4. The Temptations: ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’: Tamla Motown TMG 839

The great divide in African-American music between that which is ‘sanctified’ and that which is not evidences an even larger split in African-American consciousness. Novels, such as Richard Wright’s ‘Native Son’, or Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’, and a consistent output of drama and poetry from the inter-war years from that outpouring of cultural soul we call the Harlem Renaissance are all expressions of this central angst - the coming to terms with the fact of blackness in American society. The ‘sanctified’/non-sanctified music rift arises because the adoption of Christian systems of belief and morality was seen as a way of putting distance between the individual and a backward, shuffling past. Christianity was perceived as route to social acceptability, a visible sign of decency albeit from a European perspective. At the point of entry into the Christian church, African-Americans put behind them something tangibly African and rootsy, and adopted an ideology that was a modified form of the religion of the European establishment. The success of the church in unifying black consciousness in the first three quarters of the twentieth century resulted, for a while, in a desire amongst younger urban African-Americans to distance themselves from blues and things that pertained to blues. It also led to some disquiet from the Harlem intellectuals who saw valuable historical icons being erased in the process of acculturation. The blues was ‘back there’, something of an unenlightened, backward past, something animist, magic and ignorant. In ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ this theme is expanded in a richly orchestrated, symphonic way that really has no parallel.

‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ was a composition of Norman Whitfield with lyrics by Barrett Strong - a team that was responsible for a string of very successful records for a variety of Motown artists ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ was a bit of a one-off, because of its very lavish orchestration, and still remains a unique pop music achievement, lasting between 3’45" and over 15’ depending on the version. There were eight versions. The original Temptations recording was issued in June 1972. In September 1972 an instrumental version was released. Several other arrangements appeared during the 70s mainly on Motown albums. The recording that this study is based on is the 1983 12 inch version (TMGT1320). The piece was visited again in 1987, when two dub remixes were made and released in June.

Norman Whitfield’s arrangements became ever more elaborate as The Temptations’ career progressed. The singing group wanted to do love songs and ballads, and it is clear that the origins of the group in doo-wop never left them conceptually. They viewed the group as being essentially a lead singer with backing vocalists, and Whitfield challenged them in ways that they at first found uncomfortable. ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ elevates the musical language of a chart pop song by borrowing some of the glamour of the romantic orchestra. It sounds like odd moments of Berlioz, Tchaikovsky or Ravel, but only in respect of isolated chords here and there, a harp glissando upbeat, a stretto passage for the violins. It also has the quintessential sparseness of American composition of the twentieth century: a solo trumpet that is reminiscent of Ives ‘The Unanswered Question’, and the sense of space and time of Hollywood film scores. But most importantly, ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ employs no harmonic progression whatever, so in this respect at least it is totally unlike any long term instrumental composition in the concert tradition (except, perhaps, Ravel’s ‘Bolero’). In the extended 12" version, the song is nearly 18 minutes long. Rather like a piece of minimal music, it challenges the listener’s intellect whilst simultaneously engaging them in sensual listening; it is music to be felt as much heard. And on top of all this, it has an engaging story.

The following listing of the musical events derives from the 12" extended single version, and can be used as a kind of score to follow the process of the music. Some of the descriptions seem imprecise until they are considered alongside the music. Most of these events feature in other versions of the song, but their positions and timing vary with each recorded version.

Episode/ Timing Description of Musical Events
1/  0.00 just the bass riff - 
gradually, other instruments enter -
wah-wah guitar on tonic -
trumpet solo with heavy reverb -
strings with slow moving figure -
cellos emphasise tonic -
2/ 1.38 electric piano episode - 
dialogue between e. piano and harp -
wah-wah ‘laughs’ -
3/ 3.12 wah-wah introduces section

violent contrasts -
new exposed string motive -
‘soul’ handclap -
bass drum electronic back beat -
tremolando strings -
just the bass riff -

Verse 1/: 4.40 It was the third of September 
That day I’ll always remember, yes I will
‘Cos that was the day my daddy died’

elaborate (even impertinent?) fill from wah-wah

‘I never got a chance to see him
Never heard nothing but bad things about him
Mama I’m depending on you to tell me the truth ...

And Mama just hung her head and said, son ...’

