Everyone knows Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son,” perhaps the most celebrated track from his 1970 album Tea for the Tillerman. As its title suggests, the song takes the form of a conversation between a father and son: the former promotes security, normalcy, serenity in convention; the son yearns to venture out into the world, thereby finding his true self in a manner that recalls Robert Frost’s poem “Into My Own.” However, we note that much of the song’s sadness comes from the fact that generational difference serves as a barrier to true communication between the two; the son does not address the father directly (“How can I try to explain? / When I do he turns away again”). Cat Stevens performs the vocals for both father and son, slightly elevating his pitch to distinguish the son’s dialogue. At this point it may be worthwhile revisiting the song (youtube).
What I want to briefly suggest is that the song becomes more interesting and in many ways more poignant if we consider the possibility that both of these voices (both of which are sung by Stevens after all) belong to the father. In this interpretation the father’s mention of “going away” refers to his eventual death, and the endpoint of his strained communication with his son.
The first lines of the song (unambiguously the father’s voice) clearly suggest a man with a rather sagely sense of himself; he addresses his son with a tenderness held in check by stereotypical paternal reserve: “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 . . .” In the conventional interpretation the son’s rebuttal follows, as he laments his inability to convince his father: “How can I try to explain? / When I do he turns away again . . .”
Yet if we do not at this point consciously attune ourselves to a rebuttal, decide to mark a transition—if we imagine the father’s voice simply continuing—then we hear an internal monologue that swells excruciatingly beyond the calm persona he has thus far projected for himself. “How can I try to explain? / when I do he turns away again” becomes the tragic lament of the father held at a distance, constrained by his own patient composure, by his insistence on maintaining his unapproachable and old-fashioned style of parenting.
Stevens continues: “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen now / There’s a way, and I know, I have to go away.” In the usual interpretation these lines describe the son’s standard feelings of frustration and marginalization, his desire to free himself from the overbearing influence of family. More interesting however, is the idea that the first line is not the son’s recollection of his repressive upbringing, but the father’s. Reflecting on his own youth, the father recalls his routine subordination with a mixture of pride and regret: “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.” One might say that having been raised to accept an essentially passive role within a deeply codified society, the father in turn promotes this life to his son, encouraging him to embrace it as the norm.
Continuing this idea, after the song’s acoustic interlude the father’s internal voice diverges further from the placidity of the one the son actually hears. Here the song reaches its most tragic point. Beneath the father’s stoic paternalism, his fulfillment of his routine patriarchal role and patient observance of consensus, is a man utterly stifled: “All the times that I’ve 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 they know, not me.” Even in the usual interpretation of this song, precisely who ‘they’ are here remains somewhat obscure—fathers? parents? (if he is referring to his father, why not “him?”—”he?”). Yet what if we take it as the abstract ‘they’ it appears to be? . . . An indeterminate, faceless but powerful They, a cultural chorus of consensus, propriety, dominant masculinity—whatever. At the same time as the father advocates convention, serenity, and the satisfaction of fulfilling predetermined roles, internally he veritably weeps for his own emotional repression.
Not every aspect of this explanation makes the kind of very straightforward logical sense of the dominant one, yet I feel this is also its virtue. If we see the song as illustrating tension between unexpressed internal desires and externally prescribed roles, the idea that aspects of that illustration remain incoherent, frustrated, uncertain, seems appropriate—even poignant.
“You will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not”: it is difficult to reconcile this line with the song’s conventional interpretation. The son is seeking to follow his dreams, so why would the father warn against their vanishing? We can of course draw the grimmer inference that the father is in fact encouraging his son to relinquish his dreams, as in:”If you live your life, according to the rules, your dreams will naturally dissipate.” This seems to make the most sense, although its expression is so unpersuasive (indeed, so grim) that it can only bespeak a deep and tragic bitterness within the father. Consequently, interpreting the the voice that immediately follows as the older man’s commentary on his own outwardly sensible yet deeply dissatisfying assurances seems especially fitting.