While there have been hundreds of songs written about fathers through the years, some have left a lasting impression because of how powerfully their lyrics honor the family patriarch.
Many of those songs remain as popular today as they did when first released, such as Eddie Fisher’s “Oh! My Papa,” a No. 1 pop hit from 1954. The original German ballad “O Mein Papa” was adapted with English lyrics and ultimately became Fisher’s biggest selling single, remaining at No. 1 for eight weeks. The singer tenderly reflects on the days when his father would “take me on his knee, and with a smile, he’d change my tears to laughter.”
In 1983 Barbra Streisand performed the Academy Award-nominated ballad “Papa Can You Hear Me?” from the film “Yentl.” The song incorporates a similar theme as “Oh! My Papa” but this time as a devotional prayer with the opening lines, “God, our heavenly Father; Oh, God and my father who is also in heaven.” The singer mourns the loss of her father while staring up, “Looking at the skies, I seem to see a million eyes; which ones are yours?” The poignant ballad, written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand, paints a fitting portrait of a daughter’s love for her deceased father.
Eric Clapton won a Grammy Award for his Top-20 hit “My Father’s Eyes,” a touching saga about the singer never having met his father and wishing he could have known him and wondering how he can teach his own son without having known his own father, pondering, “Where do I find the words to say? How do I teach him…that’s when I need my father’s eyes.”
The 1970s and 80s contributed songs that reflected more on the sometimes complicated relationships between fathers and their children. Cat Stevens’ classic “Father and Son” found the singer taking on the role of both patriarch and offspring as he tries to reassure his son that life will work out in the end and all the issues between them will ultimately be resolved. The father reasons, “It’s not time to make a change, just relax and take it easy, you’re still young, that’s your fault, there’s so much you have to know,” while in the guise of his son, he responds, “How can I try to explain ‘cause when I do he turns away and it’s always been the same, same old story.”
Harry Chapin addressed a similar conflict in his 1974 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” where a busy father barely has any time for his adoring son, who constantly questions, “When you coming home, dad?” The years pass and the boy grows up; at that point the father tries to reach out to him, but by then it was the son who had become too busy. The crestfallen dad was forced to realize: “He’d grown up just like me, my boy was just like me.”
In 1982 Bruce Springsteen released the haunting “My Father’s House,” a song that expressed the tumultuous relationship between Springsteen and his own father. The song begins as a dream where the singer remembers the simpler days of his childhood when he “was trying to make it home through the forest before the darkness falls.” The song appeared on Springsteen’s stark and brilliant “Nebraska” album, in which the Catholic-raised Springsteen’s search for answers with his father leads him to his father’s house, where a woman tells him, “I’m sorry son, but no one by that name lives here anymore.” The experience ultimately leads to a cathartic realization that the past only helps to define who we are today.
Country music has a long rich history of paying tribute to fathers in song, dating back to Jimmie Rodgers’ 1928 recording of “Daddy and Home,” which would chart for Tanya Tucker 60 years later in 1989. The song is another dream memory of an adult fondly recalling their beloved father, who is now old, and the happier days of childhood.
Similarly, Gene Autry’s self-penned 1931 ballad “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” finds the narrator trying to make up for all the heartache he has caused his now elderly parent, admitting, “If God would but grant me the power just to turn back the pages of time, I’d give all I own if I could but atone to that silver-haired daddy of mine.” Artists including the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, and Johnny and Tommy Cash have covered the song.
Johnny Cash recorded a number of songs about fathers, including Shel Silverstein’s satirical “A Boy Named Sue,” where the singer goes out angrily in search of the man who gave him a female name, only to learn that his father did it so his son would become strong and tough with him gone. Cash also enjoyed a No. 1 country hit with Carl Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass,” about how his father led the family in song and how he hopes to someday “join the family circle at the throne” in heaven.
Country singer Holly Dunn wrote and recorded the Top-10 hit “Daddy’s Hands” in 1991 praising her father and recalling the sacrifices he made for his children and that, “Daddy’s hands weren’t always gentle but I’ve come to understand, there was always love in daddy’s hands.”
Reba McEntire released the No. 3 charting 1992 ballad “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” about a father who appeared distant and quiet but gave his children all he had with his daughter ultimately realizing, “He was in his paper, I was in my room; How was I to know he thought I hung the moon?”
In 2001 George Strait scored a No. 1 hit with “The Best Day” where a father poignantly recalls all the milestone events he shared with his son like camping, fishing, giving him his first car, and ultimately standing beside him in church on his wedding day, altogether adding up to the best days of his life.
One year later, Alan Jackson released “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” dedicated to his father, Eugene, and the joy he experienced learning to drive his father’s motorboat and then his first car, remembering it was “just a dirt road with trash on each side, but I felt like Mario Andretti when daddy let me drive.” Jackson referenced his father in a number of his songs including “Home” and “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.”
Possibly one of the most heartfelt songs on the subject in recent memory is Luther Vandross’ 2003 ballad “Dance with My Father.” Vandross wrote the song with Richard Marx a few years before suffering a debilitating stroke that would lead to his death in 2005. Vandross’ father died when he was young and one of his fondest memories was watching his father dance around the house with his children. The meaning behind the song and Vandross’ heartbreaking performance make this a definitive selection for Father’s Day.
“Dance with My Father” reflects on innocence lost juxtaposed against memories of a father carrying his child up the stairs to bed as the grownup yearns for the chance to once again “walk with him and dance with him, he’d “play a song that would never end; How I’d love, love, love to dance with my father again.”
The song won the 2004 Grammy Award for Song of the Year and is truly a Father’s Day song for the ages.