Stevie Wonder: Isn't She Lovely
From 1976's Songs in the Key of Life, Isn't She Lovely was written by Stevie Wonder to celebrate the birth of his daughter, Aisha. In it, Stevie's exuberant joy is enough to bring a twinkle to the eye of the most crustiest of curmudgeons.
Interesting note - life came full circle as Aisha went on to sing a duet with her dad on his song, How Will I Know, from the 2005 release, A Time to Love.
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Alison Krauss: Baby Mine
Bonnie Raitt: Baby Mine
By popular request, the song which lent its name to the this week's theme, as covered by a pair of modern country-slash-somethin' heroines and mothers.
Baby Mine was, of course, originally sung through the bars of a quarantine circus train car from Mrs. Jumbo to her son Dumbo in the Disney movie of the same name. Stripped of such oddly touching context, it stands on its own as a tender lullaby which speaks of the forever-bond of parent and child.
Dar Williams: The One Who Knows
I'm fond of saying that Dar Williams (unbeknownst to her) has written songs for all three of my children, released close to the time each of them went away to college (I'm definitely a proponent of the "roots and wings" school of parenting) - Sarah's is The End of the Summer... and Eric's is So Close to My Heart...
The One Who Knows (with stunning harmony vocals by Alison Krauss) conjures images of Rob, my middle child - Dar wrote this song before she had (or was even pregnant with) her son Stephen... to honor all those out there who do the toughest job in the world, imparting life lessons while at the same time finding magic in the mundane, day-in day-out: parenting...
From an interview with Dar Williams in the March/April 2003 issue of Performing Songwriter:
The birth of country star Vince Gill and wife/Christian pop vocalist Amy Grant's first child motivated Williams to finish the poignant ballad, "The One Who Knows." "Everything I'd seen about their public lives showed that they had weathered good press, bas press, accusing press and still believed in love and in themselves," Williams says. "So I thought 'my gosh, I bet they're going to be really wise parents who…don’t' become disillusioned by the world as one sees parents becoming sometimes'." Williams readily admits that her assumption could be off the mark, but nonetheless, it inspired a tune with such moving lines as "If I had the world to give/I'd give it all to you" and "I want to teach your heart to trust, as I will teach my own." "When you're a writer, it's such a solitary life that you basically take whatever you can as a sign of action," she laughs.
This past November, I flew up to Atlanta to attend a Dar show with my mom, my sister and my 12-year-old niece - I had gotten word to Dar beforehand, asking if she would sing and dedicate The One Who Knows to my mom (who is in ill health). And the moment came where Dar began the story of Vince Gill and Amy Grant having a baby… so I knew what was to follow… and she then said, “this song is a request from Susan to her mother Connie” (it was from Mari and Julia too), nodded in Mom’s direction, saying “it’s good to see you again” (they’d met a few years back at The Variety Playhouse) and proceeded to play The One Who Knows, at which point Mari and I started to weep… and Julia looked at each of us, wondering what was going on. Mom semi-gasped an “oh”… then “thanks, Dar”… then grabbed my hand… then *she* started crying...
When Dar sings this song, I can feel it from both sides (one who *is* and one who *knows*) - her words resonate with and within me...
Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy): John Lennon
Released in the fateful year of 1980, Beautiful Boy is John's love song for his then four year old son, Sean. It begins with John apparently comforting Sean following a nightmare, but develops into a lovely tribute to the joy that Sean had brought into his life.
Some interesting facts: The line, "Every day, in every way, it's getting better and better" is attributed to French Psychologist Émile Coué who used this line as a mantra for his patients.
Also, it is in this song that you'll find Lennon's famous line, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans".
I know that a four-year-old is not really a baby, but it's Saturday afternoon so I'm hoping I can slip this one in.
... Oh, and I have an idea about Celine Dion's cover of this song. Let's not speak of it!
This week, our songs have shown us the babies become the embodiment of all of our hopes and dreams. We have also seen that they are cute and cuddly, especially when they are not ours. I am concerned that all of our visitors here will now rush out and have babies of their own, only to charge me and my fellow Starmakers with false advertising when they find out the truth. So I thought I had better issue a public health warning . The truth is, ladies and gentlemen, that babies are a lot of work. It’s all worth it in the end, but it is certainly not easy. And a sense of humor is essential.
