You Are All I Know: The Structure of Grief and Chris Garneau’s “The Leaving Song”

In which the Flores-Wolferts have a substandard Mother’s Day.

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To my dear reader,

The first time I heard “The Leaving Song” by singer-songwriter Chris Garneau, I was distinctly annoyed. This was because, even as a very amateur teenage songwriter, I was (and remain) very particular about the musical and lyrical structure of my pop music. The lyrics of the song are as follows:

I, I know you like it
I, I know you do
I have made a ruckus
And I made it for you
You, you, you, you, you
You, you, you, you, you
You are all I know

You are all I know


Go, go, go, go
Go, just go
Sing, sing, sing
Of leaving songs
Like you’re leaving
Goodbye
Goodbye

With no typical verse-chorus structure, two stanzas with related but very different melodies, and only one rhyme in the entire song, the song was lost on me. Admittedly, there were many things I liked about the song – among them, the simple, elegant instrumentation of a tenor voice, violin, cello and harmonium – but it took me quite some time to overcome my compulsive desire for clear structure in the pop music I listened to.

I eventually grew to love the song. It came to remind me of the loosely structured art songs of twentieth century composers, such as those of Aaron Copland’s song cycle Twelve Songs of Emily Dickinson. The song even inspired the title for my undergraduate composition recital (Ruckus: A Recital of New Music by Daniel Wolfert) and the titular piece in the concert (Ruckus: Trio for Flute, Percussion, and Cello). I didn’t fully come to appreciate the value of its loose organization, however, until earlier today, thinking about how my grandmother recently died.

When I was first informed of her passing a few days ago, I wasn’t as sad for myself as for my mother, who undoubtedly was shaken and saddened by her own mother’s death. I was, of course, sad too, but I’d never had a very close relationship with my maternal grandmother, as where she lived was far from where I was raised. It wasn’t until I called my mother for Mother’s Day, however, that grief hit me.

As my mother described a meal she’d just eaten at a Japanese restaurant, I was suddenly and horribly forced to realize that one day I would lose my mother and I would lose my father and maybe I’d get married and maybe my husband would die before me or maybe I would die before him and maybe this would make one of us single parents and maybe our children would die before us and no matter what, I would, one day, be in the same position as my mother. This was a thought so huge and deeply sad that it was almost unfathomable. I cried, silently, as my mother described her miso soup.

Grief is not structured. It has no definitive point or focus, and I wouldn’t want to make it have one. “The Leaving Song” could be about many things, but I do see it as a song about grief, and regardless of the cause of that grief, it can be so huge and deeply sad that it is almost unfathomable. There is, therefore, a legitimate reason for “The Leaving Song’s” lack of precise musical and lyrical structure: it is an expression of grief, and grief is not precisely structured, so neither is the song.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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3 thoughts on “You Are All I Know: The Structure of Grief and Chris Garneau’s “The Leaving Song”

  1. I’ve listened to this song for a few years and all i’m going to say is that it put a mental image in my mind of being an apartment building that’s kind of run down to and its constantly gloomy and sad but at the same time holds a beauty so hidden not everyone will take notice of

    Like

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