Friday, February 19, 2021

NOTES on Song: "The Song of Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats

                  "The Song of Wandering Aengus" from  An Appointment with Mr. Yeats by The Waterboy

These are just musings. I claim no expertise. 

I have been thinking of a poem by William Butler Yeats called “Song of Wandering Aengus.” It’s a ‘glimmering girl’ poem. Actually, it is the glimmering girl poem. Another term for it is the Enchanted Visitor, removing the gendered language and image. Irish literature, especially the old stuff, is all about fae infatuation and otherworldly visitation. Faerie folk snatch humans, humans cross into the Other Place while in the woods, or in a dream, or exiled from community. In this poem, the speaker and title character meets a strange figure in the woods and spends the rest of his life trying to find her.

The glimmering girl motif repeats through Yeats’ early poems. He was thirty-five in 1899, when he wrote “Song of Wandering Aengus.” For a Christian male of his era, thirty-five is a challenging age. It's two years passed the age of Christ. Two years passed the age of Epiphany. It's the age when Dante got lost in the dark woods, a time to take measure.  There is a well-known biographical parallel in Yeats’ life for the vanishing vision of desire: his unrequited love for the revolutionary Maud Gonne. “Song of Wandering Aengus” is about the ‘one that got away,’ if read biographically.

I don’t favour biographical criticism. Undoubtedly, the circumstances of the writer’s life will influence the writing. There can be no poem without a life to generate that poem. As Leonard Cohen once said, “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” Studying a poem to understand the poet’s life is reverse engineering, forensics. Studying the poet’s life to understand the poem is extrapolation, projection. Elements of these approaches can be helpful, but too much biography in interpretation and application gums up the works. It distorts reception and interferes with the mind’s ability to integrate the poem into one's understanding.

Yeats’ poem is remembered, mostly, for its last lines: “the silver apples of the moon / the golden apples of the sun.” Degrees have been doled out in the business of applying meaning to those phrases. Ray Bradbury borrowed the sun line for the title of a short story collection. In one of those stories, a ship with a giant scoop, like a cosmic backhoe, is sent to bring back samples of the sun. That is all I remember of the story and would have to track my Bradbury books to their hollow, which I am not willing to do at the moment, in order to expand on the story. So you’ll have to take my word for it. I must have read the story, or maybe a teacher read it to us in class as they used to do, because I remember gassing on the idea of being able to walk on the sun. Given the right boots, you could walk on the sun. If the sun was matter that can be scooped into a bucket, then it can be walked on too. I must have been quite young when I heard that story.

Aengus, the speaker in the poem, could be the Old Irish god Aengus, a lover, healer, and patron to the poet. Aengus appears in Yeats’ poetry frequently. The Aengus we meet in “Song” is restless:

 

                        I went out to the hazel wood,

                        Because a fire was in my head,

 

Yeats hits the reader with magick from the first line, although we might not see it at once. He leaves the lines open for magick, might be a better way of stating it. Hazel is strongly associated with Earth magick. It’s the dousing wand. Hazel finds water, in the old way of living in the world. The man who doused for water behind my childhood home [more on this later] used hazel branches. And doesn’t Sybill Trelawney, the scrying professor in the Harry Potter series I can never read, wield a hazel wand? Yeats gives Aengus a wand, too:

 

                     And cut and peeled a hazel wand,

                     And hooked a berry to a thread;

 

The four lines quoted above make up the first half of the first octave (eight lines stanza) in the poem. The octave structure is interesting because Yeats alters the rhyme in the last four lines of each stanza. The effect is to create internal quatrains (four-lined stanzas) within each of the poems three octave stanzas. The rhyme scheme runs ababcded in the first two stanzas, but Yeats breaks the pattern in the third octave. The effect of this structure creates a turn in the first octave. We get:

           

                      I went out to the hazel wood,

                     Because a fire was in my head,

                     And cut and peeled a hazel wand,                 

                     And hooked a berry to a thread;

                     And when white moths were on the wing,

                      And moth-like stars were flickering out,

                      I dropped the berry in the stream

                      And caught a little silver trout.

 

It seems easy enough. Aengus has a lot on his mind, wakes up early, goes fishing. But why, Aengus, why? “Because a fire was in my head,” he tells us. Where better to go with a fire in one’s head than to a forest of water-finding trees?

 Aengus makes a fishing pole might be a good way to describe the set up for the octave’s turn. Yet, it is not a pole, or a rod, but a wand, which points the reader to the ritual beneath the action. And when he baits the hook, we don’t see the hook. There is no hook; it’s the act of hooking a berry to a thread that we witness.