Trout Fishing in America: Baby‘s Got the Car Keys
This is, of course, a music blog, so I had better make this point with a song. Fortunately, Trout Fishing in America has come to my rescue. Baby’s Got the Car Keys explains that not being able to find common household items need not mean that your brain is leaking; it might just mean that you have become a parent.
Imagine this: the baby won’t stop crying. You sit there holding her, with every parenting book ever written lying open in front of you, trying each technique in turn. Nothing works! Finally, with that “you won’t have any better luck than I did” look in your eyes, you hand the baby off to someone else. Immediately, the crying stops.
Here are the important things to remember in this situation:
1. Treat this person well, and always keep them close at hand.
2. It’s not your fault. It’s just a part of being a parent.
3. You will be able to laugh about this in the future. Honest.
Trout Fishing in America: Something Sweet
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Emmylou Harris: My Baby Needs A Shepherd
One of the few songs about babies and mothers to actually use the word "baby" in the title, My Baby Needs A Shepherd comes to us from 2000 tour-de-force Red Dirt Girl, an album which won Emmylou Harris a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category after years of self-definition as a country artist, and, perhaps more significantly, one which marked her true transformation from song connoisseur to poetic songwriter after a long career of coversong and collaboration.
Despite the literal title, Emmylou's narrative here is somewhat cryptic. Various sources have suggested the song is both "pro-life and pro-love and pro-motherhood" and "a tragic look at the struggle to find the strength to live this life"; Emmylou herself, in liner notes and interviews, has focused on the song's sonic texture more than its literal meaning, suggesting that it is "like a medieval fable colored by Middle Eastern sounds", letting the loss, rather than the circumstances, remain the focal point.
But though nominally about a baby, this is ultimately a song about a mother; as such, the power of the unspoken goes a long way here. Most listeners agree this is Emmylou at one of her finest and most powerful moments, crying for an absent baby lost along the way, decrying her own fault in letting go of her hand, and her inability to guide her to salvation now that she is gone. Her despair is palpable, and all the more potent for its placement in a mother's voice.
Loggins & Messina - Danny's Song
Loggins and Jim Messina released Sittin' In in 1971, and although the album yielded no Top 40 radio hits, one song that received a significant amount of radio airplay was "Danny's Song". Loggins wrote the song for his brother Danny in 1970 when Danny became a father for the first time.
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
10,000 Maniacs - Eat For Two
This is the first song I ever heard by the 10,000 Maniacs. I was immediately hooked. It's hardly a celebratory song but not all pregnancies are well received.
An interesting piece of trivia: Eat For Two inspired R.E.M. to write a song for their 1991 album, Out Of Time called "Me in Honey," which was also about pregnancy
R.E.M. - Me In Honey
Joni Mitchell: Little Green
Back in 1965, before her recording career ever began, Joni Mitchell faced one of the most difficult decisions a woman can ever make: she decided to give her child up for adoption. Mitchell was 20 at the time.
Through the years, this decision plagued her. She wrote “Little Green” about it a few years after the fact. Here Mitchell sends the same kind of wishes to her child as we have heard all week; the difference is that Mitchell sent out these wishes knowing she might never learn if anything came of them. In the early eighties, Mitchell wrote the song “Chinese Cafe”, which included the lines, “my child’s a stranger, I bore her, but I did not raise her.” So I think it’s safe to say that Joni Mitchell always wondered what became of the child, and if she made the right decision. Finally, she decided to find out. But there was a problem. The child was born and adopted in Ontario.
It is difficult for a parent to trace an American child who was put up for adoption; Joni Mitchell learned that under Ontario law, it is impossible. Mitchell put the fact that she was looking for her daughter up on her website, and hoped against hope.
Mitchell often wrote songs about her personal life in the early part of her career. Most of the stories she told ended sadly. But perhaps this would be different. The story in the website did in fact draw a response. A woman of about the right age contacted the website to say that she had been seeking her birth mother. And then another woman reached out. And another. Soon there were dozens, all thinking or hoping that Joni Mitchell might be their mother.
Kilauren Gibb was one of these. She had achieved some small fame of her own, as a model in Canada. The information she sent was enough to establish a match. 31 years after the fact, Joni Mitchell was reunited with her long lost daughter, her “Little Green”. And, as a bonus, Mitchell found out she had a grandson.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Stay Up Late: Talking Heads
In this song David Byrne proves that he is taking the perspective of an uncle, grandparent, friend, or visitor. No parent of a new born would ever write these lyrics.
