The Story Behind Father And Son by Cat Stevens

atkins-bookshelf-musicTwo of the most moving and enduring songs that deal with the complex relationship between fathers and sons are “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin and “Father And Son” by Cat Stevens (born Steven Georgiou and known as Yusuf Islam since 1977). Stevens’s song was released in 1970 as a single from the best-selling album Tea for the Tillerman, ranked 206 in Rolling Stone’s “Greatest albums of All Time.” The timeless song remains a sentimental favorite of the Baby Boom generation — because they were teenagers at the time and could relate to the youth’s point of view; now they are middle-aged parents and can relate to the parent’s point of view. The song captures the conversation between a father and a son, reflecting a generational gap formed by the differences in experiencing life, love, marriage, and parenthood. The song’s message is universal because any parent, not just fathers, can relate to the underlying issues in the song. At the heart of the song is one of life’s most difficult lessons — something that parents and children must learn — letting go. Parents, drawing on their experience (successes and mistakes) lovingly provide advice to their children because they want them to succeed and be happy. Further along the path of parenthood comes a point that they must let their children go, so that they can find their own way in the world. Children, in turn, must learn when to listen and when to speak, especially when it comes to expressing who they are, what they believe, and what they want to accomplish. Along the path that leads toward adulthood, children will inevitably reach that point where they must let their parents go, leaving the nest to pursue their own dreams, prepared to make learn from their own successes and mistakes. And one day, they too will be parents. The cycle repeats.

So what was the inspiration for “Father and Son”? In an interview with American Songwriter in 2006, Stevens explains how the idea for a musical in the mid-1960s inspired the song: “I had an idea of writing a musical on the Russian Revolution. [One of the story lines involved a son who wants to join the revolution against the wishes of his father who wants him to stay and work on the family farm.] One of these was ‘Father and Son,’ and suddenly [Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records] said, ‘Why don’t you sign with Island Records?’ It was a great offer.” It was a great offer because after recovering from tuberculosis in 1969, Stevens began exploring spirituality and wanted to express that through his music. He wanted to write serious, introspective songs in a folk rock style, similar to those of Neil Young and James Taylor, whom he admired; Stevens elaborates: “It wouldn’t be difficult to decipher my spiritual ambitions through listening to my lyrics. So therefore, I think people would have already had a premonition that I was on my way somewhere but it wasn’t quite clear where we were going.” “Father And Song” fit perfectly into the concept for Tea for the Tillerman, alongside such reflective songs like “Miles to Nowhere,” “Where Do the Children Play,” and “On the Road to Find Out.” (Incidentally, Stevens drew the cover art for the album.)

Like Chapin, Stevens struggled with the wishes of his father who had a different career path for his son. In a 2009 interview, Stevens explained, “[My father] was running a restaurant and I was a [musician], so I wasn’t following the path that he laid out.” But although they disagreed on his career path, Stevens noted that there was no animosity between the two: “I loved him and he loved me.” During an interview with Disc magazine in 1972, Stevens explained that “Father And Son” was written in a general sense, reflecting the ceaseless chasm between the new and old generations, and should not be interpreted autobiographically: “I’ve never really understood my father but he always let me do whatever I wanted — he let me go. ‘Father And Son’ is for those people who can’t break loose.” 

In an earlier interview with Rolling Stones magazine in 1973, Stevens discussed a common misunderstanding of the song — that he took the son’s side; he clarifies: “Some people think that I was taking the son’s side. But how could I have sung the father’s side if I couldn’t have understood it, too? 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.”

Stevens’s “Father and Son” reminds us of that we are born into this world to play our parts as children and parents, and then paradoxically the roles are reversed. And perhaps it is only when we have seen this relationship from both sides that we become, like the Greek prophet Tiresias, wiser and more rounded human beings.

Lyrics to “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens (father’s lines in red; son’s lines in black):

It’s 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.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.
How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It’s always been the same, 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 away.
I know I have to go.
It’s not time to make a change,
Just sit down, take it slowly.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to go through.
Find a girl, settle down,
if you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.
All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,
It’s hard, but it’s harder to ignore it.
If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them you know not me.
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go.

Read related posts: The Story Behind Cats and the Cradle by Harry Chapin
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
The Paradox of the American Dream

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