One of my favorite songs as a kid was Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried, which was released in 1968. Recently, I listened to it again. And again. And realized how the complex structure of the song helped to tell a story with a lot of depth.
Since I’m always looking for new ways to think about plot, I thought I’d share my analysis.
First, the narrator sets the scene: the way he does it tells us this story is about memory, and the memories are going to be poignant.
“The first thing I remember knowing,
Was a lonesome whistle blowing,
And a young un’s dream of growing up to ride;”
Those poignant emotions seize the listener’s attention, and make us feel emotion along with the narrator and be interested in what happens to him.
“Lonesome whistle” is, I think, the key to the emotion. (It’s a common way of describing a train whistle, but as a side note, that phrase also appears in an earlier Johnny Cash song, Folsom Prison Blues, that I’m pretty sure Haggard must have heard at some point, so there might have been unconscious reference.)
Next, no longer a child, we learn the narrator did something, and the something was likely bad, or at least something his mother didn’t approve of! Foreshadowing: your key to quality literature.
“On a freight train leaving town,
Not knowing where I’m bound,
No-one could change my mind but Mama tried.” [important first iteration of the song title]
The protagonist then gives his backstory. This isn’t boring, because we know it’s important to where he is now, and we have hints things will turn bad. How? He told us, by foreshadowing.
“One and only rebel child,
From a family, meek and mild:
My Mama seemed to know what lay in store.” [more foreshadowing]
“Despite all my Sunday learning,
Towards the bad, I kept on turning.
‘Til Mama couldn’t hold me anymore.” [note repetition of important thematic element, the mother]
Then the chorus, which repeats more than once. This is where he is now. This is the high point of the story, and when things change. The repetition of “Mama tried” implies that the narrator regrets his actions. He regrets not doing as his mother asked. His regret signals a change in his character. Even as he describes his current situation, it’s a turning point.
“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 ‘cos Mama tried.”
The narrator has just accepted responsibility for his actions, and now he begins to reflect on why he should have taken his mother’s advice.
“Dear old Daddy, rest his soul,
Left my Mom a heavy load;
She tried so very hard to fill his shoes.
Working hours without rest,
Wanted me to have the best.
She tried to raise me right but I refused.”
The song ends with another repetition of the chorus. But I think we the listeners are meant to believe that the narrator will change, or is in the process of changing. He has a character arc, even if some of it is only implied.
I’m left to wonder about the ways I can apply this to a story rather than a song.
The background behind him is…interesting. This is a 1968 live television performance:
And here’s a much later performance.