“Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone”
This is one of the funkiest songs of all time. A hit for the Temptations in the early 70s (one of their final chart toppers), this is the story of a young man asking his mother about the truth of who his father was after the man dies. (FYI, my dad is still doing okay; he might even be home at the end of the week.) You wouldn’t think a song about such an emotional topic would be so funky, but I think the emotion adds some heft and weight to a song that might drift away otherwise.
When you think about it, there’s not that much substance to “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” It’s basically a chugging, metronome-like beat and one of the best choruses I’ve ever heard. ”Papa was a rolling stone. Wherever he laid his hat was his home. And when he died, all he left us was alone.” It’s dark and catchy and absolutely undeniable. It digs into you like a meat hook, and pulls you into one heavy place. The Temptations line-up at the time (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Richard Street, and Damon Harris) trade vocals–not quite a call and response, but close. The verses consist of all the rumors being spread about the late man. It’s unclear what the truth is: maybe everything is true, maybe none of it is. The only truth that matters here is that a family is left without support or help–a truth that faced many urban and working class families when one parent died or disappeared. There’s a lot being unsaid in this song, a critique of race and class that helps drive the simmering anger underneath the insistent rhythm.
Although I generally favor more lyrically substantial music, this is probably my favorite Temptations song. It’s so raw, and the emotions are so confusing. It’s one of those rare songs that make you dance and think at the same time.