Family Ties: The Mother Album

by Kerry Dexter /
Kerry Dexter's picture
Apr 25, 2009 / 2 comments

Parent, child, grandparent -- among the deepest ties and at once the most complex and the most direct in our lives. Robin Spielberg, Susan McKeown, and Cathie Ryan had both the complications and the directness in mind when the got together to record the album Mother: songs celebrating mothers and motherhood.


Spielberg is a classically trained pianist who has worked with music as a healing art and is a gifted composer. McKeown, a native of Dublin, has lived long in New York and is a singer who often integrates African, Latin, and other styles into her work; Ryan, a first generation Irish American, is a singer and songwriter who has been recognized as the Irish voice of the decade and whose writing draws on both her background in Irish myth and legend and her American experience. They each brought differing family experiences to the recording as well, and many of these found their way into the collaborative nature of the project.

As they were working on the record “one evening as we watched the snow fall heavily and silently, Robin told us the story of her grandmother, Jennie Spielberg,” McKeown relates. “Born is Russia in 1903, tragic circumstance placed demands on her as a mother which were far beyond most.” Inspired by the story, McKeown wrote Jennie’s Song, a story vivid with detail and based in courage. Those ideas also fill McKeown’s song about her own mother, Jeannie, who died when McKeown was a teenager. ”A liberated woman who built her own musical career, encouraged by my father, she wanted her five children to be independent, and to lead full, busy lives -- as she had,” she says, and in the song McKeown sings “Independence blue bells of truth/ they have all grown here since my youth where she planted seeds of such worth/ that I would never give up hope.”

Spielberg honors one her mother’s gifts to her, that of taking a walk . It’s something they used to do together, and Spielberg says, “when giving concerts was still new to me, my mother would come to my house and take me for a walk in the woods to calm me before a performance. It worked of course.” The instrumental piece, Walk With Me, has some the qualities of a good walk, both quiet and exploratory. In Real Pretty Mama, Spielberg departs from her instrumental place to sing a song which traces the growing up, growing apart, and coming back together that often mark parent and child connections, and dedicates it to her mother, Honey Spielberg.

Cathie Ryan wanted to comfort her mother, Mary, as she saw her grieve her own mother’s death. She came upon a poem called Rock Me to Sleep, Mother, and wrote music to support the quiet grief and resolution in the words of nineteenth century poet Elizabeth Akers Allen. Another bittersweet time sparked a song for Ryan, as well. She was visiting her fahter’s mother, Catherine Ryan, for whom she is named and who was a fiddle player and a singer. At that time the elder Catherine was lost in her mind to Alzheimer’s disease and didn’t know her granddaughter. One of Ryan's aunts suggested, more to make the younger woman feel better than anything else, that she sing a song, and sitting at the floor at her grandmother’s feet, Ryan began to sing an old jig her grandma had liked. She saw her grandma’s foot begin to tap “and her eyes came alive, she was there, and all the love, laughter and music I knew from her were there for the space of that song,” Ryan says. On the bus back to Dublin Ryan wrote Grandma’s Song, which, with its lively, bouncy melody, may be taken as a children’s song. Children do enjoy it and Ryan often gets them singing along when she does it in concert, but it also is a song which reminds all of the happy acceptance and just plain fun children and adults may have together doing everyday things with love.

The other songs -- there are fourteen tracks altogether -- are just as varied and thoughtful, and thought provoking, not just for mothers and not just for parents. It’s coming up on time to celebrate Mother’s day in America, though, and this would make good listening for the season.

McKeown, Spielberg, and Ryan recorded this album some years back, and during the time since, both their careers and their experiences as mothers and as daughters have continued to evolve. Every so often, one or the other of them brings up the idea of doing a Mother Two. Hasn’t happened yet, but you may keep up with their careers at


Kerry Dexter is the Music Editor for Wandering Educators.

Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road.. You may reach her at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

Comments (2)

  • Ed Forteau

    14 years 7 months ago

    Thanks for sharing this, Kerry. This album sounds great.


    Ed Forteau


  • Kerry Dexter

    14 years 7 months ago

    Thanks, Ed. They have gathered such a varied and uncommon collection of music, and their styles are quite different, but it really all works together. Will be interesting to see what they come up with shouild they choose to do another one at some point.

    Kerry Dexter

    Music Editor,

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