I started talking yesterday about Country Music. As I said, I’m really not down with classifications. A good song is a good song. It tells you something about yourself, or at a minimum shows you another epoch or slice of humanity in a way you can understand. Ideally one that touches your heart. Here is something I found by the young Leonard Cohen, with the young Judy Collins (happy 80th birthday!). Is this a Country song? I doubt the Country fans would adopt it. Let’s move past commercial categories and just take it for what it is. It isn’t much of a tune. Just a few meandering notes, repeated, but I am haunted by Suzanne, and who she is and what she represents. You are lucky if you have a Suzanne in your life. Trust me.
“This poet ruined my life,” Leonard Cohen said of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Cohen, a singer/songwriter and poet, himself, took great liberty with the original text of the haunting poem it is based on,”Pequeño vals vienés” (Little Viennese Waltz). The poem is from Lorca’s Poet in New York, a collection written after a difficult year in depression era New York (1929-30) studying at Columbia University. One can see how Cohen would be drawn to Lorca, with ideas like this, from “New York: Office and Denunciation”:
‘What shall I do now? Align all the landscapes?/ Muster the lovers who turn into photographs/ and later are splinters of wood, and mouthfuls of blood?’
After returning to Spain, Garcia Lorca sided with the anti-fascist Republicans when Civil War broke out there in 1936. He was by then famous, liberal, and gay, all of which made him a target. He was shot and killed in the custody of the nationalist militia. He was 38. A version of Lorca’s ideas live on in Cohen’s homage, “Take This Waltz”. Cohen, who died in 2016, lives, too, in this poem/song, this waltz with its heartbreaking entreaty to: “take its broken waste in your hand”.
We cover quite a bit of arcana in NYFOS concerts. Forgotten composers, obscure corners of the repertoire from A to Z. We delight in finding these treasures. Many of them defy classification. Is it a folk song, or a pop tune? We don’t think that’s of any importance really. A good song can give you so much information and emotion and history. Sometimes you have to dig for it. This week I’ll be looking at songwriters who are actually quite famous and known, but not well known to me. Leonard Cohen is one of those songwriters. Like Bob Dylan, he’s mostly considered a poet. His music is simple, sometimes to the point of being childish. It puts the focus on his words. Here is his “Famous Blue Raincoat”. It is really a letter. Can you tell to whom it’s written? It’s a long narrative to a frenemy of his. A few references are interesting to know about. When he talks about “going clear” he’s referring to Scientology, and slightly mocking his friend.” Lili Marlene” is a reference to a famous wartime tune in German. Cohen even quotes the tune of Lili Marlene (to the lyric “Jane came by with a lock of your hair”). It’s a personal, enigmatic song, and allows me to see how something (or someone like Leonard Cohen) so personal can become so popular. I think we all yearn to see the vulnerable side of people (hopefully in a kind way), and music and poetry is perhaps the best way to have this experience.
Shanah tovah umetukah! I’m honored to be curating this week’s NYFOS Songs of the Day as Jews all over the world welcome the new year 5777 today and tomorrow. The great Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen drew inspiration from the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy to write “Who by Fire,” here performed in 1989 by the composer together with the incomparable jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
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