Listen to this track by wise beyond his years Canadian singer-songwriter and eventual radio broadcaster Murray McLauchlan. It’s “Child’s Song” as taken from his 1971 record Song From The Street, his debut album. The song was famously covered by fellow folk performer Tom Rush the year before on Rush’s 1970 eponymous record, where it tends to be better known outside of Canada.
As for McLauchlan, he would be among the first signees to True North, a label based in Toronto that is loosely the equivalent of Asylum in that it was meant to be a place for singer-songwriters. In this case, it was the artists coming out of the Yorkville folk scene there in Toronto in the late 1960s, songwriters with emotive and introspective points of view and with roots-oriented sound and arrangements that would characterize the True North stable for many years afterwards. Murray McLauchlan was certainly among the finest early examples, along with fellow signee Bruce Cockburn who was the first artist on the True North roster before McLauchlan joined him.
By the time McLauchlan wrote and recorded this song, he was a tender 23 years old seemingly with something of an old-soul and keen sense lyrical detail and emotional undercurrents. It seems to tell a very personal story about outgrowing the place where one grew up. But this song distinguishes itself in a way that standard “I wanna be free” songs written around this time do not.
The song concerns itself with a child who is no longer a child, facing the prospect that most of us face in life as we say goodbye to childhood; leaving home. For many of us, this milestone is driven by practicalities of starting a new career, a new relationship, or going to a new school in a new city. Moving out is just a part of those equations. But, leaving home is rarely simple. It’s not just about a change in physical geography, but rather an act that has an effect on emotional geography too.
Here, the song explores a whole gamut of it, from the wistfulness of memories made in a childhood home, to the realization that some things can’t be brought along for the new journey; things we’ve outgrown have to be left behind, including the tensions and old arguments that linger between parents and their children even as their time together in one house has drawn to a close. But, this tale of a son moving out goes beyond his own reflections on what the event means for him. It also causes him to reflect on what it means to his parents, too. Childhood’s end is about a shift in identity, and not just for the person leaving it behind. The end of childhood in this song is about his parents’ lives as much as it is about his own.
“Each of us must do the things that matter
All of us must see what we can see
It was long ago you must remember
You were once as young and scared as me”
In this, it’s a love song more than it is one about breaking away. It touches on everyone’s humanity equally, acknowledging that a childhood being over has an impact on everyone, parents included. That’s what raises this song above being just a simple and self-absorbed “I wanna be free” anthem common to the era. In this song, being free means being uncertain about how to operate within that freedom, but using it to seek out one’s identity anyway. It’s about knowing that in life there are a lot of missing pieces in the box, but that life is about making what we can of the pieces we’ve got.
Murray McLauchlan would go on to be a prolific songwriter garnering him eleven juno awards (that’s a Canadian Grammy, eh), and later as a broadcaster too on the CBC Swingin’ On A Star radio show, all of which contributed to his winning of the Order of Canada in 1993. He would continue to perform and record after that, doing so up until the present day, when he’s not busy being a dad.
For a more contemporary performance of this song, here’s McLauchlan performing the song in 2011, his voice only slightly changed from his early days, and with the tremendous emotional resonance of the song undiminished. This latter day take on the song adds another layer to it; that some things in our lives stay with us long after we’ve embarked on the journey to who we eventually become. We remember what it was to leave home, to get out from under our parents while still loving them, and making lives of our own. For the luckiest of us, we can say “you taught us well” to our parents. And as this song points out, the luckiest of them had a chance to say it back to us, too.
For more information about Murray McLauchlan, check out his profile on CBC Music.