The songs our parents gave us

The music we grow up with shapes our tastes in later life, according to a study by Cornell University. We asked Guardian writers to tell us about the songs that take them back to their childhood homes

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‘My mother would listen to the Carpenters while ironing’

Of the handful of albums my parents owned, it was The Carpenters‘ Singles 1969-1973 that struck me the most. I remember being particularly fascinated by Rainy Days and Mondays. With the benefit of hindsight, I suspect it was because it was the first piece of music I had ever heard that appeared to perfectly suit the circumstances in which I heard it. My mother would listen to the Carpenters in the afternoon, while doing the ironing in the front room, and I remember thinking that was what the woman in the song was probably doing too. In my head she was singing it in in an anonymous house on a cul-de-sac in an estate like ours, while doing something boring like housework, in that awful, interminable dead zone between the lunchtime kids’ programmes ending and the afternoon ones beginning. I never felt that about my parents’ other records: I don’t know what I thought the bloke singing Brown Sugar was doing, but I was pretty certain he wasn’t ironing.

Something about the song’s sadness, and its pertinence must have seeped into me. I started loving the Carpenters and never stopped, even when it was deeply uncool to do so (they never were and will never be, the kind of band it’s OK for a teenage boy to like), even before I could dissect why I found their music so moving. The weird combination of velvety richness and ineffable melancholy in Karen Carpenter’s voice, the way it tugs at the lushness of the arrangements, the nagging sense that, in this glossily perfect, light-entertainment soundworld, something is desperately wrong. I still love them today. Alexis Petridis

‘I see my mum as a teenager’

My mum got pregnant with me when she was 16 and had me when she was 17. This was of no interest to me until I got older, when I began to recognise it in strange measurements – at 21, I thought, when mum was my age, she had a four-year-old. At 30, I thought, when mum was my age, she had a teenager. We only really talked about it once, over a long boozy dinner, when she told me things I’d never known. She had been offered a council house away from our hometown, she said, but didn’t want to move away. She juggled a baby and a part-time job on her own, at 17, so she could rent a tiny house, with no bathroom, just a toilet in the garden and the kitchen sink for washing. She told me she bought books from the jumble sale and read to me all the time, to prove a point to everyone who told her she had made a mistake. Why would I know this? I had never asked. The determination stunned me.

Wherever we lived, there were records in the cupboard with “Geraldine” in Biro on the corners of the sleeves. They were from before, when she went to discos and took her singles up to the DJ booth. Echo and the Bunnymen. The Human League. She told me how she and her friend Julie would sew themselves into their drainpipe jeans and get the train to Sheffield, hoping to be spotted by Phil Oakey like Joanne and Susan had been. Bauhaus. Joy Division. She told me how she would draw the curtains in her bedroom, close her eyes, lie on the bed and listen to Love Will Tear Us Apart, over and over, my grandma shouting up at her to turn that rubbish down. In the opening rumble, as the chords smash against the bass, I see mum as a teenager, when she barely had time to be one. It’s funny that the bleakest of songs makes me think of courage. Rebecca Nicholson

‘It was the only record my dad owned’

Officially, my father’s favourite song was Neil Diamond‘s Sweet Caroline. I never heard him express any heartfelt admiration for it, but he used to whistle the refrain absentmindedly while driving, and it was the song we always played on his behalf whenever we encountered a jukebox in a diner. My mother bought him the record for his birthday – for a long time it was the only one he owned.

This would have been around 1969, when the single reached No 4 in the States and was hastily appended to later pressings of Neil Diamond’s most recent LP. I was so young I had no idea it was a popular song of the moment; to me it seemed as if it had always been around, like Jingle Bells. I suppose my father’s seal of approval also lent it an air of timelessness. He didn’t keep up with the charts, and his car radio was invariably tuned to a New York rolling news station with a ticker tape sound in the background.

