The Hard Part is Letting You Go

2020 is the 50th anniversary of a number of record albums that have remained favorites throughout my life. Perhaps that is because in 1970, when I was 15 years old, I really started paying attention to the popular music of my day. There is a huge list of great albums that came out that year. Cosmo’s Factory by Credence Clearwater Revival. Sweet Baby James by James Taylor. Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. The Beatles’ Let It Be. Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. Van Morrison’s Moondance. After The Gold Rush by Neil Young. All released in 1970. All imbedded deep in my memory. Listening to these albums is really like time travel for me.

Recently—after having sold off all my old records years ago—I started re-collecting vinyl albums to recover some of the music that is important to me. One record I just bought is another album released in 1970, a pretty decent used copy of Tea For The Tillerman by Cat Stevens (now named Yusuf). Featured on that album is a song that I have always loved and that has always evoked a strong emotional response in me, a song called “Father and Son.”

When I listened to it recently, this song resonated in a new way. The tune is sung by two characters, one a father and one a son. The verses alternate between their thoughts and feelings. Stevens/Yusuf sings the words of each character in subtly different voices. What I realized in listening to the song is that in the past I had always identified with the voice of the young son on the cusp of adulthood. This time, I realized I was the father offering what he believes is sage advice. I have changed roles.

In the song, the father offers his (somewhat sexist) wisdom and stability to his son:

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

The son cries out in angry frustration at not being heard or seen by his parent:

How can I try to explain, cause 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

I have always appreciated the son’s commitment to assert his full selfhood, even if it meant he must “go away.” He ends the verse singing, “I know I have to go.” 

These days I am understanding the words, the fears, and the pain of the father a bit more. As our children grow, it is part of their job to claim their full selves. The only way to do that is to leave mothers and fathers behind—at least for a season.

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Sings “Father & Son”

In the second half of the song, the words of father and son intertwine with one another. On a cursory listen the counter melodies can easily be missed. But as I listened this time – I paid careful attention to the “secondary” voice. As the father proclaims, “Its not time to make a change,” in the background the son sings out, “Away, away, I know I have to make this decision alone.” 

Then, as the son’s voice takes center stage, “All the times that I’ve cried, keeping all the things I knew inside,” we hear the father’s voice underneath pleading in anguish, “Stay, stay, stay, why must you go and make this decision alone?” At this point of the song, when I really hear the music in my heart, I can feel tears well up. Tears for the son. Tears for the father. Tears for all of us who seek to navigate what it means to be ourselves in this world. Tears for all of us who try to find ways to love those who are closest to us.

I have always liked this song because it is so universal and real. It is the story of growing. Of finding ourselves. Of letting go. Of leaving something behind so that we might claim something new.

There is a song with a similar theme released this year by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. It is called “Letting You Go.” This time it is the story of a father and a daughter, with the father looking back on his daughter’s growth over the years and the relationship they have had to this point—again, that point is early adulthood. The chorus zeroes in on both the beauty and the pain of their relationship:

And being your daddy comes natural
The roses just know how to grow
It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going
The hard part is letting you go
The hard part is letting you go

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit perform “Letting You Go.”

That’s really it, isn’t it? The hard part in all our lives is letting go, even when it is in the service of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Harder still is letting go of those we love, even when it it is in the service of them becoming all they were meant to be. Even when it is clearly what needs to happen for them to “get where they’re going.”

This is at least part of what it means to travel through our lives. When we travel to new places in the world, letting go of one place often allows us to welcome and appreciate a new place. Perhaps letting go of a relationship in one way—even with those we love the most deeply—will bring us to a new and even more beautiful place with that person. Perhaps we will come to a place where we each embrace and express our deepest, truest, most beautiful selves.

Spiritual Practice: Find Yourself in Music

I’m not a great musician. I am not a real student of music. I don’t have a broad understanding of genres, or theory, or instruments. I don’t know about many contemporary artists. I don’t dance very well. I have a very narrow range of musical knowledge. I am shy about singing and do most of it when I am alone. But I know that music can move me. So I try to pay attention when it touches me deeply.

Here is the practice. When you listen to music—when, where, and how does it affect you? Does a certain style of music really touch you? Why do you think that is? Do the words of a certain song hit you deeply? What might that be about? Do the words and music make you courageous? Sad? Joyful? Thoughtful? Can a song challenge you? What does it ask of you? Does the music trigger a memory? What was it like to return to that place?

Music makes me happy. That is one of the reasons I listen. But music also uncovers something of my deepest self. That also is why I listen. And somewhere in that process, I am convinced the Spirit is at work.

5 thoughts on “The Hard Part is Letting You Go

  1. I just love your insight and heartfelt sharing here, Jim. You have always cherished and reflected on your relationships with your children and grandchildren. It has been inspiring and enjoyable to witness. Thank you so much for your perspectives on parent/child connections and the need for some dis-connection in order for both generations are able to be who God created them to be. Letting go takes trust, hope, and faith…and it hurts! As you say so well, thank God for music and how it can absorb and reflect our feelings, giving us an outlet for our emotional pain—plus a connection to the Spirit who probably was instrumental in writing those songs as an artistic expression of our groans that are too deep for our own words.


  2. Jim, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Quite the topic. Music, like a Rorschach test, is experienced in so many different ways and yet it is universal. My parents made it a centerpiece of our life together and I experienced music from the day I was born. Letting go of my mother occurred slowly over a couple decades due to her dementia. Through it all we continued to sing together even when a conversation was no longer possible. Eventually, when she could no longer sing the lyrics, she continued to hum the melody and/or harmony. One day I received word that my mom was no longer singing. A few months later my two brothers and I each sang a song at her memorial to honor her life of love and music. It was the least we could do.


    1. Paul, thanks for sharing this memory of music and your mom. I find that music expresses that which I can never just put into words. How wonderful you had that connection with your mother. What did you sing at her memorial?


      1. I sang “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me”. A call and response song that engaged the mourners. She taught the song to me when I was in high school.


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