 White moths arrive to mark morning and to replace the stars as they fade. Here Yeats gives an internal rhyme, the only overt internal rhyme in the poem. It’s like he is offering a transition through the broken abab pattern in the first four lines: “[…] on the wing / […] flickering out.”

The last end rhymes bring it all together: “[…] flickering out / [,,,] silver trout.”

 Yeats has hooked us.

The second stanza introduces the “glimmering girl” everybody has been waiting for:

 

                            When I had laid it on the floor

                             I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                             But something rustled on the floor,

                             And someone called me by my name:

                              It had become a glimmering girl

                              With apple blossom in her hair

                              Who called me by my name and ran

                              And faded through the brightening air.

 

It’s a quaint idea, perhaps offensive in our age. The fish becomes a woman – “girl” -- with no less than “apple blossom in her hair.” And she knows the dude’s name! Calls it out, runs off, or vapourizes. Of course, he spends his life searching for her, the exemplar of beauty, a woman from a fish, a woman who knows him. We have to step back from the specifics. Yeats saw a “glimmering girl” because that is what the old stories told him to see. Likely that is what his libido wanted him to see as well: a magical woman pulled from a stream, the great fish of desire calling to him. This is the enchanted visitor. For another poet, it could be a man from an eel. From Yeats, we get the glimmering girl who fades in “brightening air.”

It’s not clear if “brightening” is from the sun as it declares morning, or if it is meant to describe a less literal transformation. Brighten can mean ‘to purify’ as well as to make brighter. Yeats applies the present participle verbs “glimmering” and “brightening” as adjectives to shine up the girl and the air, respectively. Light manifests in these lines, and the actions of glimmering and brightening are embodied in the fish-girl and in the air. 

The last octave tells us that the Aengus we’ve been listening to is looking back, although still actively searching for the girl he saw by the brook:

 

              

                        Though I am old with wandering

                             Through hollow lands and hilly lands,

                             I will find out where she has gone,

                             And kiss her lips and take her hands;

                            And walk among long dappled grass,

                            And pluck till time and times are done,

                            The silver apples of the moon,

                        The golden apples of the sun.

 

The reader misses out on Aengus’s adventures. We don’t know how long he has searched, or where the search has taken him beyond “hollow lands and hilly lands.” And maybe those descriptions are enough. The alliteration of hollow and hilly is quite lovely. There is also something jarring about the image of “hollow lands.” Were these places void of substance, or literally hollow? Both? To what degree? The lines in the last verse are beautiful, I think, and contrast the controlled narative voice in  the first stanza. Remember the “hazel wood” and “hazel wand”? These are not easily spoken. The word “hazel” alone requires some quick stretching. By the last verse, the voice is lyrical: “old with wandering,” “long dappled grass,” “pluck until time and times are done.” The poem demonstrates a song manifesting from events. By the end, Aengus is singing.

The verb “pluck” is an interesting one. If this poem were a limerick, “pluck” might give us pause to wonder where it is going. Yeats uses “pluck” with intention. The apples being plucked are metaphorical apples. These lines, the most famous of the poem, offer an apotheosis. The entire poem rises to these lines. It ends with the speaker looking into the future with his beloved. In his fantasy, they will be together until not only they run out of time but until the end of "times” as well. This brings another motif in the poem, a nod to the carpe diem motif that runs through western literature. Long translated as “seize the day,” the phrase carpe diem instructs to grab all one can. Robin Williams’ school master in Dead Poet’s Society instructs his students to "seize the day" to, quoting Henry David Thoreau, “suck all the marrow of life.”

But it is a subjective translation of carpe diem that has been adopted by the modern west. ‘Seize the day’ is the language of conquest, of war, violence. It’s the perfect motto for a culture obsessed with accomplishment and assertive action. However, “carpe” does not have to be translated as “seize.” It is more similar to the word, you guessed it, “pluck.” The original proponents of carpe diem were telling us to pluck the day, like a flower, like an apple. The phrase comes into English from Horace’s Ode I.11, in which he advises the reader: “[…] Time goes running, even / As we talk. Take the present, the future’s no one’s affair.” The Ode reminds the reader to tend to the moment, to pluck the days like apples from trees.           

And that’s where Yeats has led us and led Aengus, being with a loved one, gathering the moonlight in the evening, the sunlight of the day, until “time and times are done.”

