One of the lessons learned (or, more precisely, re-learned) during this extraordinarily challenging time has been “It’s all about family.”
Some of us lost loved ones to the Coronavirus. Some of us were quarantined in confined spaces for many months with family members, which was perhaps a combination of heartwarming and exasperating. Many of us were separated from family by travel restrictions and/or the inability to visit safely.
Now that many of us have been vaccinated and restrictions are being eased or lifted, we feel safer about hopping on an airplane for Ohio and finally reuniting with those we love most. Sad to say, my parents have both passed away, but my wife’s parents are still doing great, as are my wife’s siblings and their families, all living in Cleveland, our home town. My in-laws (affectionately known as “the out-laws”) are my family now, and have been for nearly 37 years.
Sure, there is some degree of dysfunction, irritation and complexity to nearly every family relationship, but there is also love, wisdom, laughter and a trunkful of memories to unpack and share anew. And we’re so looking forward to that part of it all.
To honor the importance of families, I have assembled a playlist of 15 songs with lyrics that celebrate familial bonds. This being Father’s Day weekend, there are several Dad tunes in the mix but also a few about grandparents, sons, daughters, cousins and others who make up the patchwork quilt of the family unit. I’ve focused primarily on songs that offer a positive outlook, but I’ve snuck in a few with a more irreverent take on all this. Doesn’t every family have a crazy cousin?
“We Are Family,” Sister Sledge, 1979
This international #1 hit, one of the biggest tunes from the disco era, is the perfect song to kick off this playlist. Sister Sledge is a vocal group consisting of Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge, four sisters out of Philadelphia who received their vocal training from their grandmother Viola Williams, a lyric soprano opera singer. They flirted with success throughout the ’70s but had their breakthrough once paired with the great Niles Rodgers, who produced and wrote “We Are Family”: “All of the people around us, they say, ‘Can they be that close?’ /Just let me state for the record, we’re giving love in a family dose, /We are family, I got all my sisters with me…”
“Good Mother,” Jann Arden, 1994
Arden has one of those puzzling singer-songwriter stories about being very successful in her native Canada but barely making a dent among U.S. listeners. Since 1994, every one of Arden’s 11 albums has reached the Top Ten in Canada, and she has won several Juno Awards (Canada’s Grammys), but her excellent “Living Under June” LP is the only one to chart in the US, peaking at only #76. On that album is “Insensitive,” which reached #12 in the US, but there are also six other big singles that were curiously ignored here, including the heartfelt “Good Mother,” which speaks to the importance of having caring parents: “I’ve got a good mother, and her voice is what keeps me here, /Feet on ground, heart in hand, facing forward, be yourself…”
“Father and Son,” Cat Stevens, 1970
From the breakthrough LP “Tea For the Tillerman,” this poignant track helped establish Stevens as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Its lyrics frame a testy exchange between a father not understanding a son’s desire to break away and shape a new life, and the son who cannot really explain himself but knows that it is time for him to seek his own destiny. Said Stevens/Yusef: “Some people think that I was taking the son’s side, but how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too?” Father: “It’s not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy, /You’re still young, that’s your fault, there’s so much you have to know…” Son: “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen, now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away…”
“Grandma’s Hands,” Bill Withers, 1971
Withers, who had a stuttering problem and got picked on a lot as a kid, said, “Grandmothers tend to gravitate toward the weak kid. I learned how to be kind and really just love somebody from a nice old lady. My favorite song that I’ve written has to be about this favorite old lady of mine.” His record company didn’t care for it, but he insisted, and it has gone on to be covered by multiple artists, from Barbra Streisand and Al Jarreau to Keb’ Mo’ and Livingston Taylor: “Grandma’s hands used to hand me piece of candy, Grandma’s hands picked me up each time I fell, Grandma’s hands, boy, they really came in handy…”
“Family is Family,” Kacey Musgraves, 2015
Most of my readers know I’m not much of a fan of country music, and Kacey Musgraves debuted in 2013 with “Same Trailer, Different Park,” which won Country Album of the Year. But country music isn’t anywhere near as cornpone and excruciating as it once was, and Musgraves is a wonderful singer and whimsical songwriter who I’ve grown to admire. On her “Pageant Material” LP is a marvelous “tell it like it is” tune about the yin and yang of family relationships: “You might look just like ’em, that don’t mean you’re like ’em, but you love ’em, /Family is family, in church or in prison, you get what you get, and you don’t get to pick ’em, /They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys, /Yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family…”
“Daughters,” John Mayer, 2003
Although Mayer was pegged early in his career as a singer-songwriter, he always wanted to pursue his passion for blues rock as a very fine electric guitarist. When it came time to release another single from his 2003 LP “Heavier Things,” he resisted selecting the mellow “Daughters,” but it ended up being a #19 hit, and won the Song of the Year Grammy. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to his grandmother, who he said had raised wonderful daughters. He said the lyrics were inspired by an ex-flame who hadn’t had a loving relationship with her father, and it had lasting negative effects: “Fathers, be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do, /Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, so mothers, be good to your daughters too…”
“Song For Dad,” Keith Urban, 2002
Urban is another artist who leans mostly country, but his brand also includes plenty of rock and folk elements that make his music appealing to me. On his fourth LP, 2002’s “Golden Road,” there’s a really touching song called “Song For Dad” that tugs at all the heartstrings, especially from the point of view of a son who now has a family of his own and, as he ages, he sees his father in his own mannerisms, habits and behaviors: “In everything he ever did, he always did with love, and I’m proud today to say I’m his son, /When somebody says ‘I hope I get to meet your dad,’ I just smile and say ‘You already have’…”
