In the many songs collected by Francis Child that I have sung or heard, I have never had the feeling that the writer of the ballad was attempting to convey a higher spiritual truth, or seeking to unveil the eyes of the listener through clever juxtaposition of images and ideas. We could assume that Child’s collection of works represents the thinking of the previous 300-400 years.
The devices utilised in the ballads, such as the ‘unmasked villain’ or the ‘returned lover’ are largely transparent to a modern listener and the moral lesson (if there is one) is relatively easy to decode.
When it comes to the work of the great thinking writers of the 1800’s, Dostoevsky, Hugo and Harriet Stowe, for example, they have gone to great effort painting a vast canvas in order to bring into focus, or at least into question, some truths about our existence. In many cases the effort involves an abstraction of the human condition, to give the reader a new insight, as expertly used in Animal Farm by George Orwell. Unfortunately, these books take weeks or months to read (if you read slowly like me) and much of humanity would rather watch The Voice or whatever soap opera is popular in their country rather than spend the effort it takes to benefit from the work of these great authors.
This week past I decided to do some recordings of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs. I’m not intending to make this post about Cohen; there are plenty of other resources on the internet dissecting his life and his music. One thing I will say, is that Mr Cohen has been very generous to his listening public by frankly speaking about the inspiration and meaning of his lyrics, as documented in this fantastic website which catalogues his concert prologues relevant to each song. There are some poets who disown their work at birth and refuse to acknowledge it, or worse, provide misleading guidance to their faithful. I have great respect for the kindness that Cohen has shown his listeners in this regard.
Now to the topic of this post, Leonard Cohen has the ability to use three or four lines of a song to bring into sharp focus a universal aspect of humanity or unmask feelings and emotions fettered through thousands of years of conditioning. To me this is the mark of a true master poet.
I will pick one example from some of the six songs that I recorded this week to elaborate.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the lights gets in.”
(Leonard Cohen, Anthem,1992)
In this line Cohen roles up several hundred scrolls of Buddhist scripture to describe the broken nature of our human existence, but at the same time highlights the hope and perfection that resides within this reality. This single line is then reflected in the facets of each verse urging humanity to “start again” despite the war, corruption and lack of compassion we see.
While this song is about the magic of a young platonic (semi) love (not made-up but biographical), the part that interests me is this:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water,
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower,
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him,
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
(Leonard Cohen, Suzanne, 1967)
Here we have a discussion of the concept that spiritual salvation is only a possibility for the desperate (drowning). This seems to be an explanation of the suffering in the world through a few lines in a romantic pop song. This section in the song is quickly followed by an implication that this very cruel and selfish view of the divine-human relationship was ‘sunk’ with wisdom, possibly that of Suzanne.
All your children here, In their rags of light
(Leonard Cohen, If It Be Your Will, 1984)
At the same time that this song is a prayer of submission to the will of a divine other, it raises the concept that we, as humans, are existing in a dimension through projected photons. ‘Rags of Light’ which are no more part of ourselves than the shirt we wear each day. I think my assertion that people were not inclined to grand allegory before the 1800’s at the start of this post has me thinking back to Solomon. Divested from its religious shackles and flimsy historical evidence, much of the writings of whichever poet actually penned (or chiselled) the lines attributed to Solomon do seem to echo in Cohen’s work.
We were locked in this kitchen, I took to religion
And I wondered how long she would stay
I needed so much, To have nothing to touch
I’ve always been greedy that way
(Leonard Cohen, Night Comes On, 1984)
I love this whole song, the yearning for a primal mother to take us back in her embrace and protect us from the world. The subtle wisdom I gained from the small section quoted above is the warning that religion can be used as a defence against true immersion in the experience of life. The assertion that this behaviour is inherently greedy, is one that can jar the listener into altering their perception. The idea of seeing piety as selfishness or abstinence as weakness is a challenging one.
It is precisely because of these sorts of snippets of verse, challenging common perception, that I enjoy listening to Leonard Cohen’s work so much. I lament the introduction of music with a repetitive nonsense message to modern culture; it has taken over so much of what is played in the public sphere and seems to breed so quickly. It gives me relief to see that the new poets, like John Craigie and Mike Rosenburg are there making sure that this generation can listen to people who have something worthwhile to say through their music.