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The many moods of motherhood: 10 songs I love

Let’s hear it for Mother’s Day—and I mean that literally. I’ve gathered a bright but thorny garland of songs to express the many moods of having or being a mother: the starry-eyed admiration of childhood, the let-it-rip rebellion of adolescence, the oceanic missing that follows a mother’s death. We’ve all yearned for a mother who is boundlessly empathic and consoling. But real-world mothers have their quirks and complications, as songwriters have known since the heyday of Anonymous.

* Mom the selfless nurturer: “Calling My Children Home” (Emmylou Harris). The never-ending vigilance of motherhood and the longing for faraway children, eloquently captured in a spare, a capella rendition that amply compensates for the soppy lyrics.

* Neglectful, lust-driven mom: “The House Carpenter” (Joan Baez). Mother abandons straight-arrow husband and two “wee babes” to run away with swashbuckling ex-lover whose promises turn her head. Some versions of this old Scottish ballad give the scoundrel a “cloven hoof.” None of them let mom get away with desertion. Back when I wanted to be Joan Baez, I used to strum this grim tale on my guitar, dreaming of passion.

* Mom the keeper of warnings: “The Devil’s Right Hand” (Steve Earle). Mom blows her stack at son’s macho fantasy of owning a gun. Punk doesn’t listen. Guess who has the last word? Gritty and convincing, this is one of the greatest hits on my iPod.

* Mom, you just don’t get it! “It’s Alright, Ma” (Bob Dylan). A snarling, fist-shaking, relentlessly mordant anthem from Dylan’s angry young poet phase, in which Ma serves as the offstage target of youthful rage at corruption and conformity. How telling that Dylan did not direct his rant at Pa. Mothers are charged with protecting their kids from harm and hurt, so poor Ma gets blamed for the death of innocence. Even so, I can’t help loving the song.

* Mom, you sexy dame! “Squeezebox” (The Who). The doubles entrendres fly as Mom keeps dad (and everyone else) up all night with her antics. Squeeze me, tease me. Go for it, Mom!

* Mom the reluctant pacifist: “Mrs. McGrath” (Bruce Springsteen, in tribute to Pete Seeger). Mother proudly sends her boy off to war in a scarlet coat and big cocked hat, only to see him stagger home on two wooden legs. “Stumps of a tree won’t do at all/ Why didn’t you run from the cannonball?” Seeger popularized this Irish folk song during the Vietnam War; Springsteen revived it to protest the war in Iraq.

* Mom in mourning: “Annabelle” (Gillian Welch) Stark and poetic, this modern folk song shows the arc of a mother’s life in three stanzas plus chorus. A “handful of dust” is all she gets from her farm—and all that’s left of the daughter she hoped would move on to a better place.

* Missing mom: “Song for Gaby” (Kate and Anna McGarrigle) A family album of a song, in which the sisters commemorate their mother in vivid images: the banjo weekends where she once held court, her now-empty Adirondack chair, her coffin being “waltzed down the aisle” by family singing in the choir loft.

* Mom, the most pretty lady in the world: “Burgundy Shoes” (Patty Griffin) Little girl has mom all to herself on the bus to Bangor and everything is perfect: sun streaming through the windows, red tulips, burgundy shoes instead of clunky winter boots. A sweet, tender snapshot of a moment.

* Sleepytime mom: “Hush Little Baby, Don’t Say a Word” (sorry, can’t suggest a recording). The Goodnight Moon of songs, this lullaby was my son’s favourite. He loved to chime in at the end of every line, naming the marvels that Mama’s gonna buy. He had no idea then what a looking glass was. He’d never seen a horse and cart. But he knew he had a mom who loved him. And bless his heart, he thought I could sing.

Click here to read about a few more of the most-played songs on my iPod.


Posted by Rona

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