This song has always made me laugh though. "He looks so cute. In his little red suit."
Monday, January 5, 2009
Tanya Donelly: Keeping You
Tanya Donelly is best known as the front-woman for 90's alternative rock group Belly, as well as being a founding member of Throwing Muses and The Breeders. After Belly broke up in the late 90s, Tanya started to make solo records. She has since produced four albums and numerous EPs.
Shortly before the making of her second solo album, Beautysleep, Tanya had her first child, Gracie. The album has a number of songs that relate to this new life venture, but none as overt as "Keeping You". In this song, I hear the new found joy and worries of a woman who has experienced a lot and feels the scars and markings that life and love have left upon her. And now, with all her imperfections, is bringing an innocent new life into the world. A life, that she may have tried to keep away at other times in her life, but that she's finally ready for now. She is welcoming this new being to be a part of her life, flaws and all. She went through a lot of life and love to find herself back in in the role nature intended. Mother.
Thelonious Monster - My Boy [purchase]
"One day you and me, boy, we're gonna have it out, yeah,
And I know you'll probably hate me,
But that's life, boy."
We return to the Book of Bob for this week's contribution. Bob Forrest was/is the frontman for Thelonious Monster and he remains the patron saint of The Adios Lounge. "My Boy" is a U-turn in the band's catalog, a mournful piano ballad out of step from their shambolic rock 'n' roll wheelhouse. Bob wrote the song for his then-toddler son, Elijah, and is atypical for most baby songs in that it's written as a letter of apology. He knows that the kid was born into a broken, unstable family, soon to be wrecked by divorce, and that the toll on the boy will be immeasurable. He also knows that the boy will someday grow into a young man, at which time father and son will have it out. He knows this because, more than likely he went through it himself:
"Mom and dad, we're trying it for the first time and we're stable,
Pose for my boy,
Ain't it funny how history repeats itself,
She said that she never knew love could be so painful."
In just a few lines, Forrest subtly describes the legacy of familial dishonesty and dysfunction. Parents lie to their children because parents have always lied to their children. Sure, it doesn't capture a Capra-esque family moment, but it is undeniably and powerfully real. However, in being so honest, I think Bob was granting his son one of the greatest gifts a kid can get from his parents ... the truth.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Elijah turned out just fine, didn't become a drug-addicted fool, and in fact, plays music like (and occasionally with) his old man. The picture above shows father and son before a gig, Bob in the center (hands clasped as if in prayer) and his boy to his left, our right. Elijah plays in a duo called Terrors, whose self-styled shoegazing blues is not unlike Will Oldham in one of his many grizzled guises. Check it out, yo.
There's so much parental advice offered up out there: wear a jacket when it's chilly, don't pull the dog's tail, broccoli is good for you, never run with a lollipop in your mouth, you need fresh air and exercise, better not cross your eyes or they'll freeze like that, color inside the lines, eating food dropped on the floor is a big no-no – thank goodness there are songs like the lovely and eloquent Scott Miller's (which Nelson posted) to take us to the crux of the matter.
We want our children to be good people... to have a sense of family, friendship and the world... to live in the moment... to do the right thing when no one is watching (and, when that fails, to be lucky enough to survive the wrong thing) – ultimately, we become better people in our desire to shape their ethics, values and passions...
In the songs-I-wish-I'd-written-for-my-children spirit, I offer up four examples of counsel from the deepest, truest, most sincere place of all: the heart...
James Taylor: Secret O' Life
"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it
There ain't nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill
But since we're on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride..."
Joan Baez: Forever Young (written by Bob Dylan)
"May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young..."
Tom Russell: Box of Visions
"I give to you a box of visions
I give to you a jar of hearts
I'll give to you the gypsy's ear
To hear the sacred harp
I'll give to you a house of mirrors
A thousand eyes they belong to you
A labyrinth of wild roses
I know you'll find your own way through..."
Maura O'Connell: Feet of a Dancer
"I hope you find the feet of a dancer
I hope you can sing in the rain
I hope you find all the easy answers to your pain
I hope you find love and affection, someone who cares
I hope you find all the right direction everywhere..."
My children are now 27, 24 and 20... and I still wish all of the above for them – as Anne Tyler so eloquently states in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant: there's no statute of limitations on motherhood (amend that to parenthood)...
