sections, I feel reminded to appreciate the parts of life that are gifts, and to recognize that they may not last forever. By temperament, I am slow to incorporate new elements in my life into my sense of self, but when I do, I am loathe to give them up or change them. I feel like the song both speaks to, and cautions against that side of my personality.
Particularly in that second quote, I feel the tension in both sides of that equation. Both the hurt in someone withdrawing love (or the fear that someone might), and the problem in thinking that someone else’s love is something to be kept and owned.
I have, as a friend has described, “a slow emotional metabolism.” Since the song is about the experience of slowly metabolizing intense emotional experiences, it relates to my experience. I appreciate that the song takes a long view, and that things do resolve by the end of the song, but I also recognize in myself the problems of spending that much time working through emotions.
I should add, finally, that I have heard Ferron perform the song live — at a Pride rally a couple years ago. The whole situation was not ideal for a performance. She was performing outdoors, the sound was terrible, there was a section of people playing close attention, but also a large group of people half-engaged. When she got to “Ain’t Life A Brook” I experienced a sudden feeling of awe and wonder at that fact that I was watching the person who wrote the song perform it. It was the only time in my life that I’ve had that specific reaction to a performance — that a song seems so extraordinary and flawless that it’s remarkable to be reminded that it was written by a specific person, and that person is present.