With musical contributions from Mr T to Dolly Parton, Björk to Kanye West, join us in our celebration of mums everywhere
Mr T (1984)
Gushing songs about mums take many forms, from the Intruders’ early Philly soul classic, I’ll Always Love My Mama, to the St Winifred’s School Choir’s There’s No One Quite Like Grandma, to the Spice Girls’ just-in-time-for-Mother’s-Day cash-in, Mama. Nothing, though, beats this extraordinary tribute from the A-Team dude. Taken from his motivational film for kids, Be Somebody… Or Be Somebody’s Fool, Treat Your Mother Right features Mr T rapping in short shorts about Mom’s woes, with three mums on backing vocals. Harsh lyrics too: “M is for the moan, and the miserable groan/ From the pain that she felt when I was born.”
Joni Mitchell (1971)
In 1964, 21-year-old singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell found out she was pregnant by an ex-boyfriend, who had left her and moved to California. Living away from her family, she kept the baby a secret and had her adopted. Mitchell referred to the experience in 1982’s Chinese Cafe (“My child’s a stranger/ I bore her/ But I could not raise her”), and in this gorgeous song from the album Blue, thought of as abstract at the time. It’s clear now. “Child with a child pretending/ Weary of lies you are sending home… Little green, have a happy ending.” Mother and childreunited 33 years later.
The Beatles (1970)
John Lennon and Paul McCartney both lost their mothers as teenagers. Lennon’sJulia is a heartbreakingly childlike, direct song on this subject, but McCartney’sLet It Be is equally poignant. His friendship with his writing partner in tatters, and their group breaking up, McCartney is in his “hour of darkness” – when along comes his mother Mary in a dream. “Standing right in front” of him giving advice, the song’s guiding title is something another Mary says to Gabriel in the Bible. McCartney has been cagey about that coincidence, but his vocal performance is convincingly loaded with a son’s love.
Dolly Parton (1971)
Mothers express love for their children in many ways. Dolly Parton’s poor mom made her daughter a coat out of rags, telling the story of Joseph as she stitched it. “Perhaps this coat will bring you good luck and happiness,” went her wish; Parton was bullied by her classmates instead. Years later, on her gospel TV show, Parton said how the song helped her: “After that song became a hit, it relieved all that hurt because it’s amazing how much money can heal!” She bought her mother a mink with the royalties. Ever-frugal, Mom traded it in.
Laurie Anderson (1981)
“Hello? This is your mother! Are you there?” Mom calls her daughter and gets confused by the answerphone. But then her voice changes, and becomes something more sinister. In Laurie Anderson’s epic piece of experimental pop, Mom is an authority we trust, and an analogue for the good old USA. Authority figures also do bad things, including sending military planes overseas (Anderson’s lyrics refer to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979). Mom returns at the end of the song to hug us with her “long arms… your petrochemical arms”. A number two UK hit, it held off The Birdie Song at number three.
Shirley Collins (1959)
Songs about mothers aren’t always sweet, sentimental things. The roots of this ancient murder ballad twist up from Scotland and northern England. A young minister’s daughter gives birth to twin boys after her lover betrays her; immediately after, she kills and buries them. She then sees two boys playing ball, and tells them she wishes she could cloak them in silk. Her children’s ghosts reveal she’ll have “seven years in the flames of hell”. Shirley Collins’s version makes you feel sharp sorrow for its female subject. Others who have delved into its murk include Martin Carthy, Joan Baez and Alasdair Roberts.
Kanye West ft Paul McCartney (2015)
Hip-hop has a great tradition of showing tough guys melt over their mothers, from Tupac Shakur to Ghostface Killah to Snoop Dogg. Kanye West thanked his effusively in 2005’s Hey Mama, while his 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, was profoundly influenced by her death from complications after cosmetic surgery. A man obviously still grappling with his grief, this recent single is sung from her perspective: she calls him by his middle name, Omari, and says she’s sent him two angels (presumably wife Kim and their daughter North). Paul McCartney plays the piano, still letting it be.
Björk wrote about her baby daughter, Isadora, in 2004’s Mouth’s Cradle, even abstractly referring to the experience of breastfeeding (“The simplicity of the ghost-like beast/ The purity of what it wants and where it goes”). This track from 2011’s universe-spanning Biophilia places mothers in a much bigger setting. Björk imagines all child-bearing women coming together – “generations of mothers sailing in” – and how they connect like beads on a necklace. She wants to be part of them too. “Thread me upon this chain… I yearn to belong, let me belong, let me belong.”
On the surface a song about the chaos of family life, Our House pivots around the resilient mum in that unit. At first she appears a tyrant (“Nothing ever slows her down/ And a mess is not allowed”), but she also puts up with drudgery (“Father gets up late for work/ Mother has to iron his shirt”). The last mention of her comes before the smash hit’s reflective middle-eight, when Suggs’s protagonist admits how happy he was in his childhood. “She’s the one they’re going to miss,” he sings, “in lots of ways.”
The feminist empowerment of Beyoncé continues. Last November, a new track on the deluxe edition of her eponymous fifth album praised her mother for getting over her father’s adultery – the father who managed B’s career until 2011. “Mama, after all them years/ We can start all over again… Mama, we can love again/ This is where freedom begins.” The song ends with Tina Knowles taking charge of her own life in her own spoken words: “If you’re going through it, just know: it’s called ‘going THROUGH it’/ You’re not gonna get stuck there, you’re not gonna die/ You’re gonna survive.” Take that, Dad.
Thanks to the Guardian for this article