“Mother and Child Reunion,” Paul Simon, 1972
On his debut solo LP, Simon took a stab at bringing reggae rhythms to the US Top 40 when he made “Mother and Child Reunion” his first single, and it worked, reaching #4. Simon recalls, “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant one night and on the menu was a dish they called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It was chicken and eggs. I thought, ‘Oh, I gotta use that one.'” He had a friend who had recently lost his mother, and it occurred to Simon how fleeting life could be, and how the two could be reunited in the blink of an eye: “I would not give you false hope on this strange and mournful day, /But the mother and child reunion is only a motion away…only a moment away…”
“Back to the Family,” Jethro Tull, 1969
In Tull’s early years, the band struggled, playing small towns or cheap clubs while living on the road, away from home and loved ones. Songwriter Ian Anderson turned that into a song for their successful second album, “Stand Up,” which gave an honest assessment of how returning to see the family can have its good and bad points, but it begins with that homesick feeling: “Living this life has its problems, so I think that I’ll give it a break, /Oh, I’m going back to the family,`cause I’ve had about all I can take…”
“My Father’s Eyes,” Eric Clapton, 1998
Clapton never knew his father, a Canadian soldier who got Clapton’s British mother pregnant and then disappeared. He later received word the man had died in 1985, and has always wished he had had the chance to meet him at least once. Clapton’s four-year-old son died in an accident in 1991, and at that point, he wrote “My Father’s Eyes,” in which he “tried to describe the parallel between looking in the eyes of my son, and the eyes of the father that I never met, through the chain of our blood”: “As my soul slides down to die, how could I lose him? What did I try? /Bit by bit, I’ve realized that he was here with me, I looked into my father’s eyes…”
“Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” John Prine, 1971
Prine, who died last year at 73, was best known for his songwriting skills, particularly the way he fashioned a beautifully descriptive lyric with just a few phrases. One such song, “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” appeared on his third album, “Sweet Revenge,” in 1973. It’s an affectionate tribute to his grandfather, “a simple man full of wisdom and honest values,” as Prine once put it. The lyrics provided hints that allowed the listener to piece together a picture of the man: “He built houses, stores and banks, chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and hammered nails in planks, /He was level on the level and shaved even every door, and voted for Eisenhower ’cause Lincoln won the war…”
“Teach Your Children,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970
It always seemed to be Graham Nash whose songs were selected to be the singles from the many gems written by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young during their relatively brief time together. “Marrakesh Express, “Our House” and “Just a Song Before I Go,” all written by Nash, did well on the charts, but the one that really captures the tender side of this iconic trio/quartet is “Teach Your Children,” with Jerry Garcia’s sweet pedal steel guitar and those trademark harmonies. Its lyrics remind us all to treat our children and parents alike with love and kindness: “Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by… Teach your parents well, their children’s hell will slowly go by… So just look at them and sigh, and know they love you…”
“Family Man,” Hall and Oates, 1982
Mike Oldfield, the British musician known chiefly for his 1973 tour de force “Tubular Bells,” wrote this tune in 1981 with help from three others and had some chart success in the UK with his own recording of it. Daryl Hall and John Oates recorded a more aggressive cover version that peaked at #6 in the US in the summer of 1983. The lyrics describe a man in a bar who’s approached by a hooker, but he turns her down because he’s a family man. By song’s end, he’s thinking about accepting her offer, but she’s gone: “She had sultry eyes, she made it perfectly plain that she was his for a price, /But he said, ‘leave me alone, I’m a family man, and my bark is much worse than my bite…”
“Cousin Dupree,” Steely Dan, 2000
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, the brilliant songwriting duo behind Steely Dan’s catalog, were known for creating edgy, sometimes creepy characters to inhabit their songs, from drug dealers (“Kid Charlemagne”) to porn stars (“Peg”). On their 2000 reunion album, “Two Against Nature,” they came up with a classic called “Cousin Dupree,” which focuses on a sketchy relative who lusts after his pretty cousin he hasn’t seen since they were young kids: “When I see my little cousin Janine walk in, all I could say was ouch, /Honey how you’ve grown, like a rose, /Well, we used to play when we were three, how about a kiss for your cousin Dupree… What’s so strange about a down-home family romance?…“
“Granny Got a Boob Job,” Rowdy Cousin, 2010
Using the moniker Rowdy Cousin, an informal group of fun-loving Oklahoma rednecks started writing, performing and eventually recording original music and comedy in the country rock vein around 2010. Their success has been limited to the Plains region, but I ran across their repertoire on YouTube and Spotify and decided it would be fun to wrap up this “family playlist” with this bawdy, funny tune about what happened in Grandma’s life once cheapskate Grandpa passed away: “Granny got a boob job, Granny got a face lift, Granny not a new Corvette, the frame around her license plate says ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!”, /Granny got her teeth fixed, Granny got a belly ring, Granny got a new water bed, when somebody asked her why, she said, ‘Cause I ain’t the one that’s dead!”…
“Hey Big Brother,” Rare Earth, 1972; “Sweet Li’l Sister,” Bad Company 1976; “Son Of Your Father,” Elton John, 1970; “Somebody’s Daughter,” Tasmin Archer, 1992: “Cousin Kevin,” The Who, 1969; “Uncle Salty,” Aerosmith, 1975; “Your Auntie Grizelda,” The Monkees, 1967; “Me and My Uncle,” The Grateful Dead, 1971; “Cousin of Mine,” Sam Cooke, 1961; “Dance With My Father,” Luther Vandross, 2003; “Daughters of the Sea,” The Doobie Brothers, 1974.