The Ultimate Parenting Playlist for Dads
Music has always been a huge part of my life, even though I possess no talent related to it whatsoever. Sometimes, it was the music that did all the thinking for me and answered the tough questions when it seemed impossible to make sense of the world. Sometimes, it was there to put an extra note of happiness on the best times. Happy or sad, the music often just said it better.
It all started with “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, which I shamelessly shouted at the top of my lungs during my first potty times. Later, it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a young, lost and angry teen; Bob Dylan as a wannabe poet; Led Zeppelin after discovering cannabis; Deer Tick while getting through a rough breakup; and Leonard Cohen and jazz after meeting the one true love of my life. Now, more than 30 years after “Louie Louie,” my musical obsessions are centered around the birth of my son.
My wife and I only recently became parents, but it immediately changed our lives. The emotions and happiness are truly something I couldn’t anticipate. One of the first things I felt strongly was that urge to hear my happiness. Many songs came to mind, whether or not they had anything to do with children or parenting, so I decided to make a playlist that captures many of the thoughts and emotions that have been running through my head.
While this is one person’s soundtrack for the greatest moment of their life, other dads (and moms for that matter) will certainly benefit from pressing play on at least a few of these tracks.
“I’ll Be Your Pilot”
Artist: Belle and Sebastian
Composed for: Denny, lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s son
I started hearing this song on the radio and in my Spotify mixes a few months before I found out my wife was pregnant with our son. I’m not sure I fully listened to the lyrics right away, mostly thinking it was just a really catchy tune. But it’s so full of wonderful fatherly sentiment, about being that hero for your child and helping to guide them as they discover the world and themselves. And while you might have so many hopes and dreams for your kids, ultimately your job is to be their pilot.
I will defer to Pitchfork and their excellent musings on the track: “If ‘I’ll Be Your Pilot’ is a plea to savor the splendor of childhood before the indignities of the outside world inevitably creep in, the rest of the EP gamely heeds the call to stay forever young, as Belle and Sebastian playfully let loose in a way that their buttoned-up, 20-something selves would’ve never allowed.”
The lyrics are simple but heavy, and ultimately relatable for any parent:
“I got your dreams completely / I’ve got them locked away / That doesn’t mean I own you / Or control a hair of your sweet head / I won’t leave you to suffer / I won’t let them prevail / I know a trap door, short cut / Gate into the wilds of the free air”
Artist: Van Morrison
Composed for: Everyone
The birth of my son felt so much like my own rebirth. Suddenly, the future meant something more, and I wanted to be there for all of it. This song is not explicitly about parenting or children, but it carries an important parent-child memory for me and contains wisdom we can all relate to. It’s also the first track and eponymous song on one of my favorite albums.
My mother gave me this as a CD when I was 17 years old, saying it changed her life when she heard it for the first time at 17 (the year it was released). Since then, it’s the music I gravitate to when I want to feel like anything is possible.
“Astral Weeks” does just that. It so beautifully captures the idea of rejuvenation, rebirth and the joy of loving someone. When I hear this song, I feel like I’m looking down from a mountain over the misty foothills and valleys all the way to the ocean — like there is nothing separating me from eternity. I also felt that way after hearing the first breaths of my son, seeing his face for the first time and touching his skin.
“If I ventured in the slipstream / Between the viaducts of your dream / Where immobile steel rims crack / And the ditch in the back roads stop / Could you find me? / Would you kiss-a my eyes? / To lay me down / In silence easy / To be born again / To be born again”
“Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”
Artist: John Lennon
Composed for: Sean Lennon, Lennon’s only son with Yoko Ono
I think of this song as the culmination of two people who embody love having a child together.
With lines like, “Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans,” the song is stuffed full of the emotions running full speed through my head in the weeks leading up to my son’s birth and the first weeks afterward. Put it all together around the achingly poignant way in which Lennon sings the chorus line, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy,” and I simply melt into a pool of happy tears.
In the book “All We Are Saying,” Lennon says of Sean in 1980, when he’s five years old: “The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn't come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I've attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That's because I took him to the 'Y.' I took him to the ocean. I'm so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.”
Artist: Loggins and Messina
Composed for: Danny and Colin, Kenny Loggins’ brother and nephew
As a freelance writer who knows every day how lucky he is to have met the mother of his child, and how everything else in life isn’t really all that important, this song’s chorus strikes very close to the heart.
“And even though we ain't got money / I'm so in love with you, honey / And everything will bring a chain of love / And in the morning, when I rise / You bring a tear of joy to my eyes / And tell me everything is gonna be alright”
Perhaps as much a love song as a parent song, “Rolling Stone” says of the track that “Kenny Loggins had set out to write about ordinary people in typical situations when he wrote this song about his brother Dan. ‘A lot of the lyric is taken, rephrased, from a letter he wrote me when he and [his wife], Sheila, were deciding to move to Berkeley just after their son, Colin, was born. He talked about the baby, and that they were going to Berkeley with no money at all, starting fresh.’”