I don’t know if my father ever listened to that album on purpose. I played it a lot over the years, with my head against the speaker, trying to figure out what Neil Diamond was going on about. I’m still not entirely sure, but the melody is in my bones. I often find myself whistling it when I’m thinking of nothing. Tim Dowling

‘I had left the song behind without even seeing it go’

We are lying face down on the dining room floor, my brother and me, the tape player between us. Stop, rewind, stop, play, tugging at tufts of taupe carpet while we try to figure it out. We have listened to every word of Johnny Cash‘s A Boy Named Sue and despite our best efforts to imagine the worst, we can’t be sure what profanities the long, censorial beep is hiding in the phrase “I’m the ——- that named you Sue.” My brother’s guess is better than mine. (He’s older). “Bloody bastard!” A Boy Named Sue was our favourite song, but more than that, our favourite story. We arrived at our first Johnny Cash tape via our dad, who, possibly wanting his taste to prevail across TV and stereo, pointed it out in the WH Smith January sale. It cost 99p. A Boy Named Sue fitted with the potent males we grew up with in our house, John Wayne being another, and with the belief that physical strength indicated strength of character. The song contains the most amazing fight scene in which Sue loses a piece of his ear. Typically of Cash, it is not strength but humanity that triumphs.

It was in the late 90s that I had left the song behind without even seeing it go. Now I was desperate to hear it. I started buying Cash again. At our wedding we danced to Jackson (“We got married in a fever …”). Now Cash is everywhere. I hear him in the hairdresser’s. And “son of a bitch” is all those beeps were hiding. Paula Cocozza

‘An inappropriate song to remind me of my folks’

Athra Baras Ki Tu is by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, from the soundtrack to the Bollywood film Suhaag. First off, this song is about a gorgeous dancing girl – the perennial Punjabi euphemism for sex worker – being chased about a brothel by a drunk, desperately in love, petty criminal. It’s flirty and joyous and my mum would just like to make it really clear, that it’s inappropriate for it to remind me of my folks. But, like every other fashionable young Pakistani couple in the 70s, my parents were major Bollywood disco fans. Chunky platforms, the tightest of flares, his’n'hers bouffy hair – they went for the full kohl-lined, works. Their commitment to the cause was deep. Two hour-long round-trips to Leicester were made to catch the films at the cinema, mutton chops were grown, vinyl was collected and dusted and locked away in a cupboard, out of stubby-fingered reach. This was the golden era of Lata and Rafi, duetting in this case for Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha, India’s most glamorous screen couple, and forever in my head, the Hindi cinema version of my own, pre-me, parents. When Suhaag was released in 1979, Amitabh and Rekha were at peak chemistry and the film was the event of the year.

Inconveniently for them, mum decided to give birth to my brother two months prematurely and was in hospital resting and restless when my dad, not so big on detail, did the most romantic thing he could think of: turned up at the ward, draped her best fur coat over her nightie and secreted her out to the pictures anyway. This song doesn’t just define family car trips and evenings around the turntable, it’s a ridiculous, comical reminder of my parents’ relationship. Nosheen Iqbal

‘Mum said music was something to be listened to properly’

It wasn’t a record player, it was a radiogram. My mum was very clear on that. A record player was the portable Dansette that my eldest sister played her early Stones singles on. The radiogram was a large piece of furniture covered in a teak veneer that stood on four legs in one corner of the living-room. It was, so my mum said, the last word in high-fidelity sound reproduction. It must have cost the best part of £50 in the early 60s and could even have played records in stereo if we had had any.

I had a love-hate relationship with the radiogram. I admired its size, its quality and its inaccessibility. My dad had no interest in music whatsoever, but my mum had been to music college after the war and couldn’t stand the idea of having music playing in the background. Music was something to be sat down for in silence and listened to properly. It certainly wasn’t any of my sister’s records; only her classical records were allowed to be played on her radiogram.

Being only six and having no say in anything, I was often stuck listening to my mum’s records. Not least because I had no records – or taste – of my own and my 11-year old sister was not going share hers with me. So I spent what felt like hours, but was probably only minutes, listening to Mahler, Beethoven and Kathleen Ferrier. My Mum adored Kathleen Ferrier. I could take her or leave her. Leave her preferably.

One day, many years later, long after the radiogram had died and I was alone in the house, I got out one of my mum’s Ferrier records and started listening to her singing Che faro from Gluck’s opera Orfeo and Euridice. Ferrier’s deep alto voice was the most affecting musical instrument I had ever heard. I’m still not sure quite why I chose to play that aria at that time or why I suddenly became aware of the beauty of Ferrier’s voice and Gluck’s music, but it remains my one must-have desert island piece of music. Not even the organist, playing it at about a quarter of the right speed at our wedding 28 years ago, could spoil it. John Crace

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