The Waterboys cover the poem beautifully on An Appointment With Mr. Yeats (2011, Proper Records), with Mike Scott changing a word or two. Scott’s revisions, I believe, make the poem stronger. He replaces the repeated “floor” from the second verse and alters the third line entirely. In Yeats, we have:

 

                     When I had laid it on the floor

                      I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                      But something rustled on the floor,

                       And someone called me by my name:

 

Mike Scott, lead singer and main writer of the Waterboys, refines the verse:

 

                       When I had laid it on the ground

                        I went to blow the fire a-flame,

                        But something made a rustling sound,

                         And someone called me by my name:

 

The rhythm is maintained, but the lines become more interesting with the modern “ground” rhyming with the “sound” of the fish becoming the “glimmering girl.” Scott’s alteration to the text also gives us another present participle in “rustling” to match the glimmering and brightening in the same verse. Altered too is one of Aengus’ plans upon meeting up with his infatuation. Yeats has Aengus “take” her hand, which has a degree of possessiveness to it and implies marriage. Mike Scott allows Aengus only to “touch her hands.” It is more gentle and more of a question than an act of conquest.

Poetry and song are indivisible. With “Song of Wandering Aengus” by The Waterboys, we have the poem’s full expression. It’s a rebirth for a poem that is usually remembered only for its last lines, and then, often, in mockery for its grandeur and antiquated diction. The song does not quite reach to the heights of emotion of The Waterboys “big music,” but Sarah Allen’s flute certainly helps bring the song’s energy to the mythic level it deserves.  

    Coming up:       Through Arawak Eyes by David Campbell

                             Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

                            and, "The Trouble With Musical Friends"

 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

NOTES on Song: PS15 (Candy Rat Records, 2014) by Don Ross

PS15 by Don Ross, an album I loved so much that I bought the t-shirt, both designed by Kurt Swinghammer


Way back in the late twentieth century, with the mortal threat of Y2K looming, a youngish Canadian guitar virtuoso named Don Ross recorded his seventh album in a church in Berlin. Built between 1905 and 1908, Passionskirche (Church of the Passion) was for many years a renowned concert hall that hosted a broad array of acts between its Protestant masses. Produced by folk music legend Artie Traum, Passion Session was released in 1999 on Narada/Virgin Records as part of its aptly named “Masters of the Acoustic Guitar” series. The Narada label began as a purveyor of new-age music and expanded over time to include jazz and experimental artists like Hans Zimmer, Kate Price, Jesse Cook, Oscar Lopez, and Don Ross. Since that time, Narada has been absorbed by Blue Note Records with many of its original titles currently unavailable. The functional dissolution of Narada may have been a contributing factor that led a slightly less youngish Ross to retreat to another church – this time Trinity United in Cannington, Ontario – to record the album again, fifteen years later. 

It should be the easiest thing in the world to record an acoustic guitar. Place a couple of microphones near the sound-hole and start plucking, right? It’s way more complicated, of course. The angles of the microphones, their proximity to each other, and the placement on the instrument all affect the tone and clarity of the recording. Recording oneself is another struggle, or it can be. It must be like a painter making a self-portrait: it’s a mirror image that one sees as a reference, not a true representation. 

The challenge of self-recording may not have been such a big issue for Ross, though. He has self-produced many of his twenty-one albums and, from the sound of it, knows what he’s doing. For those unfamiliar with Don Ross’ style, think of a logging truck, fully loaded, barreling down a pretzel-shaped mountain road. Think of an orangutan swinging through palm forests, each branch bending but never breaking under its weight as the ape soars above the canopy. The music is like a large, graceful beast rising from the ocean. Godzilla in a tutu after some dance lessons. Ross’ solo guitar pieces are arrangements within themselves, at once percussive, lilting, and thundering. When I listen to Don Ross’ music I think of it as Don Ross Music ™, a style so unique it deserves a trademark. A Youtube tour of contemporary fingerstyle acoustic players reveals a modern fascination with percussive play and harmonics, a style that Don Ross truly pioneered along with his friend, the late Michael Hedges

Although the guitar is his main instrument, Ross comes at music like a composer. Of his unique style, Ross has said, “I have always felt that I am playing music on the guitar, as opposed to just playing guitar music. The guitar is a wonderful, gorgeous, portable instrument, capable of playing both melodically and harmonically, but I’m not a guitar head. I also didn’t grow up listening to solo guitar music” (“Don Ross,” Penguin Eggs, Spring 2018). 

 Over thirty-two years of touring, Ross has gained a devoted audience and revered status among guitarists the world over. He has won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship two times, which is two times more often than anyone else on planet Earth. When he enters the room, the theme from Rocky plays. Bruce Cockburn, not a bad little guitar player himself, speaking of guitar players he admires, said of Ross, “[He] can produce that effect in me. Especially when you see him live […] doing all these things and you can’t see what he’s doing. It’s like, ‘Oh-oh. I have some woodshedding to do’” (“Bruce Cockburn,” Penguin Eggs, Autumn, 2019). 