Artist: David Bowie
Composed for: Duncan, Bowie’s only son
David Bowie is pure genius in my book, the most original artist I have ever seen, heard or read. I couldn’t imagine a world without “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.”
This song brings me a lot of happiness in that it reminds me of the relationship I have with my wife (who is herself a great admirer of Bowie) and how we felt when we learned of her pregnancy. While we were nervous and excited, we also hoped that we’d be able to handle parenting and raise a happy and unique kid because neither of us felt like we were very well equipped to be parents. So, I find it amazing and comforting that Bowie felt as if he needed to ask his son if he would accept his “kooky” parents.
“Will you stay in our lovers' story? / If you stay you won't be sorry / Because we believe in you / Soon you'll grow / So take a chance / With a couple of kooks / Hung up on romancing”
“You Are Your Mother’s Child”
Artist: Conor Oberst
Composed for: Dads
I have no doubt that I will not be a perfect father, and I probably won’t try to be one. I can only hope that I can teach my son empathy and love so we can always be close, which brings me to the batch of songs that make me think of my own father. I love my dad, and I know he did the best he could, but he’s human and flawed.
Conor Oberst really unlocked the father role with this song. NPR wrote that it’s an update of the famous Harry Chapin ballad about father-son dynamics: “Here we have a tired, heartstring-tugging trope from the 1970s resurrected as something lucid and disarmingly poignant. Something that can sneak right inside the most cynical heart and melt the layers.”
In a Billboard interview, Oberst reveals that despite that poignant and vivid imagery, he’s not actually a father and wrote the song from the perspective of his friends’ parenting experiences. Perhaps the brilliance of the lyrics is their universality, and the “big emotions” are relatable even if one is not raising a child. Or, parent or not, we all want the next generation to have it better than we did.
“Well tears will dry if you give them time / Life is a roller coaster keep your arms inside / Fear, that's a big emotion”
“Cat’s in the Cradle”
Artist: Harry Chapin
Composed for: Josh, Chapin’s only son
It’s only right that this song comes next. Harry Chapin admitted in a live performance that “Cat’s in the Cradle” scared him to death and that he stole a lot of it from his wife, Sandy. According to the Harry Chapin website, the song was based off a poem Sandy wrote that was actually inspired by her first husband and the tumultuous relationship he had with his own father.
The website also says that Chapin’s brother said of “Cat’s in the Cradle” that it “put more fathers ill at ease than any other song in history.” That’s probably pretty accurate, considering the devastating timeline that plays out in the lyrics and the chorus.
“When you comin' home, Dad / I don't know when, but we'll get together then / You know we'll have a good time then”
The problem is Dad never did make it home in time, and before he knows it, his son is all grown up. It’s safe to say that’s the nightmare scenario for any father, and we all need to be cognizant of the time we spend doing things that ultimately will not matter much when our kids are no longer kids.
“Father and Son”
Artist: Cat Stevens
Composed for: “Those people who can’t break loose”
The album on which this song appears, “Tea For the Tillerman,” is one of the greatest singer-songwriter records ever made. I first listened to it in my early 20s and, at the time, did not have the best relationship with my own father. The song seemed to be about the two of us and our difficulty communicating and being understood by each other.
“I was once like you are now, and I know that it's not easy / To be calm when you've found something going on / But take your time, think a lot / Why, think of everything you've got / For you will still be here tomorrow / But your dreams may not”
One of the greatest things about this song is how Cat Stevens so distinctly sings each verse, using a deeper register for the father’s lines and a higher one for the son’s lines.
Stevens told “Rolling Stone” in 1973 that his fans would often interpret the song as being wholly sung from the son’s perspective. “But how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too?” he told the magazine. “I was listening to that song recently, and I heard one line and realized that that was my father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father speaking.”
Artist: Kurt Vile
Composed for: Awilda, one of Vile’s two daughters
Kurt Vile actually has a few songs about parenthood. In fact, he admitted to “Vanity Fair” last year that, in 2011, the year daughter Awilda was born, “People said, ‘Pretty soon you’re going to be writing all these dad songs — songs about your kid.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. That’s bullshit.’ And then she came, and immediately I started writing reflective songs. Because it’s, like, a magical experience.”
The experience is magical, and you feel things and do things that you never expected of yourself. It’s hard to describe, but it’s easy to know if you’ve been there. One of those things is figuring out how much of your former self to retain and which parts to give up. I tried not to frame it that way for myself, but rather acknowledged that someone else is now really going to depend on me. I have to be present, and I have to be responsive, and I must be reliable.
