Mothers in Old Time Songs

grayscale photo of woman kissing child

Songs and poems about mothers and mothering are an ocean of sentiment stretching back through human history. The bond of mother and child is a pillar of human survival and civilization and a profound mystery to those of us who are male. If we’re even slightly mature, we are awed by women and the impact they have on our children (if it was good).

I got curious about this subject in popular music, most especially in the Southern roots music in which I grew up and live in. Mother’s Day was a big deal growing up, with churches somehow developing the tradition to give out roses to mothers in the congregation. It was a once per year tip of the hat to women without whom church would not exist at all. They brought the children, raised them, prayed for them and furnished virtually all the volunteer hours, particularly in the old days before women were paid for anything they did. And we didn’t ordain women then (which is, in reality, “recognizing,” isn’t it, and blessing?).

It was an odd tradition, this giving of the roses. It usually was various categories to award—the youngest mother, the oldest mother, the most children, and so on. In a small church, it would be the same ladies every year, sparking rumbles of disregarded people in the center, without a category. Churches later found more democratic ways—giving some little item out to all. In the churches with screens and fog machines, I have not a clue what they do now.

Still, in the old days, “mother” was a highly revered and honored position. Kids knew it.

red roses close up photography
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A mother gave you life, got you to ball practice and without whom you might actually starve to death in a house. In a society where all is economic (the word economy, ironically, springs from the Greek word oikos, house or household). An economy is an environment of values, work, production and relationships, not, as we have perverted it, “bling.” It exists only for the things that matter.

Anyway, I thought about my own three daughters, all of whom are outstanding human beings, and how much of that was owed to their mother. When they have wondered what to do, even in their careers, they think of what their mother would do or what she said or how she would go about it. Their mother is an extraordinary manager, accountant, organizer, doer and can outwork any man I ever met, including me. An amazing entrepreneurial person who ca;n make something out of nearly nothing.

This image of a fierce, protective, loving center of the emotional universe is ubiquitous in music. I looked up “mother” and “mama” on a bluegrass and country lyric website and it rang up twenty pages of song titles. It is a museum of mauldliniity, of course. It takes extraordinary artistic ability to write about something so intimate as one’s mother without is sounding, well, trivial or corny or, too personal.
And the moment you send something out into the world for others to sing or read, you immediately hit the wall of pain, counter experiences and loss. Mother’s Day is a sad day for so many—the memories of loss, or sometimes for the childless or those who struggled to have children, a sense of the void. Thus Mother’s day in church is filled with quiet suffering, unspoken as the pastor (often male) extols those about which, truthfully, he may not know all that much.

Songs  from the early old time music of the twentieth century gather around certain themes:

  1. Appreciation for a good mother (and father). I think of Bill Monroe’s classic, “Memories and Mother and Dad,”and Flatt and Scruggs’ haunting, “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer.”
  2. The catalog of old songs is full of wandering children. They go off to wars, to sea, to just wander. Some of them go off to worthlessness and end up in prison. But eventually them miss mother. A lot of sadness about the failure of kids to write. Apparently texting has helped some, except mothers would usually rather see a face or hear a voice.. There are dozens of songs imploring boys to write their mothers from the warfront or overseas or wherever they have wandered away. Wade Mainer wrote a song called, “Write a Letter to Mother,” with the final unflattering verse about the waiting mother:

Let us home, now write a letter
To our mothers far away
Someday we may all be like her
Worn, worrying and old and gray

I think contemporary mothers in yoga pants and lovely would object, but this is what happens when the rhyme drives the writing.

  1. More than a few songs are about sons in prison missing their mother. Merle Haggard (writing autobiographically), got his first hit with “Mama Tried,”about a son who screwed up and went to jail—but it wasn’t for lack of his mother’s trying. Johnny Cash’s “Send a Picture to Mother” is about a man whose buddy is getting out of prison and he asks him to send a picture to his mother

The hardest time will be on Sunday morning
Church bells will ring on Heaven Hill Heaven Hill
Please ask Reverend Garrett to pray for me
And send a picture of mother if you will

 In almost all of these songs (and there are exceptions) the mother is the one on whom a child counts and to whom they return. I did find one really creepy old song called, “Mommy, Please Stay Home with Me,” about a gal who leaves her toddler at home, inexplicably, to do out drinking and dancing. She arrives home just in time to find the little one dying and about to expire, the doctor there (who summoned the doctor? Where was the father?) And we get incredible lyrics like

   She danced and laughed and did some drinking
The world for her was full of glee
But now and then these words would haunt her
Please mommy please stay home with me

She left the party feeling dizzy
The smell of drink was on her breath
She hurried home to find her baby
In raging pain and nearing death

No surprise you never heard of this one. It is the exception. Mothers wait on their children, pray for them, never give up on them, and are too little appreciated.

One truth is universal, however. Every reader, every listener, had a mother. Good, bad or complicated, without that person, you would not be. That alone is a cause for appreciation. Maybe it requires some forgiveness and adult perspective mixed along with it. But mothers make a lot of the world go round, and without them, it wouldn’t go another generation at all. Yes, there are bad mothers, lazy mothers, complicated mothers and all the rest. But as a category you’d be hard pressed to find a better lot of humans anywhere. And that includes all the women who mother us in other ways—mentors, aunts and grandmas, foster moms, doting seniors, teachers, friends, cousins who never married, and all the rest. Mothering as a category is pretty remarkable. A haven for the heart, a place of tenderness everyone needs. God bless them all.

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Gary Furr

Gary is a musician, writer and Christian minister living in Alabama.