It was just over a century ago when President Wilson declared the second Sunday of May to be Mother’s Day, a national holiday set aside to honor mothers, motherhood, maternal bonds and the influence of mothers in society.
Mom, after all, is “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” said Anna Jarvis, the Suffragette-era activist who spearheaded the move for an official Mother’s Day.
Popular music has not missed out on the opportunity to celebrate mothers — or, at least, to include “Mama” in a song title! From hard rock to country, from Top 40 pop to soul, mothers have served as great subject matter for songs of all kinds. Even that freaky iconoclast, the late Frank Zappa, and his first band, The Mothers of Invention, offered a song called “Motherly Love” on their 1966 debut: “Motherly love is just the thing for you, you know your Mothers gonna love you ’til you don’t know what to do…” So what if it was about the band, not the woman?
I’ve selected 15 tracks that I think make a nice mix of songs for you to play when Mom comes over for dinner this Sunday. (See the Spotify playlist below.) If she’s a little bit open-minded, she might even find most of them enjoyable!
“Your Mother Should Know,” The Beatles, 1967
This track was one of the half-dozen Paul McCartney sing-song numbers recorded by The Beatles in their final three years that John Lennon derisively referred to as “Granny music” (songs that your grandparents would like). It was written expressly for an old-fashioned dance segment in the band’s experimental film “Magical Mystery Tour” in which the foursome descend a grand staircase in white tuxedos. Musically, it’s rather slight compared to the more challenging work they were doing at the time, but it has a nice sentiment that Dear Old Mom should love.
“Mama Help Me,” Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, 1990
This singer-songwriter out of Dallas (who has been Paul Simon’s wife for more than 20 years) had a #9 hit in 1988 called “What I Am,” and four lesser Top 40 hits including this vibrant song from their 1990 LP, “Ghost of a Dog.” Its lyrics remind us all to seek out and value the advice and counsel available from the best source of all: “Mama mama mama mama help me, mama mama mama tell me what to do…”
“That’s All Right Mama,” Elvis Presley, 1954
In one of his earliest recording sessions, Elvis and his combo were messing around with a speeded-up version of this old Arthur Crudup blues tune. Producer Sam Phillips was immediately struck by it and concluded it was the sound he’d been looking for, and it ended up as Elvis’s first single and, many claim, one of the first rock and roll songs ever. In the lyrics, a mother warns her son, “That gal you’re foolin’ with, she ain’t no good for you,” but he reassures her that everything will be fine.
“Stacy’s Mom,” Fountains of Wayne, 2003
This song by Fountains of Wayne, which reached #21 in 2003, enjoys the distinction of being the first song to reach #1 on the “most downloaded songs” list at the iTunes store. The song was inspired by the hugely popular film “American Pie,” which had a sexy, frisky character known as “Stifler’s Mom,” unofficially known in pop culture as the original “MILF.”
“Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” The New Seekers, 1970; Miley Cyrus, 2012
Melanie Safka, best known for her 1972 Number One ditty “Brand New Key” and the #6 hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” wrote and recorded “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma” in 1970, but it was The New Seekers whose #14-ranked version you heard on the radio that year. If you search for it, you might also find a killer version of it by Miley Cyrus on her “Backyard Sessions” EP in 2012.
“Tie Your Mother Down,” Queen, 1976
This hard rock song from Queen’s “A Day at the Races” LP is not as disturbing as the title sounds. Guitarist Brian May has said it’s about a young guy who doesn’t like his girlfriend’s parents intervening whenever he’s hoping to get lucky, so he kiddingly suggests they “lock your father out of doors and tie your mother down.” Not the best song to commemorate Mom on Mother’s Day, but, well, it’s only rock ‘n roll…
“Mama Told Me Not to Come,” Three Dog Night, 1970
Randy Newman, one of the more celebrated songwriters and film composers of his generation, came up with this song as part of his 1970 debut release, “12 Songs.” He mostly failed to achieve commercial success as a recording artist, but his songs often did well in the hands of others. Three Dog Night had one of the biggest radio hits of 1970 with their version, which features one of Newman’s typically sardonic lyrics about a guy who is uncomfortable attending parties and realizes he should’ve listened to his mother’s advice.
