The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” Lyrics Meaning

“California Dreamin’” is considered one of the classic songs in American history, indeed a track that verily helped define an era. And for the most part, it’ premise is pretty easy to understand.

At the time they penned the lyrics, newlyweds John and Michelle Phillips were residing in New York City. And John (1935-2001), having grown up in Virginia, was likely used to the colder seasons which are part and parcel of living in the Big Apple. But Michelle, a native of California, obviously didn’t take that well to the weather, in addition to being homesick in general.  So whereas it was John who first conceptualized this song, reportedly being inspired by a dream, it is actually being relayed primarily from his wife’s perspective, if you will.

And with that background in mind, the chorus is easily decipherable. For instance, the ‘brown leaves’ are obviously an allusion to the onset of the Fall season, when the weather first starts getting cold. And not being fond of such, the singer fantasizes about being “safe and warm… in L.A.”.  So basically, the vocalist longs to flee the cold and instead go to Los Angeles – and as such is “dreaming” of California.

Singular Verse of “California Dreamin’”

However, the track’s singular verse is a bit more personalized. In it, they talk about ‘stopping into a church’, and the ‘preacher liking the cold’. This, like a latter part of the song, is not as easy to decipher as previously.  But for the most part, it was based on an experience where John and Michelle Phillips actually visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. And they decided to retain this verse despite John’s efforts to apparently change it, due to his past harrowing experiences with religious institutions.

Ending Chorus                                           

And the ending chorus also features a twist, as the phrase “if I didn’t tell her I could leave today” is also introduced near the conclusion of the song. On the surface, this may be interpreted as the singer spontaneously deciding to bounce to California without telling his or her partner/associate. But it has also been plausibly theorized that these lyrics actually point to the fact that John and Michelle’s relationship was actually headed towards a divorce, which did actually occur in 1969.


But by and large, the lyrics of this song are innocent and pleasant enough to make it such a lasting hit. And in that regard, they are simply centered on the narrator’s ‘dream’, as in fantasy, to spend time in California, specifically within the context of escaping the colder seasons of New York City.

Lyrics of "California Dreamin'"

Facts about “California Dreamin’”

Amongst the prominent artists who have covered this song throughout the years are Bobby Womack (1968), America (1979), The Beach Boys (1986), Freischwimmer (2015) and Sia (2015).

And movies that have featured this song include the likes of the following:

  • “Chungking Express” (1994)
  • “Forrest Gump” (1994)
  • 1979’s “California Dreaming” (which featured America’s version)

The Mamas & The Papas’ version never topped the Billboard Hot 100 but still had an impressive showing, peaking at number 4. Moreover, it was placed atop of Billboard’s Year End Hot 100, basically meaning that they considered it the best song of 1966.

During that same year the track was certified Gold by the RIAA, back in the day when achieving this standard meant it sold at least one-million copies.

Additionally in 2001, “California Dreamin’” was granted a place in the Grammy Hall of Fame.      

Moreover in 2011, Rolling Stone placed it at an enviable number 89 on its list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

“California Dreamin’” was originally written by John and Michelle Phillips. This was in 1963 when they were members of a band called the New Journeymen.

Lou Adler, the founder of Dunhill Records (who published The Mamas and The Papas’ version of the song) is also credited as a co-writer.

The then surviving members of The Mamas and The Papas performing “California Dreamin'” live during the song’s induction into the coveted, Grammy Hall of Fame. It is very sad seeing the group perform this song for the first time without Cass Elliot. And we find it really admirable that during their performance, the group paid tribute to her by not replacing her with another singer.

RIP Cass Elliot, John Phillips, and Denny Doherty. FYI, as of 2019, Michelle is the only surviving official member of the group.

The Mamas & The Papas were not the first to record “California Dreamin'”

“California Dreamin’” was originally recorded by another Dunhill Records’ artist by the name of Barry McGuire in 1965. On that particular version, The Mamas and The Papas provided backup vocals. However, the release of McGuire’s recording was put on hold, as the label favored the group’s own version over his.

Later in the year, on 1 September 1965, The Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin'” came out, which is actually the most-famous version of the song. And it was featured on their debut album, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”.

One of the major differences between Barry McGuire’s version and The Mamas and Papas’ own is that the former had a harmonica solo, while the latter a flute. And that flute was played by a musician named Bud Shank.

Signature Song of The Mamas and The Papas

It’s safe to say that “California Dreamin’” is perhaps The Mamas & The Papas signature track, which is interesting considering that P. F. Sloan, who plays the guitar at the beginning, had stated that in terms of his coworkers (i.e. The Mamas and Papas themselves) “nobody particularly liked the song”.

6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s the preacher lights the coals, not likes it cold

  2. Felix says:

    You can hear: “It’s the preacher lights the coals”, not likes the cold! Listen another time!

  3. Anonymous says:

    serach it up!!!! it says: You know the preacher liked the cold

  4. Anonymous says:

    Seems “lights the coals” with next line being “he knows I’m going to stay” after coming into the church to pray on “such a winter’s day” makes sense, but difficult to hear in the original recording. I’ve seen both the coals and the cold depending on search results, and it’s not unusual for recorded versions to be slightly different than original or published lyrics. Dealers choice.

    • Anonymous says:

      This guy discusses the confusion over the lyrics. People think the words were “likes the cold” but the original lyrics were “lights the coals.” Also, there was confusion even among the group concerning the lyrics “begin to pray” with “pretend to pray.” What was written and what was sung were not the same.

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