Despite universal praise for his innovative style and obvious mastery of the instrument, I have always suspected smoke and mirrors behind Don Ross’ playing. Without the least bit of evidence, and contrary to all valid data, as in the style of our times, I assert that Don Ross has been struggling these decades to play simple three-chord folk tunes. Viewed this way, admiration turns to empathy. I applaud his efforts and admit that, in his flailing after basic chords and four-four rhythms, Ross has stumbled upon a unique sound. Listening to Don Ross Music ™, one marvels that any of it is reproducible. And, yet, he usually manages to play the pieces as recorded. 

The new Passion Session, recorded by Ross in 2014, and released on glorious red vinyl as PS15 by the Wisconsin-based, guitar-loving label Candy Rat, contains the same eleven songs as the original with two tracks swapping sides. Having not heard the original version and without access to it, I cannot say how the recordings differ in sound and performance. But I would be willing to bet tomorrow’s breakfast that PS15 is the keeper. 

 It begins with “Klimbin,” which as the liner notes explain means “junk” in German. Talk about deceptive advertising! The tune is like walking, deep in thought, down Sesame Street. It’s a sunny day, of course. Big Bird is there. Susan, too. But something Oscar the Grouch said about capitalist consumption really gets you thinking as the tune takes a momentary introspective turn before popping back to its lilting pace. 

 “Michael, Michael, Michael,” the second song, was written to commemorate Don Ross’s friend, the guitar genius Michael Hedges who died tragically way too young in an automobile accident in 1997. The piece is joyous and restless, forward-moving, unstoppable, with a middle part that opens up for sorrow to have its way with us before returning to the funky main passage that reminds us all to dance. 

 Another highlight on PS15 is “First Ride.” As Ross explains in the liner notes, the tune is a tribute to Bruce Cockburn. Based around Cockburn’s lovely classic “Foxglove,” the opening riff reminds me of another Cockburn tune, “When You Give It Away.” Yet, because Ross wrote the piece in 1983, that would mean the tribute song would have had to influence Cockburn, which is a neat trick if true. I am not saying that is the case, only that the opening of “First Ride” resembles, maybe to my ears only, Cockburn’s “When You Give It Away.” Ross’ tune seems to quote a few Cockburn licks but is really capturing the essence of the man’s playing. It pays homage to Cockburn’s metronomic thumb work and the spider-like descending runs that weave through his playing. 

With You in Mind,” the third tribute to a guitar master on the album, is dedicated to Pat Metheny and has become a staple for Don Ross concerts, with too many chords and melodies to fit in the ear. 

PS15 is really an album of highlights and writing about each piece does little to add to their beauty. Check it out for yourself. Every piece demonstrates Ross’ prowess as a guitarist but also his gift for melody, and ability to transport the listener. Each piece is like a machine made for travel taking you in different directions. If one can stop wondering about how he does all this with a guitar, the album can function nicely as the mood-setter for gatherings, or as company beside one’s daily chores. There is no lyrical content to interfere with thoughts or reading and writing, just beautiful, impossible sounds. For musicians and those interested in the language of music, this is not passive listening at all, but it pretends to be.

Friday, February 12, 2021

NOTES on Song: Awakening, Epiphany, and the Call of Conscience in Bruce Cockburn's "Gavin's Woodpile"

This short essay is an excerpt from a longer collection of writings about the music of Bruce Cockburn. The song of focus, "Gavin's Woodpile," is a haunting piece. The reflections below are a bit academic, less playful than previous posts. It should be mentioned that this song inspired a newsletter and now website, which I write about elsewhere, that focuses on Bruce Cockburn and his music. The photographer and author, Daniel Keebler, long Bruce's unofficial official photographer, has assembled a mighty resource for Cockburn fans and scholars with his Gavin's Woodpile site. Find it here: https://brucecockburn.org/. For more of Daniel Keebler's photography, check out this video he made for Bruce Cockburn's song "Forty Years in the Wilderness": https://drive.google.com/file/d/19LIbcO81F6ctWHP9I7Rx9iEFH-PFvCtj/view?usp=sharing

 I hope that you enjoy this short study of the song "Gavin's Woodpile." If of interest, please stay tuned for more thoughts on Cockburn's music. You will notice that the piece begins with a brief introduction. The chapter on "Gavin's Woodpile" was modified for publication in a general interest magazine, but was not published.

