In 2006, when U2’s Bono guest-edited an issue of The Independent, he interviewed comedian Eddie Izzard, and they explored questions about the influences of their mothers over their own desire for the affections of their audiences.

Bono has, of course, sung about this. In “Mofo,” rock’n’roll becomes his surrogate mother — a source of identity and inspiration as well as a channel for his cries to his absent mother.

And then, in the recent Songs of Innocence, he sings about her specifically in a song named for her: “Iris.”

Mothers — their counsel, their example, their presence, and their absence. Who can measure how much influence they have over our lives, our work, our creative expression?

I’ve written about two remarkable songs about mothers (one by Sufjan Stevens, one by St. Vincent) in today’s edition of my weekly music column — Listening Closer — over at Christ and Pop Culture.

One of Over the Rhine’s most beloved songs, “Only God Can Save Us Now,” was inspired by Karin Bergquist’s experiences visiting and caring for her mother in a nursing home. Listen to her testimony in this live performance:

Here’s the studio version

It wasn’t until my friend Martin Stillion recommended I listen to Merle Haggard’s song “Mama Tried” that I found the melodic inspiration for “Only God Can Save Us Now.” Listen closely to that Over the Rhine melody, and then check this out:

Stillion’s recommendation came when I asked my social-network communities about their favorite songs about mothers. (You can browse the whole list here.)

He also recommended two more: Bill Monroe, “Mother’s Only Sleeping” and Dock Boggs: “Mother’s Advice.”

Molly Smith Detweiler recommended one of my favorites: “Evensong” by The Innocence Mission:

While we’re on the subject of our mothers’ good counsel, I’m surprised nobody called out this one:

John Barach submitted this Mountain Goats’ track ­— “Matthew 25:21” —which comes with this preface: “I wrote the chorus on an airplane when I was going to California to say goodbye to someone dying too young. I wrote the rest of the song about six months later in a hotel room in Northampton, when the sting of her death was still fresh. It is my tribute to a mother whose absence is still felt daily by all who knew and loved her. I miss her so much.”

Ken Priebe points to The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and these Wikipedia notes: “McCartney explained that his mother — who died of cancer when Paul was fourteen — was the inspiration for the “Mother Mary” lyric. He later said, “It was great to visit with her again. I felt very blessed to have that dream. So that got me writing ‘Let It Be.’ He also said in a later interview about the dream that his mother had told him ‘It will be all right, just let it be.’”

And Bart Cusveller reminds us of Kate Bush’s “Mother Stands for Comfort,” from one of my all-time favorite records — Hounds of Love.


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