This week’s column was as challenging as trying to figure out what to get my mom for Mother’s Day. Should I go the usual flowers and card route, which would be the equivalent of writing about the Great Mothers of Rock that would only end up with me rationalizing that Chrissie Hynde is slightly more important than the hipster Patti Smith. Then I thought a more extravagant gift, like a craft project, but that would be analogous to me giving you a Mother’s Day playlist for your celebratory brunch.
Rather I’m going to reach this year and declare the best song about a mom is Randy Newman’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come.” Though most consider the song as a Three Dog Night number, Newman originally wrote the song for the Animal’s Eric Burden. Burden’s version, which appeared on his solo debut album in 1966, contains a bouncy organ instead of the Three Dog Night electric piano while the song’s cadence leans on a groovy jazz beat with horns playing a more prominent role than on the Three Dog Night’s far more popular cover.
The Three Dog Night account also benefits from the lead vocal interpretation of Denny Hutton being supported with vintage TDN’s harmonies of Cory Wells and Chuck Negron. The band made a career out of translating obscure songwriters’ works and turning them into mainstream hits like Harry Nilsson’s “One” and Laura Nyro’s “Eli’s Coming,” but it’s their notable presentation of Newman’s ode to a sheltered young man’s first adventure into a mad world filled with wild parties, whiskey drinking, loud music and even the dreaded cigarette smoking that makes it the best of songs about Mom.
Regardless of whose version you prefer, it’s the song’s lyrics that establish it as a favorite Mom’s Day tune. It’s a tale both mother and child can appreciate. The song’s creepy intro conjures up an initiation into an unknown world of a freshman’s first week away at school. There’s the adamant refusal of the song’s green narrator to accept what he sees as he enters another world, “Don’t turn on the lights, I don’t want to see.” Yet he continues to push through the crowd seeking more wisdom, all the while he is consciously aware of his mother’s admonition, probably coming on the doorsteps of the dorm as she left her son to become a man.
More often, though, the narrator is beset by what he sees as he deals with life’s new awakenings, “I’m looking at my girlfriend she’s passed out on the floor.” His curiosity and growth remains guided by his mother’s lingering advice. He never really leaves the party, which might be indicative of his accepting this new transformation from boy to man, yet he still is driven by his mother’s principles.
For mothers, the song is an alarming reality check but reassuring in its protagonist’s decision to stay true to his upbringing. Moms can’t prevent their children or completely protect them from life’s moral challenges, but if strong, principled ideals have been instilled during one’s formative years, then their kids just might make the right choices. And similar to Newman’s sheltered hero’s eventual resolution in the song Three Dog Night took to No. 1 in 1970, it’s enough to make a mother proud. Sure it’s a mama’s boy suggesting that Mama was right all along, but you know, they usually are. And a son’s actualization of his mother’s advice is about the best gift one can give his mom. Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom, I’m glad I should have listened more.
Tom Genes is a musicologist and can be heard on air Monday through Friday, 6-10 p.m. on KZYR. Genes hails from Flossmoor, Ill., and Vail.