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Mama Tunes: What We Sing About When We Sing About Motherhood

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This was my Mother’s Day gift to myself  – spending (wasting?) hours researching and putting together a playlist of songs about being a Mom. Here’s my first playlist on Spotify, which has only recently appeared in Hong Kong. I hope that makes it easy for you to listen to these tunes.

I wasn’t looking for songs about how great or awful Mom is. So no need for John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Tupac, Kanye or Snoop Dogg. (Nothing personal, boys!) I wanted to find songs that spoke to being a Mom, in all of its colors and shapes. Songs that touched on the range of complex emotions that come with motherhood: passion, ambivalence, confusion, heartbreak, anger, love and ferociousness.

Each of the singers on my list has children. Loretta Lynn tops the group with six kids. She had three by the time she was 19 and was a grandma by the age of 29. Imagine that!

So thanks again for joining me and read on to find out more about these wonderful tunes:

1.     Thumbelina by the Pretenders / Chrissie Hynde (2 daughters).

This song comes from Learning to Crawl, the first album Hynde made after becoming a Mom and after the deaths of band mates James Honeymoon-Scott and Pete Farndon. The whole album is filled with gorgeous, bittersweet tunes about love and loss. “Thumbelina” is about a cross-country journey with a young child, and you can feel the lonely landscape pass you by as you listen.

2.     Tell Mama by Etta James (2 sons)

Hard livin’ Etta James once said, “The hours before noon have never interested me.” Right on. In this song she’s either addressing a potential lover or a son – not quite sure. But I love the fierce confidence and the horns.

3.     Mother Stands For Comfort by Kate Bush (1 son)

Is it inspired by Hitchcock? Or maybe it’s about how far we’d go to protect the ones we love. I like the mystery. Bush has also written a lovely song about her son called “Bertie” where she uses Renaissance-era musical instruments. It’s from the beautiful double album, Aerial, A Sea of Honey, A Sky of Honey.

4.     Hormones by Tracey Thorn (twin daughters & a son)

“Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out” Count on Thorn to capture motherhood with a mixture of wit and wistfulness. Here she sings about her daughters growing up and hitting puberty while she experiences a life change of her own. I hear her recent memoir is fantastic.

 5.     What Makes You Happy by Liz Phair (1 son)

I’m a huge Liz Phair fan, and I challenge anyone to match her first three albums for pop songwriting brilliance. Written before she became a mom, this song is just a wonderful conversation between a mother and her grown daughter, filled with love and hope.

6.     One’s On The Way by Loretta Lynn (6 kids)

God Bless Loretta Lynn. The queen of songs about feckless men and the women stuck at home who are fixing to kick ‘em out.

7.     Love Has Come For You by Edie Brickell (3 kids) & Steve Martin 

Brickell has kept a low profile for the last two decades while raising a family with Paul Simon. But she’s returned this year with a lovely bluegrass country album where she writes and sings, and Steve Martin plays banjo. This song tells the story of a young girl, in a relationship with a married man, who decides to keep her baby and the lifelong love between (single) mother and son. Martin has said how affected he was by the phrase “Love Has Come For You” with its feeling of hope and its sense of dread. There are two other songs on the album that tell tragic, often redemptive, stories of mothers. Brickell is a fantastic storyteller – well worth a listen.

8.     Motherless Children by Roseanne Cash (4 kids)

Not the happiest of songs, obviously. But Cash’s voice is so pained and beautiful, and the spare acoustic guitar so poignant. You feel for those children left behind.

9.     Three Babies by Sinead O’Connor (4 kids)

Another song with a mysterious meaning – could it be about abortion, miscarriage, abandonment? You never know with the emotional, mercurial O’Connor. What you do know is that it’s about loss.

10.  Little Star by Madonna (4 kids)

So now let’s move on to something a bit more uplifting from Ray of Light, Madge’s first album as a Mom. Accompanied by William Orbit’s gorgeous production, she sings a dreamy love song to her daughter. I’ve played this for my girls since they were babies. Celestial.

11.  Godspeed (Sweet Dreams) by the Dixie Chicks (7 kids between them)

I’ve always liked this country lullaby because it avoids that treacly greeting card sentiment you hear in so many I-love-my-kid songs. I think it’s because Natalie Maines’ voice stays grounded and strong, not precious. She’s just released her first solo album, called appropriately Mother. It’s a collection of mostly cover tunes, including the famous Pink Floyd song of the title, and I’m just starting to get in to it.

12.  The Sweetest Gift by the Judds (2 kids each)

When my daughter was born I started singing to her a lot, especially at night. I’m not a singer at all, but I enjoyed having those moments with her: show tunes, pop songs, “On Top of Spaghetti,” you name it. But what worked really well (because I could remember all the lyrics) was the Judds’ “Mama, He’s Crazy”.  I sang that to her every time I tucked her in to bed, and she still remembers it. So I’ll finish with this old gospel tune, sung by a mother & daughter – with Emmylou Harris on harmony – about the depths of a mother’s love.

You can listen to Jennifer’s Spotify playlist right here – enjoy! 

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