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Hear songs by Brandi Carlile, 2Pac, Merle Haggard and more for Mother’s Day.
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By Lindsay Zoladz
A lot of music about motherhood gets a bad rap.
Given how much our culture devalues women’s work — and domestic work most of all — this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, but it’s still a bummer. That nebulously defined genre of dad rock has, over the years, earned a begrudging cultural respect, but the phrase “mom rock,” in the rare instances it’s used, still sounds like an insult.
I remember discussing this double standard a few years ago when I was interviewing the singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, who won a Tony for her score for the hit musical “Hadestown” and releases incisively observed folk music under her own name. Becoming a mother had ushered in a drastic change in her perspective — “a relocation of myself in the world and in my family,” in her words. She wanted to be able to write about that experience with all the richness and depth it deserved, even if it ran the risk of being labeled, as she put it with a laugh, “culturally irrelevant mom art.”
Luckily, plenty of other songwriters have charted the choppy waters of motherhood — and of being mothered — proving it to be one of the most complicated, challenging and (at least sometimes) rewarding of human experiences. In honor of Mother’s Day (don’t forget: this Sunday!), I’ve put together a playlist of songs that reflect motherhood in all of its unruly complexity.
But at the same time: not too unruly, on this day of celebrating moms. There is a time and a place for Danzig’s “Mother,” but it is neither now nor here on this playlist. Ditto John Lennon’s primal scream of “Mother,” though the Beatles’ “Julia” might have been a more appropriate choice. I would here like to acknowledge the existence of the Spice Girls’ “Mama” and Good Charlotte’s “Thank You Mom” without asking you to listen to them.
The aforementioned Anaïs Mitchell, however, did make the cut, along with an eclectic group of artists including 2Pac, Brandi Carlile and Beyoncé. Mamma mia, here we go.
Listen along on Spotify as you read.
1. Kacey Musgraves: “Mother”
The shortest, sparsest song on Kacey Musgraves’s 2018 album, “Golden Hour,” is also the most emotionally piercing. “I’m just sitting here, thinking ’bout the time that’s slipping and missing my mother,” the country renegade sings with heartbreaking plaintiveness, before zooming out a generation and imagining that her own mother is probably doing the same. Musgraves has said that “Mother” is one of the “Golden Hour” songs she wrote while tripping on LSD — but don’t tell her mom that part. (Listen on YouTube)
2. Beverly Glenn-Copeland: “La Vita”
The pioneering composer and new age artist Beverly Glenn-Copeland has, in recent years, experienced a long-delayed and much deserved uptick in popularity thanks to a series of reissues and the enthusiastic embrace of a younger generation of musicians. The enchanting “La Vita,” from Copeland’s self-released 2004 album “Primal Prayer,” features operatic vocals from the soprano Maggie Hollis, over which Copeland intones a stirring lyric that ends with a profoundly grounding reminder: “And my mother says to me, ‘enjoy your life.’” (Remember that refrain; it’s going to make another appearance later in this playlist.) (Listen on YouTube)
3. Brandi Carlile: “The Mother”
Carlile doesn’t sugarcoat the experience of motherhood in this beautifully written standout from her 2018 album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” but that gives the song a lived-in honesty, and makes its warmth come across as something more powerful than empty sentiment. “They’ve still got their morning paper and their coffee and their time,” she sings of her “rowdy” friends without children. But for all that is lost, she realizes, so much has also been gained since the birth of her daughter: “All the wonders I have seen I will see a second time from inside of the ages of your eyes.” (Listen on YouTube)
4. Merle Haggard: “Mama Tried”
“Instead of life in prison I was doing one-to-15 years,” Merle Haggard once admitted of the slight embellishment as to how he spent his 21st birthday in one of his most famous (and semi-autobiographical) songs. “I just couldn’t get that to rhyme.” Though its title gives repentance some lip service — hey, at least he’s not blaming her! — Haggard still sounds like a hellion on this 1968 hit. The more sincere Mother’s Day gift would arrive much later, in 1981, when he released the gospel album “Songs for the Mama That Tried,” and even put sweet Flossie Mae Harp on the cover. (Listen on YouTube)
5. 2Pac: “Dear Mama”
The rap game “Mama Tried”? Of his cleareyed but thoroughly loving tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur, Tupac once said, “I aimed that one straight for my homies’ heartstrings.” Mission accomplished. (Listen on YouTube)
6. Anaïs Mitchell: “Little Big Girl”
This one’s a heartstring-tugger, too. Mitchell is caught between being a child and an elder on “Little Big Girl,” a poignant song from her 2022 self-titled album. There’s a striking moment toward the end when she catches her reflection in a window and sees her mother, tired, “coming home from work.” Mitchell sings with great empathy, “Tell her you love her/Tell her you’re her.” (Listen on YouTube)
7. Beyoncé featuring Blue Ivy: “Blue”
Named after Beyoncé’s first child, “Blue” is all the more tender for its placement at the end of her imperial 2013 self-titled album; it follows “Heaven,” a wrenching ballad about suffering a miscarriage. Bey’s candor about both the grief of pregnancy loss and the joys of a hard-won motherhood helped this album feel like a turning point in her career: the beginning of her grown-woman era. (Listen on YouTube)
8. The Shirelles: “Mama Said”
The vocal sound of most ’60s girl groups was chatty and communal — a musical means of sharing wisdom, commentary and advice from woman to woman. This classic from the great early ’60s hitmakers the Shirelles passes on some maternal know-how that mama acquired in the days when she, too, was just a teenager in love. (Listen on YouTube)
9. Romy: “Enjoy Your Life”
Remember that Glenn-Copeland refrain? The xx’s Romy Madley Croft samples it to extraordinary effect in this recently released and stirringly soulful solo single. “I made a promise to my mother to stop worrying ’bout my problems,” she sings, as Glenn-Copeland’s voice rings out like a compassionate elder bestowing glowing benevolence on a musical daughter: “My mother says to me, ‘Enjoy your life.’” (Listen on YouTube)
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“The Mother of All Playlists” track list
Track 1: Kacey Musgraves, “Mother”
Track 2: Beverly Glenn-Copeland, “La Vita”
Track 3: Brandi Carlile, “The Mother”
Track 4: Merle Haggard, “Mama Tried”
Track 5: 2Pac, “Dear Mama”
Track 6: Anaïs Mitchell, “Little Big Girl”
Track 7: Beyoncé featuring Blue Ivy, “Blue”
Track 8: The Shirelles, “Mama Said”
Track 9: Romy, “Enjoy Your Life”
Some wise words from the Swedish pop queen Robyn, on her 2010 song “Include Me Out”: “All hail to the mamas, who hold it down/Hail to the pillar of the family/This one’s for the grannys, take a bow.”
Also, few songwriters have captured the experience of adoption as poignantly and prismatically as Joni Mitchell did on “Little Green,” from her legendary 1971 album, “Blue.”
Speaking of Joni: Hear a newly released recording of her performing “Both Sides Now” at last year’s Newport Folk Festival (and music from Dolly Parton, Rhiannon Giddens and more) in this week’s Playlist.
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