Scott Miller & The Commonwealth: For Jack Tymon
Scott Miller's hatred of babies has been well documented over the years. He isn't shy about his views. In fact, you can even buy a "Scott Miller Hates Me" onesie for your kid on Scott's website. Of course, you'll have to find them when they aren't sold out (as they currently are)... they're the best selling piece of merchandise he has.
There is, however, another side to Scott Miller. When one of his best friends had his first child, Scott wrote this song full of well wishes and hopes and dreams for the child's future. It appeared on his 2003 album Upside Downside.
I unknowingly played this song on the air last year on Jack Tymon's birthday. I got a phone call from a family friend who heard the song driving home from Jack's 8th birthday party. As it turns out... his back is straight, and he does have ten fingers.
Just don't start thinking that Scott Miller has softened his stance on babies once you hear this song...
Scott Miller - Hates Babies
Calexico: All the Pretty Horses
Boyhowdy talked about the emotional impact of becoming a father for the first time, and I remember it well. I had always been interested in folklore, and when I looked at, and held, my infant daughter, my imagination took flight. Yes, I thought of hopes and dreams for her future. But I also began to make up stories for her. I would pace back and forth in the kitchen with her on my shoulder, telling tales of magic and wonder. Of course the words could not have meant anything to her at that age, but she nevertheless inspired me. I can easily imagine that “All the Pretty Horses” got written by someone who was similarly inspired. And that Calexico came up with their amazing arrangement of the song while in a similar state of mind.
My daughter is thirteen now, and I still read stories to her. It is an important ritual for both of us. And now, she has started to write stories of her own. So I dedicate this post to her, with love.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Marc Cohn: The Things We've Handed Down
Grammy-winning piano bluesman and composer Marc Cohn made a huge splash with his self-titled 1991 debut, winning both mainstream recognition and high praise from the gospel, americana, and deep blues communities. The album was perfect for its age, supported by the subtle strings of folk genius Robin Batteau and the folkpop production of John Leventhal - the same producer who made Shawn Colvin a star, and later, turned his wife Roseanne Cash into the second Cash coming - and released in an arena which was overdue for a male voice which could compete with the Shawn Colvins of the pop-hybrid genre spectrum.
But as I age, just as I prefer Shawn Colvin's less perfect, more subtle songs, it is Cohn's second album, the more pensive, mature Rainy Season, which I find myself coming back to. Released two years after the first, Cohn's sophomore release moves beyond the themes of childhood and young love which so please the popular mind to consider the stillness that is real love and family: the inner life of housebound mothers standing in their backyards at night, the mystery of death explained to children, the miracle and promise and mystery of birth. The album isn't perfect -- it yaws too far, I think, trying to please too many constituencies who joined the bandwagon with the first album, and the track arrangement is less than inspired -- but once you get past the AAA poppiness of the first two tracks, it has much more hits than misses. And it says something that when my children were first born, it was this final, perfect track which taught me that what I was feeling was right on, and really was as big as it felt.
Y'all know me: here's where I usually add a cover or two, if one is to be found. And they can indeed be found: since its release in 1993, the song has been covered by other, folkier fathers of the same sensitive new age male mold, most notably John Gorka and Art Garfunkel. But such versions are strained in comparison: not one holds a candle to the wonder of the original. For once, then, instead of sharing the covers, I'll ask you to trust me: this one needs no versions.
If I had to pick one song to give to an impending father, to show just what emotion was about to hit him like truck, it would be this original. This is the song that still makes me, as a father, stop in my tracks, and remember the moment when I knew that my tiny daughters were a thousand generations in my hands, and simultaneously all the hope I ever had, incarnate. How terrifying, and how wondrous.
Brian Joseph: 140x
I remember the first time I heard this song at a Folk Alliance (San Diego, February 2004) - wasn't sure which reaction to give in to first: lump-in-the-throat tears or laugh-out-loud delight. Settled for both - realized everyone else in the audience was equally torn...
Saw/heard Brian at various other shows in the next year... and there was always a rush for the CD table afterwards ("where can I find that song?!?")... only to learn that it hadn't yet been recorded. He finally released If I Never Sleep Again, "smart acoustic pop for anyone who is a parent or has a parent" - he has since become a father yet again...
The song title refers to hearing the heartbeat in utero (the rhythm of which is insanely fast), surely one of the most magical moments on the planet - been there, done that, 3x...