A close reading of A House Is a Home by Ben Harper

Entropy by Josh McMillan

Ben Harper was born in Pomona, California in 1969. His father was of African-American and Cherokee ancestry, his mother was of Russian-Lithuanian Jewish ancestry. Ben’s parents divorced in 1974 and he grew up with his mother and her parents. Ben’s grandparents’ owned a music store, The Folk Music Center and Museum, which was foundational to Ben’s development as a musician. Ben began his career in earnest in the early 1990s with the LP Pleasure and Pain and has since released a dozen albums.

His most recent album, Childhood Home, is a collection of duets sung with his mother, Ellen Harper. The Harper’s split the songwriting duties for the album; Ben penned 6 and Ellen the other four. The album seeks to speak to the good, bad, ugly and beautiful parts of home and family life. The lead track on the album, A House Is a Home, was written by Ben.

 

A House Is a Home written by Ben Harper, performed by Ben & Ellen Harper.

a house is a home even when it’s dark
even when the grass is overgrown in the yard
even when the dog is too old to bark
and when you’re sitting at the table trying not to starve

a house is a home
even when we’ve up and gone
even when you’re there alone
a house is a home

a house is a home even when there’s ghosts
even when you gotta run from the ones who love you most
screen door’s broken paint’s peeling from the wood
locals whisper when they gonna leave the neighborhood

a house is a home where the chores are never done
where you spend your whole life running to and from
and if the life that you live is not the life you choose
make your child a home and start anew

***

Old House by Singh

My grandparents’ house will always be a special home to me. The house I lived in when I was in elementary school will always be a special home to me. I have no idea who lives in these places now, or if these houses even still exist; but, the memories of those places will make them a home to me until the end of my days.

Rather than focusing on the nostalgia of the home, Harper focuses the first verse on the chaos that emerges when a house is no longer subject to the care that a home receives. The home that was once comforting is now filled with darkness, overgrown grass, and a dying dog. Rather than a place of plenty, this house has become a barren place, a place of want. There is no comfort in this house; yet it is still a home.

The second verse takes this idea further. No longer is the family merely struggling with want; now they are being persecuted. First by ghosts (perhaps memories of the glory days gone by), then by family and friends who once loved them, and finally by the neighbors’ gossip. What listener has not felt, or at the least imagined, a neighbor’s scornful looks and raised eyebrows at the rough edges of the house which the family has not been able to care for. The high weeds, the broken down cars, the old trash bags. Yet, even when persecuted, the house is still a place of refuge. The house is a home.

Aged by Nathaniel Zumbach

The third verse speaks to the rat race of life. The never ending line of dishes and laundry and chores. The mundane tasks that take up so much of your life that it seems there is nothing left with which you can pursue your real dreams. We are all trapped in the upkeep of our houses, of our homes, and none of us seems able to live the life we want. And so we have children, and so the cycle repeats.

The chorus comes in to emphasize the cyclical nature of the home. The house becomes a home for a time, then children grow up, parents grow old, grandparents die, and the house shutters itself up into a dark void until…the cycle repeats.

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