Song Spotlight: “Mama Tried”

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California – Dorothea Lange

  • Mood: Regretful, Defiant, Wistful
  • Theme: Regret, Motherhood/Parenting
  • Tempo: Moderately Fast
  • Genre/style: Classic Country

Mother’s Day is coming up in a few days, and in honor of the holiday, I’ve been sharing many songs about motherly advice and love with clients in music therapy. In fact, a few that I’ve spotlighted before work well for this holiday, including Que Sera Sera, Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy, Cuddle Up a Little Closer and Button Up Your Overcoat (although it’s a bit warm for that last one. Maybe it would work in the southern hemisphere?)

The fact is, though, that Mother’s Day isn’t always the happiest day, for the children or for the mothers. My heart goes out to mothers who have lost their children and children who have lost their mothers, as I know they are grieving at this time. My heart also goes out to the women who desperately want to be mothers but who have struggled with infertility or miscarriages. These losses leave holes in our lives that cannot be papered over.

And, I’m also thinking about the mothers who have been disappointed by their children. Parenting always involves ups and downs as children grow and life happens. Sometimes things don’t work out for the best, and sometimes children make serious and lasting mistakes, no matter how hard their parents tried to raise them well. This causes a different kind of pain, especially when you think that you are the reason why your child turned out this way. I’ve known mothers of adult children who have experienced this kind of pain. I’ve also heard the regret of folks who disappointed their mothers, who made those lasting mistakes and now can’t repair the damage. That’s the topic of this song spotlight: Mama Tried.”

“Mama Tried” is a semi-autobiographical song written and performed by Merle Haggard. Although not true to every detail of Haggard’s past – he didn’t get a sentence of life without parole, for example – this song does reflect the fact that Haggard’s father died when he was nine years old, and that Haggard started committing petty crimes soon afterward. He served time in juvenile detention for several offenses and eventually landed in San Quentin state prison in 1957 after an attempted robbery. He spent three years in prison, during which he managed to turn his life around. After his release and a time of readjustment to society, Haggard began to make it in the music business, with his band The Strangers. “Mama Tried” was released in 1968, Haggard’s fifth song to reach #1 on the country charts. An enduring hit, “Mama Tried” won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.

Merle Haggard doesn’t pull any punches in this song. Check out some of the lyrics:

And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole.
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried.
Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied.
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.

Listening to this, I can imagine the narrator’s mother, pulled in twenty different directions and just trying to make ends meet while her son is getting wilder and more out of control each day. The words Haggard chooses are strong: pleading, refused, rebel, denied, blame – and, of course, the repeated phrase, “mama tried.” Listening to the song, I’m not sure what emotions are behind those words. Regret? Resignation? Pity?  Maybe a mixture of all of these? Or maybe he’s just stating the facts? I don’t know. I can’t really say the song gives us clues to the narrator’s emotions, either. The rhythm drives the song in a rather matter-of-fact way, even with the stark meaning of the lyrics.

Either way, this song validates the experience of people who’ve disappointed their parents or who have been disappointed by their children. It also acknowledges the fact that people fail, but life goes on anyway. I think there is comfort in this idea, and in the validation that life does not always turn out the way you want it to. So, perhaps you or someone you know can find peace in this song on the day we celebrate mothers.

Do you know any other songs that acknowledge the difficult parts of parenthood? Please share your ideas below.

This post is part of an occasional series on special songs to share with your loved ones. For more song spotlights, click here.

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2 thoughts on “Song Spotlight: “Mama Tried”

  1. musicsparks says:

    There are such a mix of emotions around Mother’s Day. Suggesting a song that mentions mom, an upbeat temp, and defiant lyrics would work well with some groups. Given that I have a country loving crowd I may have to this one.

    • soundscapemusictherapy says:

      True. I’ve used this as a part of a set of songs for a group, and introduce it by saying, “no matter how hard you try, sometimes those kids just don’t take your advice.” Then everyone laughs, and I introduce the song. I try to keep it lighthearted in the group setting, but I think just having the song validates the fact that parenthood isn’t always perfect.

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