Cover of Tea for the TillermanBy Kenn Morr
At the beginning of the writing process songwriters set out with one goal: To write a "universal song." What is a "universal song" and what are the elements necessary to create it? Cat Stevens answered these questions when he penned the hit "Father and Son".
A "universal song" is one with a message (and sound) that resonates with a large number of people. While it is certainly necessary for the song's lyrics to communicate a common message to the masses the song must also contain a melody that is "catchy" or "simple" enough to be immediately "accessible".
The music must reach out and grab the listener even before the first lyrics are sung. Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" fulfills both of these requirements. How? Let's start by examining the song's melody.
A highlight on the 1970 classic album Tea For The Tillerman, "Father and Son" opens with an acoustic guitar lick which quickly became interpreted (or "covered" by other singers) and recognized in coffee houses, cafes, book stores and night clubs throughout the world.
The initial chord sequence strummed "G" to "C" with its simply-picked signature melody line is both (relatively) easy to play on the guitar and even easier to receive as a listener. This folk-inspired intro leaves behind the bells and whistles (i.e. other instrumentation) normally found saturating records of the same era.
In its simplicity the musical hook of the introduction is the perfect set-up for what becomes a lyrical "conversation" between a father and son.
In his signature bass/baritone vocal register Cat Stevens sings the first line with an authoritative voice: "Its not time to make a change - just relax, take it easy. You're still young, that's your fault, there's so much you have to know. Find a girl, settle down if you want you can marry. Look at me, I am old but I'm happy ...".
Through these lyrics it becomes clear the voice we are hearing is that of an older man a.k.a. "the father" attempting to impart wisdom to his son.
In the subsequent verse the father offers further advice: "I was once like you are now and I know it's not easy to be calm when you found something going on. But take your time, think a lot. Think of everything you've got for you will still be here tomorrow but your dreams may not."
After singing this line Stevens plays the opening guitar lick (the musical "hook") thus setting up the next section of the song. And it is through this subsequent verse the standards for the "universal song" are met.
The third verse opens in the same musical key yet Cat has raised his vocal register to a voice playing the role of the angst-ridden son: "How can I try to explain? When I do he turns away again. It's always been the same, the same old story. From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen. Now there's a way and I know that I have to go. I know ... I have to go."
As listeners we are placed in the position to decide if we will be interpreting this song from the standpoint of the father or that of the son. The song's message is clear (and "universal") as it accurately portrays the ageless battle between generations. And by changing vocal registers between low (the "father") and higher ("the son") Stevens leaves little doubt as to which roll he is portraying at any give time in the piece thus creating tension between these two voices/roles.
The song's lyrics conclude with Stevens (as the son) singing: "I know I have to go" and with this line the piece returns to the original guitar lick (i.e. the song's "hook") thus bringing us full-circle and in the process this musical "gift" is wrapped and presented in perfect paper and bow (music and lyrics respectively).
Cat Stevens wrote "Father and Son" for an outside project. He aimed to portray a Russian boy's desire to join the Revolution against his father's wishes. And while the song clearly communicates the intended message, its "universal" lyrics and easily-accessible melody also depict the classic (and timeless) struggles between a parent and their restless adolescent child. This dual interpretation is the reason Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" is a perfect example of a song with "universal" appeal.
Kenn Morr is an internationally acclaimed Singer/Songwriter, Producer and Author with six albums to his credit http://www.kennmorrmusic.com Originally from Long Island, NY, Kenn now lives in New England's Berkshire Mountains with his wife and two young sons and cites Cat Stevens as a major influence on his songwriting and music.
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