The archetype of the absentee father in American culture is one I’m all too familiar with. I know what it’s like to be a child and explain to people that I’ve never met my biological father, that he abandoned my mother at my birth and shirked his responsibility as a man to raise his son. I’ve seen the look of pity mixed with judgment on the faces of peers, teachers, and anyone else who unwittingly inquired one level too deep about my family history. Men have been making selfish decisions and burdening women with the impossible task of being both father and mother for eons and I can’t envision the cycle ever ending. As an adult, the sins of these weak men sink in every time I see a single mother struggle or meet a child whose father thinks accountability is a dirty word. There are many songs that deal with the strain put on women by cruel and egoistic men, but it’s one song about stripping a good man of his right to be a father that’s been on my mind lately.
In 1971, Bill Withers released his debut album, Just As I Am and was instantly catapulted to stardom behind the hit single, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The album featured several other songs that would become staples of Bill’s catalog, including “Grandma’s Hands,” “Harlem” and “Hope She’ll Be Happier.” All of these tunes are classic R&B/soul records, but it’s “I’m Her Daddy” that’s compelling me to write this piece.
The song eases in with an acoustic guitar and hand percussion before Withers queries, “How do you do Lucy?” He speaks from the perspective of a man who has finally found the woman he suspects of having his child and hiding her from him for six years. He casually states that he heard she had a daughter and confesses he can hardly keep it together after the realization that he is the child’s father. A confrontation ensues as the full band comes in and Bill asks a series of questions: “Is she pretty?” “Has she grown?” “Can I see her?” “Does she know I’m her daddy?”
Can you imagine the pain of a parent who has been denied a role in their child’s life? What about the pain that the child feels, never having had the chance to feel the love of their father? It reminds me of a line from Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”: “Cause ain’t nuttin’ worse than when your son wants to know why his daddy don’t love him no mo’.” Why did “Lucy” keep this girl from her father and force her to wonder why he didn’t care enough to be there for her and her mother? Unfortunately, that question is not answered in the song, and as listeners, we can only speculate what her motives might be. When I listen to this song, I often wish that there was a retort song explaining Lucy’s side of the story. How would she answer for what she has done to this man and her daughter? As a father, I can’t imagine having my daughter hidden from me. The anguish and fury of the betrayal and disrespect would be immeasurable, but it’s thinking about the destruction and heartbreak it would cause my child that would make it unforgivable.
The second verse continues the inquisition, illustrating the implications of her choices. “Did you give her love, love, one of my pictures?” “Does she show it to the babysitter?” These questions point to another set of questions human beings must answer to feel comfortable about our identities: “Am I loved?” “Where did I come from?” Why do I look the way I do?” Lucy robbed her child of answers to some of the most basic questions in life. The girl doesn’t even know who her father is or what he looks like. The absence of the type of knowledge most people take for granted can be crushing to a child who has been deprived of it.
The song reaches its zenith when Bill repeats the line “You should have told me Lucy.” A mixture of righteous indignation and disdain radiates from his voice, giving a sense that this is not the end of the story. The father character will not be rebuffed any longer, and I like to think he’ll fight to have a place in his daughter’s life. I know it’s a tad idealistic and wishful, but one of the reasons I’m so moved by this song is that it shows that there are some good men out there who are willing to fight to assume their roles as fathers in their children’s lives. Bill Withers has always had a knack for creating characters that have an intense complexity to them. His small town charm and comfort with displaying his sensitivity and empathic nature make his songs easy to connect with. You always feel like he’s bringing you into his world, but he’s really just showing you a window into what could be anybody’s world. Very few artists possess Withers’ universality and the willingness to explore the emotional depths that come innately to him. He gets to the core of humanity with the natural grace of a fearless poet. That’s why I can’t get this song out of my head.