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How Chinese food inspired a Paul Simon classic

Paul Simon is an incredible songwriter; there can be no doubting this. Musically, he has a knack for an earworm like no other, and lyrically, he cherrypicks from across the spectrum of popular culture to augment his music and bring his complex ideas to life. 

Be it countercultural symbolism, parodies of peers (Bob Dylan) or the general feeling of lovesickness, Simon has touched on every topic under the sun across his six decades as a musician. 

One of his best-beloved tracks is ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, taken from his sophomore solo album, 1972’s Paul Simon. Like the majority of Simon’s work, it was inspired by a couple of real-life experiences that he had, from either end of the spectrum. Its provenance may surprise you, showing just how much inspiration there is to be found in everyday life. 

The most notable inspiration was where its title originated. It was actually an unspecified chicken and egg dish at a Chinese restaurant that inspired it. As for the lyrics, they were mainly influenced by a personal tragedy that Simon had recently suffered, setting off a dark train of thought that brought the deep lyrics to life. 

During a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, Simon revealed all. Explaining how the song came to fruition, he explained that he felt that American audiences needed more exposure to music from other countries, and as a huge fan of reggae, he decided to create a song in the style of reggae. 

This became ‘Why Don’t You Write Me?’ from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 masterpiece Bridge Over Troubled Water; however, Simon would grow to feel that the song was a cheap imitation of reggae, so he decided to create another, ‘Mother and Child Reunion’.

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Simon then revealed just where ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ got its name. “Know where the words came from on that?” he said. “You never would 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.'”

After the innocuous discussion of the song’s title, the conversation turned much darker. 

The interviewer told Simon that he’d read deeply into the song with all his discussion of “this strange and mournful day”. “Well, that’s alright,” Simon replied. “What you read in was damn accurate, because what happened was this: 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.”

Given that Simon is one of the deepest thinkers in music, the death of his dog then made him think of the event of his wife Peggy dying. “But I felt this loss – one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it,'” he expressed. “And there were lyrics straight out forward like that.'”

A real juxtaposition of a song, where the reggae groove and pathos-drenched lyrics defy convention and work well together, there’s no surprise that ‘Mother and Child Reunion’ is one of Paul Simon’s best-loved works. He poured his heart into it, and it shows chicken and rice or not.

Listen to the song below.