Know where the words came from on that? You would never have guessed. I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called “Mother and Child Reunion.” It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, “Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.”
-- Paul Simon, Rolling Stone, 1972.
Yes, Paul Simon’s first solo single, Mother and Child Reunion, was actually named after the chicken and egg salad at the Say Eng Look Restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown district. Released on Simon’s own self-titled solo debut in 1972, Mother and Child Reunion was the singer/songwriter's first attempt at reggae music, foreshadowing his later groundbreaking forays into African, Arabic, and other world music.
The song itself was recorded in Jamaica with Roy Halee and session artists that would later form Toots & The Maytals ("It was a good band -- a lot of ganja smoked," Simon would later recall). This was the first of many songs for which Simon would ultimately travel the globe in search of the right sound. The Jamaican influence here is obvious, giving Mother and Child Reunion its gentle reggae backing, over a year before either The Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton would begin copying Bob Marley’s sound. The song hinted at the world music explorations Simon would make famous a decade later with albums like Graceland and Rhythm of The Saints.
But even though Simon readily revealed the origins of the song’s title and musical underpinnings, he did little to shed light on the meaning of it all. Instead, his enigmatic lyrics left fans and critics alike grasping at straws to make some sense of the music.
No I would not give you false hope
On this strange and mournful day
But the mother and child reunion
Is only a motion away
Fans wondered at the nature of this "strange and mournful" reunion. Had mother or child just passed away, rejoining the other as death brought them together in the afterlife? Was the mother about to meet the child she'd given up for adoption many years earlier? (If so, why was the reunion "strange and mournful"?) Some listeners, reading significance into the "only a motion away" phrase, speculated that the "reunion" in question was to be effected through an abortion.
Nothing so controversial, Simon responded. According to him, he was moved to write the song by the death of his family dog in the summer of 1971:
Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog. It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss -- one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, "Oh, man, what if that was (my wife) Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can't get it." And there were lyrics straight out forward like that. The chorus for "Mother and Child Reunion" -- well, that's out of the title. Somehow there was a connection between this death and Peggy and it was like Heaven, I don't know what the connection was. Some emotional connection. It didn't matter to me what it was. I just knew it was there.
But whatever the song's origins, one thing is clear: Mother and Child Reunion launched Paul Simon's successful and innovative solo career, one that would span the next several decades, and ultimately result in some remarkably good music.