Monday, February 27, 2012

That Was Your Mother

The television show How I Met Your Mother is a hit, but I am not sure that the how-I-met-your-mother story told in this song would have made for a popular sitcom.

For one thing, the speaker is not exactly father-of-the-year material. His priorities are decidedly not family-oriented, and he seems too willing to share personal information with his son. Whom he addresses as "Dude."

As with any story, we must have a setting and characters. The place is Lafayette, Louisiana, named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of American independence. However, he was French, so it makes sense that a French-settled area of America would choose to name a town after him.

The time? Before the child being addressed was born. Was his future father lonely and longing for family life? Not exactly: "I was still single, and life was great!" He then explains that he chose a job that made him rootless.

He finds himself in this Southern town. Today, the population is 120,000, but at the time the song is set it was far fewer; the census shows 40,000 in 1960 and not even 70,000 in 1970. Even though he is a "travelling salesman," he was raised in a city (he considers himself a "city boy") and is therefore not impressed by the size of the place.

It is big enough, however, to draw an act the magnitude of Clifton Chenier, largely considered to be the father of zydeco music. This is a raucous, accordion-based party music, heavy on the saxophones and washboard percussion, and it is as much a part of New Orleans culture as the spicy food and spicier Creole language. (This song itself is set to such music.)

Our salesman has some time to kill, so he is looking for a bar. He would like to "get a little conversation," hopefully with "those Cajun girls." (Is this something a child needs to know about his father?)

However, he never needs to get to a bar. His hopes are answered by chance: "Along came a young girl/ She’s pretty as a prayer book." (While one hopes that his father is attracted to his mother, the attraction might be more than physical, one would have also hoped.)

The father continues, relating his reaction: "If that’s my prayer book/ Lord, let us pray!” (By now, the son is thinking: "Too much information, Dad!")

At this point, the first-time listener of the song is let in on why any of this is being discussed altogether: "Well, that [the pretty woman] was your mother/ And that was your father." It is at this point that we realize that this entire discourse was a reminiscence on the listener's parents' first encounter.

And now, as if life wasn't "great" enough when the father was "single," the son has to hear this: "Before you was born, dude/ When life was great." "OK," the son thinks, "I get it-- things are more fun before you have adult responsibilities. That's a fairly universal idea, even if it hurts to hear it from one's own father. If anything," he concludes, "I will be sure to enjoy my own pre-fatherhood years as much as you did, Dad."

But the father is not done. "I sure do love you," he says to his son, but "You are the burden of my generation... let’s get that straight."

"Wow," the son thinks. "It's really important for him that I know how much of a 'burden' I am to him, and how 'great' his life was when he was 'single' and 'before I was born.' If he hates this life so much, why did he ever choose it? And once he knew he hated it, why did he stay? I'd almost rather he'd left-- and let me be raised by someone who didn't think of me as a weight he was carrying."

Meanwhile, the father is lost in his reverie of recollection: "Well, I’m standing on the corner of Lafayette/ Heading down to the Lone Star CafĂ©/ Maybe get a little conversation/ Drink a little red wine/ Standing in the shadow of Clifton Chenier/ Dancing the night away."

"That's it, Dad," fumes the son to himself, "Just cards for you on Father's Day from now on."

Musical note:
The track was recorded in Crowley, Louisiana, some 20 miles from Lafayette.

The band on this track is a zydeco standby called Good Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters. The accordion is played by Alton "Dopsie" Rubin, Sr. and the drums by Junior. Another son, Dwayne, is also an accordion player with his own band.

Chenier died in 1987, a year after this album was released. He also was succeeded by his son, C.J. Chenier, who still plays and records.

It seems that the fathers related to this song were better at fathering than the fictional father described by the song itself. Maybe if our salesman had watched the musicians instead of the dancing girls...

The song samples a track called "At a Darktown Cakewalk" by one Charles Hale. I can only assume that it dates from when "Darktown" was an acceptable name for a certain part of town. A "cakewalk" was a competition at which couples would compete for a fancy cake by dressing to the nines and strutting their stuff, walking to music; the winners would literally-- and yes, this is where the expression originates-- "take the cake."

Next Song: All Around the World, or The Myth of Fingerprints


  1. hi, i just found your blog and have been enjoying your take on the songs from graceland. its interesting your take on this song is as dark as it is. ive always felt this was more of a joking repartee between a father and his son... (calling his son "dude" in a sarcastic manner, sets up the tone of this interaction as more playful than hurtful.... not to mention the upbeat, happy zydeco music acting as the backdrop, makes the feel of this whole story to be a light hearted interaction, possibly taken from a bus trip from louisiana someplace up river....) ive always felt the songs in graceland pertain to a single (obviously autobiographical) character.... (the lifestyle of a traveling salesman and touring musician are eerily similar...) our hero, in telling his son how he met his mother, is looking back to a time when he was a carefree bachelor, before he turned into an aging, soft in the middle, beer bellied archangel. before his marriage went sour.... he is not blaming his son for any of this, (i sure do love you) but he wants him to know he was born out of an unexpected encounter with true love, and not just a one night fling..... and just to keep his son in line, he playfully reminds him how much he does for him.... (not unlike how grandparents jokingly refer to their grandkids as karma for the burden their children put them through....) anyway, ill keep reading your posts, and heres a graceland story of mine that you might find interesting...

  2. Dear Anonymous-- Thanks for your comment. While all artistic work can be seen as autobiographical (and point taken about the traveling salesman being as itinerant as a musician) I prefer in general to take these songs as they are. In several someone commits suicide, for example, and Simon never has.
    That said, I don't think my reading is "dark." I think it is spoken by someone with a carefree worldview, reflected in the music. It's just that the person he is addressing should be someone he cares about.

  3. But the father is not done. "I sure do love you," he says to his son, but "You are the burden of my generation... let’s get that straight."

    The phrases are reversed saying that he is a burden but ... "I sure do love you, let's get that straight" Underscoring that despite this burden he does love his child.

  4. Josh-- It's very much a too-little-too-late statement, though, don't you think? He spends the whole song talking about how great life was before and how the son is a "burden," and then catches himself-- "not that I don't love you, you understand." Yeah-- gee, thanks so very much, Dad, for that deeply sincere afterthought.

    1. Actually I've never read it as too-little-too-late - that line has always been really powerful to me, underlining with a very straightforward statement, setting the record straight unambiguously. ;)

    2. Anon-- I don't Simon wants to let the father off the hook that easily, sorry. It would be one thing if he's said, "You're a burden-- just kidding, I love you." But no, the whole song is about how "life was great" before the kid showed up.