Chorus Papa was a Rollin’ stone
Wherever he laid his hat was his home
An’ when he died, all he left us was alone"

(Repeat chorus)

4/ 5.50 cello augments slow moving string motive from episode 1 -
most of episode 1 material is re-visited -
prominent trumpet solo -
Verse 2/ 6.25 ‘Hey Mama, is it true what they say
That Papa never worked a day
In his life?’

‘An’ Mama, bad talk going around town says
Papa had two outside children
And another wife ...
And that ain’t right!’

‘Heard some talk about Papa doing some storefront preaching
Talk about saving souls, and all the time leeching
Dealing in debt,
And stealing in the name of the Lord’

‘laughing’ wah-wah guitar -

Chorus with extensive handclapping -
5/ 7.31 still with marked electronic backbeat -

trumpet solo -
Fender piano riffs a-rhythmically improvised -
Huge mechanical echo -

6/ 8.20 emphatic wah-wah guitar -

various additions ...
more complex wah-wah -
tiny Fender piano riff at double speed -
strings -

... until there’s a huge orchestra all working away -

7/ 10.23 wah-wah effectively stops all the activity and mayhem
like the magician in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ -
Verse 3 Hey Mama,
I heard Papa call himself a Jack-of-all-trades
Tell me is that what sent Papa to an early grave?
Folks said Papa would beg borrow and steal to
Pay his bills’

‘Hey Mama,
Folks say Papa never was much on thinking
Spent most of his time chasing women and drinking
Mama I’m depending on you
To tell me the truth’

Choruses to Fade electric bass drum switches to beats 1 & 3 -
repeat of orchestral material from episode 1 -

This is the story: there is a family reunion, and the sons recount how they asked their mother to tell them ‘the truth’ about their father. It’s a story about men, but it is addressed to a woman, who remains silent - we never hear mama’s voice: her replies are always in reported speech. It’s a very male affair, being concerned with maintaining social credibility, and reputation. And it is about one man in particular, Papa, who is the absent focus of the whole lyric. It is about wickedness and sin, and about how Papa transgressed the moral norms of the culture. Papa ‘never worked a day in his life’, he was bigamous, he was a thief, and much more. But most hated of all, he was an hypocritical preacher.

The myth of Eden has often been applied to the story of the Negro in America. For many African Americans, the myth that their ancestry once belonged in a long forgotten garden, in a condition of innocence of right or wrong, is too satisfying a parallel to ignore. Viewed in this way, the subsequent pain associated with deliverance into a harshly moral world, can be interpreted as punishment for some unnamed original crime. But if this philosophical device is to become a cornerstone in the thinking of a culture, if the ideas of Eden, transgression, guilt and punishment are going to be embraced by the African-American people, some unfortunate concomitants tend to come along with it. The most obvious, is the association of the Negro holocaust with some kind of agenda for divine punishment. Put simply "we sinned, and that’s why we’re in this terrible condition". It does explain, albeit in very simple terms, what might otherwise be hard to take.

It has the effect of merging the notion of an original condition with an originally sinful condition, and in any modern context, this must be regarded as most unfortunate. It means that Africa and African cultural totems become identified as sinful and wicked. How can this happen? Before the notion of ‘black pride’, before the modern assertiveness of urban African-American culture, the way to escape the wretchedness of the ghetto was to climb the social ladder in a way that was discernibly white. If black people wanted to become middle-class, then they had to adopt the trappings of white middle class ideology. By extension, Christianity and essentially European ideas about social order come to valued in black communities as prestigious, and those unfortunates who remain in an ‘unsaved’ condition outside the church are viewed with disdain. This pattern of thinking informs this song, and is subtly encoded in the musical setting of this common enough shake-out of family secrets.

It means "the blues is bad". Hence, ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ is a song which flaunts its rootsiness and bluesiness in order to encode some of Papa’s wickedness into the musical substructure. Its insistent bass riff, its linear construction (in the sense that the basic materials are long horizontal lines of material which interlock like strata), its refusal to change key or even to admit very much harmonic movement at all, its qualities of surprise, its repeated choral refrain, and so forth, all these qualities are presented in a recognisably bluesy way. But if it does have all of these African qualities, it places upon them a veneer of European glamour and suavity in the respect of the glitzy orchestration. By any Motown standard, this orchestration is luscious and generous.

In ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ the bass line is absolutely unrelenting. It is uncompromisingly fixed in the minor 7th/minor 3rd axis that ‘announces’ the climate of blues. The bass line never stops. There is no let up in this situation which is about the eternal consequences of sin which just cannot be brushed under the carpet.

The string motive from episodes 1, 4, and the fade-out (see example 4.1 above) is presented in example 4.2 below. The 5th, 6th and 7th degrees of the scale are indicated.


Example 4.3, below, is a fragment from Ravel’s ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’, and has a story associated with the music. Where some commonality exists between the story of ‘Petit Poucet’, and the story of Papa’s questing sons, it may be possible to distil a commonality of literal meaning.

4.3  Ravel: incidences of 5-6-7-and return

Clearly, structurally the passages have certain similarities: they each contain a sequence of ‘5- natural6- flat7-and return’ within a minor key context: they’re both dorian. But what of their respective meaning? The case of ‘Petit Poucet’ is easily interpreted because the music is intended to illustrate Perrault’s fairy tale about Petit Poucet who has left a trail of breadcrumbs behind him to enable him to retrace his pathway through the wood. Of course, he discovers that the birds have eaten them all up, and he is lost in a confusing forest. The same ‘questing’ quality that Ravel successfully suggests in his ‘Petit Poucet’ is detectable in the upper string parts of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’. In the same way that Petit Poucet is lost and confused in his mythic forest, Papa’s sons are trying to make sense of the myth of their father. In a dorian context, the melodic procedure ‘5-6-7-and return’ comes in some way to ‘mean’ a quality of ‘little-boy-lost-ness’. However, this is not the only point of comparison to European concert music.

The Questor, as a cultural icon, is nothing if not romantic. The orchestration in episodes 1 and 5 raise the profile of the quest as one of the key elements within this collage of meaning. The ‘lone’ trumpet against a ‘sea’ of strings triggers classical associations which have precedents in Ives (‘The Unanswered Question’), Rimsky-Korsakov (‘Sinbad’s Voyage’from Sheherazade) and elsewhere. Episode 5 features extensive use of tape reverberation, creating a sensation of physical space. The suggestion of physical space by application of reverberation is not really a culturally acquired meaning, but an acoustic absolute. Thus, to subject the solo lines of ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’ to enormously heavy reverberation is automatically to place them in a huge arena. It makes their voices ‘lost’. Although the same effect is hard to synthesise orchestrally without the use of electronics, a similar impression of vast, infinite expanse is suggested in Holst’s ‘Neptune’ of The Planets suite, to which episode 5 can be closely compared.

The wah-wah guitar permeates the piece. Although it says nothing literally, it seems to talk. It actually sounds like speech. It responds to the questing sons in verse 1, laughs in verse 2, does clever things in episode 6, and, most importantly, appears to ‘control’ the proceedings by dramatic, surprising and almost frightening entrances. (The best examples of these are 1. the sudden transformation from quiet (episode 2) to the more explosive episode 3, and 2. the similar interfaces between episodes 5 and 6, and 6 and 7.) Extending the idea of ‘control’, the wah-wah demonstrates a kind of authority which has the capability to terrify - a kind of dybbuk, a restless spirit perhaps. It is possible, if highly speculative, to posit the wah-wah as the dead but nevertheless ever-present spirit of Papa. Papa is the wah-wah. He cannot speak because he is dead, but is highly energetic and actively intrusive all of the time. The wah-wah is an ideal instrument with which to suggest demonic babble, since it cannot, of itself, speak, yet monstrously mimics some of the characteristics of meaningful speech. The story adopts one of the pervading themes of Romantic narrative; the return from Hell of those who were demonic in life. Whilst Papa’s naive sons are pursuing their quest for the truth, beneath them, in the form of the omnipresent riff, is Papa’s bluesiness, his evil. Their questioning outbursts are punctuated and regulated by a rampant spirit, represented by the wah-wah that laughs, mocks and shouts at them. In all the best horror films, we, the audience, appreciate the mortal danger of the characters on the screen, who typically blunder toward direct confrontation with the supernaturally evil. The fun of the screenplay lies in the fact that they remain blithely innocent of something that we appreciate all too well. In the best Hollywood B-movie tradition, Papa’s questing sons don’t seem to be aware of Papa all around them, laughing at the ‘talk going around town’, and controlling the drama of the piece. They continue with their innocent questioning.