                                                  ~                                ~                               ~ 

 Over a five-decade career and with thirty albums, musician and activist Bruce Cockburn has been given many labels. His early albums, beginning with his self-titled 1970 release, aligned the singer with rural folk music and the “back to Earth” neo-hippy movements of the time. Listening to those albums now, it is easy to see why. The arrangements are sparse, featuring mostly Cockburn with an acoustic guitar. Whether the influences are there or simply inferred, the early albums seem to recall the troubadour tradition of early English folk music. Cockburn’s first albums are somewhat anachronistic, more at home in the 17th century than the 1970s. With subsequent albums, the musician incorporated jazz, electric instruments, and music from various cultures. By the mid-1970s, Cockburn was creating a hybrid style of contemporary folk-rock, yet the “hippy” label followed for some time. 

 By the late 1970s, bucolic concerns gave way to urban verité. Albums like Inner City Front and Humans are pop-influenced, gritty accounts of modern city life. Another transformation in the 1980s, facilitated by several fact-finding trips to Central America with NGOs, saw the artist produce the work for which he is most widely known. On albums like ¬Stealing Fire and World of Wonders, Cockburn presents mature, unflinching commentary on economic tyranny and military abuses around the world. 

 Of all the categories and conditions placed on Bruce Cockburn’s music by media and fans it is the dual concerns of spirituality and activism that most define his music for most listeners. These concerns run deeply through the music, it’s true, but have not been Cockburn’s sole focus. Matters of the heart, mortality, love, lust, all have significant representation in Cockburn’s catalog. Yet, politics and spirituality remain the defining categories when considering his work. 

 Cockburn’s Christianity has varied from the fundamental to the mystic. A concern for the spiritual life was present from the beginning, but it wasn’t until the mid-70s that his music began to employ blatant Christian imagery. During that time, Cockburn managed to offend conservative Christians with his progressive politics and progressive Christians with some violent or unsettling imagery in his lyrics. 

 With so much material to consider, it may seem strange to address a relatively little-known song from his 1976 album, In the Falling Dark. But the song in question, “Gavin’s Woodpile,” offers the listener a condensed view of many of the concerns that have run through Cockburn’s music for decades. “Gavin’s Woodpile” stands as a demonstration of fluid narrative perspective, an invitation toward empathy and social responsibility, the comfort faith offers to the world weary, and the opening of self to a larger affinity. The song comes early in Cockburn’s public acknowledgement of Christian faith and contains perhaps its most concrete expression. Considering the evolution of Cockburn’s spiritual engagement in subsequent songs, “Gavin’s Woodpile” can be viewed as a somewhat primitive application of Christian symbolism. Still, it is a profound meditation on the individual’s relationship with the Divine and responsibility to the Earth and its people. 

 The song features Cockburn with an acoustic guitar. It opens with a pattern of harmonics, four notes followed by a slightly bluesy riff. The rhythm of the song’s intro mirrors the four-syllable phrasing of the song’s title. The verses are sung in four syllable phrases as well, beginning with the first lines: “Working out on [pause] Gavin’s woodpile.” The line is not broken, but the meter emphasizes the four syllables. It is pure speculation to assign meaning to the prevalence of the number four in the song’s structure. However, four does bring to mind containers, boxes, houses, and defined spaces. And it is within these stabilizing structures that song is set. 

 The song begins with the narrator “safe within the harmony of kin.” It is autumn, and a family is piling wood together. The Gavin in the song’s title is Cockburn’s then-father-in-law. The first two lines establish the stability of the narrator’s life, but the song quickly takes a mystical turn. Perhaps it is the rhythm of stacking wood that allows “visions” to “crowd” the narrator’s eyes, “like a meteor shower in the autumn skies.” He becomes aware of the earth beneath his feet and brings in a jarring mixture of imagery when the soil begins to “moan,” not as one would expect the earth to moan, as with a slow tectonic ache but rather “like wind through a hollow bone.” The sense is that a message is being imparted, a communication from a deep place just beyond the narrator’s perceptions. The vision then is given form in the image of “Lappish runes of power” that flash in the mind. But the narrator doesn’t dwell on the meaning of the vision. Instead, he is drawn back into the mundane by the chunking sound of split wood falling into the woodpile and by the distant sound of a human voice admonishing a dog. 

 The next two verses begin with the classic creative writing prompt “I remember,” a structure that invites the blending of disparate imagery through the repetition of phrases. First the narrator remembers a “bleak-eyed prisoner” from Stoney Mountain, one of the largest prisons in Canada. The narrator describes a man jailed for injuring another in a drunken brawl. With five years remaining in his sentence, the prisoner is not hopeful of his prospects. Without a job waiting on the outside, the system is reluctant to grant early parole. In these seven lines, Cockburn addresses the cycle of poverty and incarceration that has become an industry in the modern age. The verse concludes with the prisoner lamenting, “And over and over, they tell you that you’re nothing.” What remains for a person in that state? Imprisonment for acts committed under the influence of addiction and constant reminders of his estrangement from community only compound the prisoner’s sense of worthlessness. 