“Mama Said,” The Shirelles, 1961
The Shirelles were a trio of teenagers from New Jersey who became one of the early “girl group” successes with several classic singles during the 1960-1963 period. “Mama Said” reached #4 as their third consecutive Top Five hit, with lyrics that reinforced the wisdom of a mother’s warning about how young love can knock you off your feet: “Mama said there’ll be days like this, there’ll be days like this, my mama said…”
“Mother,” John Lennon, 1970
Lennon had a tortured relationship with his mother. She was a free spirit who couldn’t handle the responsibilities of mothering, so she handed him off to her sister Mimi to raise him, while keeping in touch like an aunt in a sort of role reversal. Then she was killed by a drunk driver when he was 14. Following “primal scream” therapy at age 29, Lennon wrote this harrowing track that simultaneously mourns her death and excoriates her abandonment of him: “Mother, you had me, but I never had you, I wanted you, but you didn’t want me, so I just got to tell you goodbye…“
“Mother & Child Reunion,” Paul Simon, 1972
In 1971, recently split from his partner Art Garfunkel and eager to begin his solo career, Simon was in a Chinese restaurant in New York City one night when he was taken by a chicken-and-egg dish on the menu called Mother and Child Reunion. “What a great song title,” he thought, and before long, it became Simon’s first solo single, using the compelling Jamaican rhythms known as reggae for the first time in an American Top Ten hit. The lyrics describe the “strange and mournful day” when the mother (the chicken) and the child (the egg) are reunited on a dinner plate.
“Mama I’m Coming Home,” Ozzy Osbourne, 1992
The “godfather of heavy metal” as lead singer of Black Sabbath made only one solo appearance on the US Top 40 singles chart with this power ballad, which reached #28 in 1992. It was written specifically about Ozzy’s wife Sharon, with whom he has had a publicly tempestuous relationship (“You made me cry, you told me lies, but I can’t stand to say goodbye, mama, I’m coming home…”). Again, not exactly a song for Mom, but the desire to come home after being away could be interpreted as a tribute to maternal bonds.
“Mama’s Pearl,” Jackson 5, 1971
In order to preserve the young Michael Jackson’s innocent image, Motown Records insisted that the title of The Jackson 5’s fifth hit single be changed from “Guess Who’s Making Whoopee (With Your Girlfriend)” to “Mama’s Pearl.” The lyrics still spoke of a boy’s desire for his sheltered girlfriend to loosen up and go beyond the kissing stage (“Mama’s pearl, let down those curls, won’t you give my love a whirl, find what you been missing, ooh ooh now baby…”)
“Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings, 1978
This duet by two of country music’s biggest stars was a huge seller when it topped the Hot Country Singles chart in 1978. Its lyrics urge mothers everywhere to raise their children to be “doctors and lawyers and such” instead of cowboys, because “they ain’t easy to love and they’re harder to hold” and “they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone, even with someone they love…” The track appeared in a scene from the 1979 Jane Fonda-Robert Redford film “The Electric Horseman.”
“Mama Kin,” Aerosmith, 1973
Fresh out of Boston clubs, Aerosmith launched their career in 1973 with their debut album and first single, “Mama Kin.” Composer Steven Tyler says the lyrics are essentially about “the importance of staying in touch with your family, your roots, your Mama Kin.” The song stiffed on the singles charts but became a huge favorite on FM rock stations and in concert over the years.
“Shake Shake Mama,” Bob Dylan, 2009
The master lyricist of his generation hasn’t written much about mothers. He’s got a few songs in his repertoire that make fleeting references — “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965), Tough Mama” (1974) — but these are not motherly tributes. Nor, really, is “Shake Shake Mama” from 2009’s “Together Through Life” LP, but I’ve included it here anyway. “Shake shake Mama, shake until the break of day…shake shake Mama, raise your voice and bay…”
“Mother’s Little Helper,” The Rolling Stones, 1966
Peaking at #8 in 1966 was this notorious rocker from The Stones, with lyrics that pointed out the hypocrisy of parents who bemoaned their kids’ recreational drug use while using tranquilizers and other pills themselves: “And though she’s not really ill, there’s a little yellow pill, she goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper, and it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day…”
“Good Mother,” Jann Arden, 1994
This introspective singer-songwriter from Alberta, Canada, has won numerous Juno Awards and charted more than a dozen Top Ten albums and singles north of the border but has only a cult following in the states. Her excellent “Living Under June” LP includes this tribute to the importance of great parents, with lines like “I’ve got a good mother, and her voice is what keeps me here…”
Here are a few more that make my “honorable mention” list: “Mother,” Pink Floyd, 1979; “This is to Mother You,” Sinead O’Connor, 1997; “Mama Gets High,” Blood Sweat & Tears, 1971; “Mama,” Genesis, 1983; “Sweet Mama,” The Allman Brothers, 1975; “Motorcycle Mama,” Neil Young and Nicolette Larson, 1978; “Mother Goose,” Jethro Tull, 1971; “Mother Nature’s Son,” The Beatles, 1968; “Mama Lion,” Crosby and Nash, 1975; “Mother,” Chicago, 1971.