“Six top pop-rock songs for a top son”: that was the working title for this piece (my wife detested it). It’s been kicking around in my head since my boy was born several weeks ago.
One of the pleasures of fatherhood is introducing your children to music you love. Another is helping them discover and think about truth, goodness and beauty. The first can do the second. Here are five songs that express something of what my kiddos mean to me and something of what I would like them to know about the world: five favourites for three sweet siblings (I doubt that will make it as a headline).
John Lennon wrote Beautiful Boy for his son Sean: It’s a heartfelt and sweet paternal love song. “Close your eyes, have no fear / The monster’s gone, he’s on the run / And your daddy’s here / Beautiful boy.” Would that I always succeed in chasing away monsters for my kids when they are little, and teach them so they can do it for themselves when they are older. “Before you go to sleep, say a little prayer / Every day, in every way / It’s getting better and better.”
Another love song for a child is Wilco’s My Darling, from their 1999 disc Summerteeth. The song is a slow one, a woozy piano intro leading into muted acoustic guitar. “Grow up now my darlin’ / Please don’t you grow up too fast / And be sure, darlin’ / To make all the good times last,” sings bandleader Jeff Tweedy pleadingly. Finding the balance between teaching kids about the world and protecting them from it is an ongoing challenge.
“Because we made you my darlin’ / With the love in each of our hearts / We were a family, my darlin’ / Right from the start.” Is this a basic catechesis of marriage in a four-minute rock song? The love of a man and woman producing children, building a family, and putting together a society.
I hope my kids choose their vocation deliberately and thoughtfully: If a call to marriage is what they hear and follow, I hope they choose a spouse carefully so they know what the narrator of the Finn Brothers’ Luckiest Man Alive knows: “[A] man finds love in his life / He’s the luckiest man alive / Someone true by his side . . . You saw me and what I could be / Now I know what love is for / It’s the only thing that sets you free.” The instrumentation is both lushly beautiful and full-bodied, and music and words together make for one of the truest love songs committed to record.
Making a big decision such as stepping out into the adventure of marriage (or priesthood, or religious life) is easier when there’s a habit of making little decisions well: of doing what is in front of you thoughtfully, enthusiastically, promptly. Australian troubadour Paul Kelly’s Little Decisions, from 1985’s Post, bluntly puts it this way: “Little decisions are the kind I can make / Big resolutions are so easy to break / I don’t want to hear about your big decisions.” Over crisp acoustic guitar Kelly sings pithy lines: “Hard times are never over / Trouble always comes / Still I’m looking forward / To tomorrow when it comes.” The song is an encouragement to keep moving forward, to keep focused on the important things, to choose joy.
In much of Kelly’s work he is a storyteller in the folk tradition. The venerable Bob Dylan draws from the same well, and a good example of this is his song Hurricane, released in 1976 on the album Desire. Dylan rattles though 11 verses in the eight-minute ballad, telling the story (perhaps with some poetic licence) of a boxer named Rubin Carter who in 1967 was wrongly convicted of murder. Like the late Muhammad Ali, Carter was no saint, but he was stitched up by lying witnesses and corrupt cops and stayed in jail until his conviction was overturned in 1985.
A violin, high and tense, and driving guitars, drums and percussion carry Dylan’s outraged vocals. “All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance / The trial was a pigcircus, he never had a chance / . . . The DA said he was the one who did the deed / And the all-white jury agreed.” The song is a cry for truth and for justice, Dylan asking in bewilderment, “How can the life of such a man / Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?” It’s a protest song and like the best of that genre it pricks the conscience.
There’s no doubt that much popular music is disposable trash, offensive, inhumane, a twisting of truth, but songs like these are somewhere on the other end of the musical spectrum, which ranges from garbage on one end to art on the other. Each in its own way attempts to express something of the human story and to point to higher ideals: each is a worthy gift for a father to give a child.