In an interview with “Noisey,” Vile said of his “Too Hard” song that it was not meant to be taken so literally, that you must abandon your old lifestyle entirely, but, “It’s feeling love for your family and promising not to party too hard, but it’s too hard. I turned it around so everyone can relate … You’ve got to take the edge off sometimes. But it’s the general idea of going overboard is probably not a good idea.”
Artist: Neil Young
Composed for: Ben, one of Young’s two sons
“Trans” is actually an entire album, and the story behind it is the embodiment of a parent’s love and devotion for their child. Neil Young’s son, Ben, was born with cerebral palsy (in fact, so was his first son; and his daughter was born with epilepsy). According to an interview he gave for “MOJO” magazine in 1995, Young was spending 15 to 18 hours a day working with Ben on a special speech program while also creating the music of “Trans,” along with the “Re-ac-tor” album that preceded it. Both albums were influenced by this speech work.
“You see, my son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people,” Young told “MOJO.” “That's what ‘Trans’ is all about. And that's why, on that record, you know I'm saying something, but you can't understand what it is. Well, that's the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”
In most of the songs, Young uses a vocoder device to manipulate his voice, giving the music an otherworldly quality that at the time was compared to the German “robot pop” of Kraftwerk, according to a story in “ReZoom.” The album is certainly not for everyone, but it’s hard to deny the pure love behind the music and the quest to just provide a happy and easy life for your child.
Five years after this album was released, Young took it about 100 steps farther with his then-wife Pegi by starting the Bridge School to educate children with severe speech and physical impairments. The Bridge School Benefit Concert is held every year to help financially support the school.
I’ve long admired Neil Young’s music, but “Trans” could be viewed as his greatest accomplishment. For all the stress, worrying, precaution and preparation around our children’s health and happiness, it’s more important how we respond when our kids need us the most.
“The Only Living Boy in New York”
Artist: Simon and Garfunkel
Composed for: Simon singing to Garfunkel
Never mind that this song is not about children or parenting. Like “Astral Weeks,” this is about an important memory for me and how it’s fresh again now that I’ve become a parent. But for those interested, there is quite a story behind this song. In his book “The Words and Music of Paul Simon,” James Bennighof explains the meaning — which has a lot to do with loyalty and loneliness.
For me, the song also carries with it a good bit of loneliness and loyalty — and simply accepting your child as they are and doing whatever you can to help them succeed even in the face of ill-advised choices. As with “Astral Weeks,” my mother gave me the album on which this song appears.
When she gave it to me, I was about to turn 20 years old and had dropped out of college to move to New York City. I was convinced that my knowledge and writing skills were good enough to forgo the last years of college, so I moved in with the only person I knew in the city, took a bellboy job on the overnight shift, bought a stack of notebooks and a CD player, and tried to follow the ghostly shadows of my literary and musical heroes who’d conquered the Big Apple in generations past.
Instead of write me off or tell me how stupid I was, how I was just making my life harder than it needed to be by disregarding the value of higher education, my mother sent me some of the greatest music ever composed and encouraged me to dream big. She told me to not feel so alone, to absorb everything around me and be confident, and to make the best of my choices. And no matter what happened, she would always be my rock.
Artist: Bob Dylan
Composed for: “One of my boys”
This song debuted in 1974, but it wasn’t until 1985 and the release of the box set, “Biograph,” that Bob Dylan explained its meaning. Included with that compilation was a 36-page booklet written by Cameron Crowe, who at the time was mostly a music journalist yet to achieve big-screen fame.
“On ‘Forever Young,’ perhaps the most recorded of all Dylan's post-’60s songs: ‘I wrote (it) … thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute ... the song wrote itself,” the "Los Angeles Times" wrote.
I can’t tell if that’s an admission of the song’s simplicity — it often appears on “worst of” lists of Dylan songs for its seemingly pedantic lyrics — or just his way of being humble. Regardless, I love this song and don’t care what anyone else thinks of it. (It also doesn't hurt that it was the theme song for the first few seasons of the family drama, "Parenthood.")
Upon first hearing Dylan at 16 years old, I was forever mesmerized. I saw him live 13 times from 1999 to 2012 — the last and by far best performance happening in Buenos Aires in which I declared to myself that he would never be that good again, at least in my eyes, and I was done attending his concerts. I never heard “Forever Young” live, and it never struck me as explicitly a song about a child. I used to think Dylan was singing to himself. Maybe that’s the beauty of the song — that even as adults we might still be growing up and telling ourselves to never get too old.
“May you grow up to be righteous / May you grow up to be true / May you always know the truth / And see the lights surrounding you / May you always be courageous / Stand upright and be strong / May you stay forever young”