 The piling of wood continues with the next linking section as the narrator contemplates the “welcome smile” of the lamp-lit cabin windows. 

 Cockburn is establishing the subtle tug of the conscience toward compassion. Surrounded by family, with a warm cabin waiting after the luxury of domestic labour, the narrator is drawn to issues beyond himself. It is an invitation for engagement that springs from the depth of the soul. With the mind freed from distraction by repetitive work, the narrator’s innate concern for humanity begins to invade his sense of stability and immunity. 

 The third verse begins with another remembrance, with the image of comfort and warmth, the crackling embers of a fire, the warm light of “coloured windows shining through the rain.” This time, the homey comfort of the scene is disrupted by an association with environmental disaster. The colour of the light through the windows reminds him of water contamination. At the time the song was written, a First Nations community called Grassy Narrows in Northwestern Ontario had been suffering from the effects of mercury poisoning. Effluent from the Dryden Chemical Company had been entering the English River for decades, causing an outbreak of what is now known as Ontario Minamata Disease. Compounding the suffering of this community, Canadian media and the Canadian government dismissed the symptoms of mercury poisoning as drunkenness among native populations. It took the interventions of a Japanese researcher to identify the problem. Cockburn lashes out at the “government gambler with his mouth full of steak” whose solution to the contamination is to recommend the inhabitants fish somewhere else. The verse concludes with the chilling lines, “To watch a people die is no new thing.” It is a colonial legacy that continues forty years after the song was recorded, and five decades since the diagnosis was made. As recently as 2017, the issue continues, with the Ontario provincial government pledging – as others have in the past – to finally clean up the situation. Sadly, the water conditions in Grassy Narrows only become an issue when attention is brought to it by foreign observers. Canada’s official response to its imperialist past and genocidal practices has always been reactive and inspired by shame not compassion. 

 The narrator’s attention leaves the headlines of the day, which are the headlines of this day, and drifts back to the growing woodpile. The thoughts of governmental neglect bring a “helpless rage that seems to set [his] brain on fire.” There is in this image a dangerous potential. Gavin’s woodpile is contrasted with the narrator’s burning rage. We are left wondering what the woodpile will be used for: warmth or a larger conflagration. 

 At this point, the narrator’s psychic insulation is pierced like “a punctured diving suit.” The safety of family life, the innocent and hopeful act of piling wood for a long winter, are disrupted by the knowledge that we are not separate from each other. The protective suit of comfort the narrator has worn has been breached and the modern age floods in like a “curse.” 

 In the final verse, the narrator’s attention is drawn to mountains in the horizon that rise like “a stairway to life.” But this brief invitation into awe at nature’s grandeur is broken by a train whistle. Again, the narrator seeks out the natural world, finding three hawks circling in a “dazzling sky.” Once again, human presence disrupts the natural image when a jet plane passes by to make the birds “look like a lie.” This last phrase is telling. There is nothing but the natural world, and yet our technologies can create the illusion that our endeavours somehow eclipse Nature. At this point, the song brings to mind the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur.” I do not know if the poem informed or inspired the song. Both works look at the intrusion of human activity into nature’s perfect order. Hopkin’s has the world “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil / Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” Where Hopkins has humanity separating itself from the natural world with footwear, Cockburn employs a metaphorical diving suit as the membrane between the constructed world and the world as it is. 

 A further conflation occurs in “Gavin’s Woodpile.” The injustices met upon First Nations people by carnivorous bureaucrats is comparable to the encroachment of modern, mechanical trappings on the natural world. Where Hopkins rests in the assurance that the grandness of God will always be the true state, Cockburn is less certain. Toward the close of the song, the narrator is “left to conclude there is no human answer near.” But there is hope in faith, the song seems to conclude. The narrator recognizes a “narrow path to a life to come / that explodes into sight with the power of the sun.” This new vision, one of precise action and focus reanimates the narrator’s world. As the sun sets and the mists rise, the narrator transforms the earth and the sun into bread and wine. The song ends with epiphany, with the sacramental transubstantiation of the world itself into the life-giving staples of Christian Eucharist rites. 

