Mama’s Eyes by Justin Townes Earle
- Writing Memoir
- Writing Poetry
This is a mentor text that I’ve been sitting on for a long time.
Justin Townes Earle is the son of legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and a fine songwriter himself. This song, from his fine, fine album Midnight at the Movies, is one of my favorites of his. It’s a gorgeous piece in which Earle ruminates on being a product of his parents, talking about the similarities he shares with each of them.
Like many pieces that strike us, ‘Mama’s Eyes’ came to me in waves. I loved it as soon as I heard it. I loved the confessional tone, the admission of struggle, issues with his dad, and that he got what he feels are his best qualities from his mom.
Then I became a parent, and experienced the bizarreness of seeing yourself, your looks, mannerisms, quirks and whatnot reflected back at you in a smaller package. The song took on a different meaning.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve not brought it into class yet, but I know how to do it.
How We Might Use These Texts:
Writing Memoir — With my Grade 12 class, we study, and write memoir. This song is perfect for that, as that’s exactly what it is – a rumination on self and lineage in just over two minutes. I love the subject matter: what we get from our parents, the good and the bad. To me, it feels like a musical version of the beloved “I Am From” poem.
The lyrics are quite frank, which I think will appeal to many students. Sometimes, we dance around memoir in a way that lets us avoid some of the tougher stuff. I like to think that we can allow our writers a safe place to explore that tougher stuff. Earle does that, alluding to his struggles with addiction, so similar to his father’s. The beauty of working in a lyrical form is that he doesn’t have to be specific, and take the time to expand upon this. That might be a good model for some of our writers – an encouragement to broach something via an allusion, as opposed to a full narrative.
Also key in this piece, I feel, is the fact that he deals with physical characteristics, as well as personality. In other iterations of the “what I get from the people I come from” piece, I’ve noticed that students really only deal with one or the other. This model pushes them to consider a bigger picture.
I think another reason that this song hasn’t made it into my classroom yet is that for some students, family is a tricky topic to tackle. I’ve thought about that, and I feel that once we’ve spent some time together, we can tackle this. We can have the chat about what family means, and that sometimes, we pull what we need from the family we’ve chosen, not necessarily from the traditional family dynamic. As well, in our analysis of the lyrics, we could stress that there’s an element of vagueness to the lyrics, which we can exploit as writers, if that makes this an easier piece of writing.
Writing Poetry — One of my goals for the second half of this school year was to push myself as a poetry teacher. I think Earle’s lyric works as a nice little piece of poetry. Consider how he begins by identifying himself as his “father’s son.” He expresses that he’s not happy about that in some ways. He finishes by contrasting what he feels are paternally influenced flaws with the positive qualities he got from his mother.
It’s a nice structure, isn’t it? A contrast, a device to switch between the contrasting elements. If we look at the autobiographical nature of this piece, then our writers could use it as a place to reflect, inspired by the line “I was younger then.” I plan to use this with Grade 12s next year, during their last year of high school, a naturally reflective time for them.
I also like the poetic nature of this lyric:
Now it’s three am and I’m standing in the kitchen
Holding my last cigarette
Strike a match and I see my reflection in the mirror in the hall
Earle paints a picture of a reflective moment here. What a romantic notion, as a teacher, to have a student paint a three line picture of where they are most reflective. It’s a big ask, yes, to have a young person lay bare a personal moment, but what a place to tap into in a writer.
Also worth exploring is the titular line. When Earle sings “I’ve got my mama’s eyes” he’s doing something really wonderful. It’s a powerful piece of imagery, as he is tapping into both the literal and figurative interpretations of those eyes – a physical similarity, as well as a way of looking at the world. It would be a wonderful challenge to throw to our writers, finding a way to do the same in a piece inspired by this song. The emotional resonance is amplified, as well, by the fact that Earle titled the song from this line. What a fantastic opportunity to talk about titling our pieces.
This song came up on shuffle during a long drive recently. I played it a couple times in a row for my wife, and we talked about the beauty of the lyrics. That brought it back into the forefront of my TeacherBrain again. What I’d love to do, inspired by this song, is attach a variety of memoir related writing prompts to corresponding songs, utilizing the lyrics and music as launching points for us to explore memoir writing. I love putting things like this together as the year draws to a close, knowing I’ve got exciting stuff to hit the ground running with in September.
How do you inspire reflection as students write memoir? I’m planning on exploring memoir through music, but are there other ways to do it that would be interesing? What songs could you attach a piece of memoir writing to?
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