Both this song and ‘Touch me in the Morning’ (see chapter 5) utilise western myths and western musical practices as intrinsic parts of their musical discourses. Both songs refer to sex. ‘Touch me in the Morning’ effectively sanitises the sex, offering us a spiritual love in its place created by reference to baroque liturgical musical language. ‘Papa’s’ sins were in part sexual, although a generally libidinous picture is drawn of his waywardness: in Papa’s case, sex is a sub-set of a fundamentally uncontrolled masculinity.

The manner in which sex is referred to is crucial as an indicator of black self-image. the sexually rampant male is a celebrated icon in both white and black contemporary popular mythologies, and the musical treatment of libidinous narratives evidences the way in which these characteristics are viewed by the broader culture. Papa’s libidinal qualities, his a-social behaviour, his contempt for social decency and Christian morality put him firmly within the orbit of blues philosophy. As such, of course, he is instantly recognisable to all, and he is seen to be at odds with the church. The bluesman, like the African griot, enjoyed a multi-layered reputation which put him both inside and outside the community. Papa exhibits dual identity. He is at once a bluesman and a preacher. He exhibits the socially acceptable (but emasculated) personae of the preacher whilst covertly maintaining a darker, hidden life of debauchery and debt. The sons are ‘honest-joes’, engaged in a naive quest to discover the key to their identity. These qualities, the Quest (which could be thought of as Quixotic in nature), the dual personality (Jekyll and Hyde, the Scarlet Pimpernel and others), the secretly potent stud (Don Juan) are obvious allusions from western dramatic iconography, and it is entirely appropriate therefore that the musical vocabulary of late romantic art music should permeate the piece. But underpinning it all is the inescapable musical reality of the bass, just as Papa’s fundamental qualities are discovered when the veneer of social appearances is no longer capable of being maintained. The riff assumes a meaning of fundamental proportion: it is the blues 7th and the blues 3rd. The Grand Narratives of black and white mythologies are fused in this song.


The equation of bluesiness to sin permeates the whole genre of blues. The confusion between sex and sin that stems, not only from the church’s equivocations but also from a collision of the African and European sensibilities about sex, love and morality, has given rise to countless blues about rakishness, the just deserts of libidinality, about unhappiness in love, about sexual prowess and about the size and capabilities of the male sexual member. Muddy Waters, especially in his later career with Chess Records (see Chess Masters: CXMD4000) turned out track after track that, collectively, cover similar themes as ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’. ‘Mannish Boy’, like ‘Papa ...’ is a blues that sticks on one chord, ‘The Same Thing’ discusses animalism and sex, and ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ substitutes a hedonistic quest into the biblical time frame. ‘Evil’ is the title of a track on Muddy Waters’ GoodNews Volume 3 (Syndicate Chapter: SC 002). Biblical imagery is maintained throughout Otis Spann’s ‘Lost Sheep in the Fold’ on The Blues of Otis Spann :Decca LK4615, and Elmore James’ ‘Sinful Woman’ - The Legend of Elmore James : Kent Records KST 9001 - is about just what it says. These particular classic blues records are perhaps difficult to trace, though others with similar lyric focuses should be fairly easy to discover.

Roberta Flack’s ‘Reverend Lee’ (on ‘Chapter Two’, Atlantic 1569 - 1970), is an electrifying album track which tells the story of the downfall of a ‘... big black Southern Baptist minister’ who thinks that he has ‘ .. his program altogether’, when along comes ‘ ... ol’ Satan’s daughter’ who proved him wrong. It’s a tale of lust and longing and debauchery leading up to the climax where, in the peniultimate verse, Satan emerges ‘from the waters’ and speaks with a ‘dry voice’ to pronounce judgement on the errant clergyman. Musically, the song is a simple strophic form which hardly varies from verse to verse in traditional ballad form, but tension is affected and controlled by the enormous orchestration. This song re-iterates musically and literally many of the themes in ‘Papa was a Rollin’ Stone’.

Contact Patrick at info@patrickdailly.f9.co.uk
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