 This remarkable song demonstrates how compassion can draw us from mundane comfort into communion with larger identity through a narrow path of devotion. It also addresses the despair we face upon realizing how our comfort is gained at the expense of others, how the trappings of the modern world encroach on nature, and how it is not an easy thing to engage with these challenges. We feel as if we could drown in human cruelty. It is faith – however we define it, however faith manifests – that brings us through and allows us to engage with the world in all its imperfection. For Cockburn, in this song, at that time, the engagement was with a familiar metaphoric system. It is the depiction of the process of engagement and the intrusion of the rough world into false comfort that makes this song a remarkable milestone in Bruce Cockburn’s staggering canon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

NOTES on You’ve Never Seen Everything (True North Records, 2003) by Bruce Cockburn

 

A friend asked me where he should start with Bruce Cockburn’s music. Knowing my friend to be a guitarist, I recommended Crowing Ignites (2019), a collection of new instrumental pieces, and Speechless (2005), an anthology of guitar tracks compiled mostly from previous releases. 

Had I left it at that, my friend likely would have checked out those albums and, suitably impressed, begun his own exploration of Bruce’s music. But no. I had to add, “You know, you can’t really go wrong with Cockburn. Grab an album and dig in.” 

It wasn’t the first time I’d given generalist advice like this. Always, in the back of my mind, I worry the novice might stumble on “The Bicycle Trip” from Bruce’s first album. It’s not a bad song, just kind of aimless, like a lazy bicycle ride. What sends my hand to the skip button is a nasal-hummed chorus that whines like overinflated tires. It’s my least favorite Bruce song. Sorry. 

When making the general “you can’t go wrong” recommendation about Cockburn music, I sometimes think, “What are the odds they’ll randomly land on ‘The Bicycle Trip’? There are hundreds of beautiful Cockburn songs. Odds are you’ll get a good one.

Of course, I could be wrong about “The Bicycle Trip.” I was wrong once before. Maybe it is a brilliant song, and I am too dull to appreciate its glory.

My friend didn’t find “The Bicycle Trip.” Nor did he follow my advice to begin with the instrumental albums. Instead, he selected an album on his own and listened to the title track. This is usually a safe bet. Listen to Bowie’s “Heroes” from Heroes, or Mitchell’s “Blue” from Blue, or just about any song for which its album has been named and it’s likely an engaging, memorable song. As fate would have it, my friend chose the titular track “You’ve Never Seen Everything” from Bruce’s 2003 album.

“I listened to some Bruce Cockburn,” my friend said, his eyebrow now permanently arched with an incredulous scowl. “I don’t think I am going to like him very much.”

I protested. “Oh, no. You can’t judge his work by that one piece, man.”

He’d heard enough.

When Bruce’s twenty-first album, You’ve Never Seen Everything, was released I was distracted with finishing a degree and starting another and barely noticed anything but books and deadlines. Many of the songs became concert standards, so I knew “Open,” “Put It In Your Heart,” “Wait No More,” “Celestial Horses,” and a couple more from hearing Bruce play them, but I hadn’t listened to the entire album until long after its release. Its title track, unforgettable as it is, slipped my mind. More precisely, the song wedged itself into the safety-locked compartment where I keep traumatic dental procedures, botched high school English presentations, cruel laughter and pointing fingers.

It’s standard practice for artists to title their albums with the strongest song, or a song that carries thematic weight. In there somewhere must be the notion of the title track as a calling card, an elevated selection that might draw the listener into the entire album. It doesn’t have to be the first song, but the title track is usually the most memorable and, maybe, danceable song in the collection.

 “You’ve Never Seen Everything” certainly is memorable, unless suppressed by psychic antibodies.

The song is listed tenth in the order. With a running time of 9:13, it’s the longest cut on the record. It’s one of Bruce’s partially spoken pieces. In that regard, it’s in good company with “Lily of the Midnight Sky” from World of Wonders (1986) and “The Charity of Night” (1996) from the album named for it, but “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is its own phenomenon.

So, what’s the big deal about “You’ve Never Seen Everything”? It might be the song for our times, actually. The lyrics are nine minutes of doomscrolling over a horror movie soundtrack. Not even its pretty chorus can undo its gloom. Listening to this song is like being with a tortured uncle who reads out loud from The Daily Dread at Christmas dinner.

“Turkey’s really good, Ma,” someone might say.

“Did you hear about the baker in India who mixed pesticide with his flour to improve his margin? He poisoned half the town.”

Then, as everyone looks up from their plates, frozen in tableau, comes the punchline: “When the survivors found out, they ‘butchered that baker’.”

 And the table erupts in groans and the clattering of dropped forks.

The piece begins with the narrator establishing his weariness and fatigue, then runs through about six stories of despair, ironic tragedy, and rage at the inequities of trans-global economics. Every now and then, like after the “butchered that baker” line, Cockburn offers a solemn “You’ve never seen everything.” 

Thank the Creator for that, I say.

