Laughing River by Greg Brown
Written and performed by Greg Brown. You can listen to the studio version here and a live version here. Originally released on the album Dream Café (Red House Records -1992), you can buy the song from iTunes here and the album here.
An autumnal drama, “Laughing River” tells the story of an aging minor league baseball player forced to watch his dreams slip away and learn to face a world with smaller dreams and colder reality. Soaked with the melancholy that the changing of the season and the falling of the leaves can bring, Brown gives voice to those moments when we see all too clearly that we have lost our youth and the grand hopes we nurtured, a moment when forced to accept the realities of growing up.
Metaphors abound as the guitar strumming lays a base over which Brown’s voice and harmonica meander like the river of the title, the water and time passing inexorably. We listen to Brown’s intimate and resonant singing about the moment when our hero leaves behind his ball playing days:
I’m goin away,
’cause I gotta busted heart.
I’m leavin’ today,
if my TravelAll will start.
And I recken where I’m headed,
I might need me different clothes–
way up in Michigan,
where the Laughing River flows.
He almost piles on with the details of the TravelAll (an early version of the ubiquitous SUV) that may not start and the chill coming on; it’s a chill of fall, of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, of the barrenness he feels. And the river only laughs. The opening verse captures a man forced to give up, forced to abandon what matters most – thus the “busted heart” – and leave beaten and downtrodden.
In a deft verse, Brown shares the details of the narrators playing days:
Twenty years in the minor leagues–
ain’t no place I didn’t go.
Well I gotta few hits,
but I never made the show.
And I could hang on for a few years,
doin what I’ve done before.
I wanna hear the Laughing River,
flowin’ right outside my door.
Ten years in the minor leagues is a long time, so our hero is a baseball Methuselah, a man in his late 30’s whose better days slipped past years ago, a man playing a game with boys in their teens or twenties, boys who the year before may have been waiting on the corner for a yellow bus. He toiled in a business where failing two out of three times marks great success, yet he never achieved the success needed to make the major leagues (“the show”). He’s still tempted to “hang on for a few years,” to cling to the only life he’s known. How hard to give up our dreams? If his life was defined by the playing in the big leagues, by the fame and fortune that would follow, what does he do when forced to admit it will never happen? How does he account for the last twenty years of his life?
The song turns on the next verse as our narrator looks to the future:
My cousin Ray,
said he’s got a job for me.
Where the houses are cheap,
and he knows this nice lady.
He said she even saw me play once,
said she smiled at my name.
Well upon the Laughing River,
could be a whole new game.
There won’t be crowds; there won’t be fortunes. He imagines a life full of practicalities (a house he can afford) with the possibility of love. Played against the chill of the first verse and that cold river in the Upper Peninsula, the lines about the “nice lady” who “smiled at my name” is enough to break your heart. A man who has drifted his whole life – there is no more itinerant life than that of the minor leaguer – who hoped to hear his name announced before thousands of cheering fans, now confronts a world where it the highlight is a woman who might recognize him and welcome him. And that’s it right? If we can find someone to love us, find a home and a way to make a life, that may be all we can ask. It may be small, but it’s dense with meaning.
In the next verse, our man brings himself to say good-bye to his old life and the good and bad that came with it:
So goodbye to the bus.
Good bye to payin’ dues.
Goodbye to the cheers,
and goodbye to the booze.
well I’m trading in this old bat,
for a fishing pole.
I’m gonna let the Laughing River,
flow right into my soul.
He’s able now to look with a colder eye, to hear the cheers and see the booze filled days and he’s now looking forward to a new life. When he sings about the Laughing River, it offers joy and he welcomes it, wants it to “flow right into my soul.” In the recorded performance and the live versions heard in concert, Brown sings this song with a conviction that conveys both the regrets of the fading hopes for glory offered as well as welcoming the small, but lasting joys of fishing in the Upper Peninsula and making a life with a nice lady.
While the song opens with a forlorn spirit, by the end a transformation has occurred. Brown feels the loss of what the narrator leaves behind, but finds meaning in the new life. As he repeats the opening voice, we hear it differently now. He wants that TravelAll to start and welcomes the new clothes he’ll don in a new life. The old life is neither forgotten nor cheapened; it does hurt to leave behind those hopes. The new life is not overplayed and nor are the smaller hopes and pleasures trivialized “Laughing River” leaves us with a man and his hard-earned wisdom.