The album itself is excellent, and the title track certainly has its morbid place in the lineup. Produced by Colin Linden and featuring a list of guest artists that could be taken from the roll call for a meeting of the most accomplished popular musicians of this era – Jackson Browne, Sarah Harmer, Emmylou Harris, Sam Phillips – You’ve Never Seen Everything is a trip. Interlaced throughout are sounds similar to bullfrogs and night, gurgling ponds, and strange scraping noises. It’s jarring and brilliant. The textures of ambient noises weave the songs together. 

Most importantly, the songs are solid. I’ve already named a few of the concert regulars, but listen to “Put It In Your Heart,” Bruce’s response to 9/11. It’s brilliant and angry and Zen in its transcendence.

Or listen to “Open,” one of Cockburn’s more playable songs for mortal guitarists to attempt. That song could have been in the top ten on the Sunshine List. The video for “Open” was filmed in New York, and has Bruce wandering the streets with an acoustic guitar. Several scenes of New Yorkers staring at Bruce and the camera as they pass are hilarious. I didn’t think New Yorkers could be shocked by cameras or famous musicians, but it’s on their faces: “Is that John Denver?”    

The album brings together Cockburn’s core touring and recording rhythm section for the past decade or so: the always astonishing drummer Gary Craig, who paints rhythm with unexpected accents and silence, and the rock solid bassist John Dymond. Producer and blues master Colin Linden drops in on mandolins and guitars. And, perhaps the player most responsible for the oddness of the aural landscape, longtime Cockburn collaborator, violinist Hugh Marsh. 

Many other musicians contribute as well. For a complete list of players, why not buy a copy and read the liner notes, ya cheap so-and-so?

 At one point in the doomscrolling tirade of “You’ve Never Seen Everything,” Cockburn seems to catch himself with the brutality of the events he describes. In one verse, a murder-suicide is accomplished by mounting a pitchfork on the dashboard of a car that crashes near the Gardiner Expressway: “Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front / a man and his mother / Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –.” After delivering this line, the surprised and exasperated narrator gasps, “Pitchfork!,” as if he hadn’t seen it coming, and the Christmas dinner is cleared away, and the kids are sent off to play, and the host makes a mental note to not let Uncle Bruce bring his newspapers to the table next year. But he continues, “And that same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash to make sure the driver goes too / You haven’t seen everything.”

Thinking of this song, I imagine a heated debate at Cockburn Central, deep in the war room at True North Records, with Bernie Finkelstein and others pleading with Bruce to name the album after one of the nice songs. “How about Open? Catchy tune, inviting title. Could be a hit. Or Put It In Your Heart, that’s the point, isn’t it? Not pitchforks, music, healing!”

This is all speculation, of course. Transcripts from the planning sessions are not easily obtained.

Is it perverseness that would have an artist title his album after the most shocking and inaccessible track? Maybe it’s a challenge to the listener: How do you like me now? 

Either way, one potential Bruce Cockburn fan has been discouraged from going further after listening to the track. Taken in context of Bruce Cockburn’s entire song catalog, “You’ve Never Seen Everything” is a meditative slow dance on the edge of madness, a reaction to broadcasted despair, and the laying bare of chaos to shock the listener awake. It is hard medicine that works like an astringent against the album’s overall magnificence. Could that be the point? That we must be prepared for ironic tragedy?

The chorus, sung with Emmylou Harris for Christsake, offers brief melodic relief: “Bad pressure coming down / Tears, what we really traffic in / ride the ribbon of shadow / Never feel the light falling all around.”

 All that being said, “You’ve Never Seen Everything” should not frighten the listener from You’ve Never Seen Everything. It’s a glorious album. The production is textured and crisp. Colin Linden, known for his solo work and as a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, is a top tier producer and master musician. As a producer, Linden builds the sound around song and performance. He makes himself invisible, each album produced to bring out the feel of the sessions and the songs. It is interesting to hear Mr. Linden’s evolution as Cockburn’s producer. Beginning with a masterpiece, The Charity of Night, Linden’s production has evolved with every album, which in turn has allowed Cockburn even greater expression of his genius.

Do I recommend the album You’ve Never Seen Everything? You bet. You really can’t go wrong with Cockburn. But begin with the first track.   

Postscript:

I was so concerned with the strangeness of the album’s title song that I neglected perhaps the prettiest of them all, the last in the order, “Messenger Wind.” Sadly, such gentle and beautiful things are often overlooked.

 A commentator on Facebook posted that “Messenger Wind” was in the running for the album’s title. The commentator didn’t identify sources. Maybe he was at that eleventh hour meeting at True North Headquarters. 

The song seems to touch on spirit, on becoming, like a thought on the wind that enters the world in the time honoured way: “In front of the house where I’m supposed to be born / I don’t think I’m ready to walk through that door just yet // To be one more voice in the human choir / rising like smoke from the mystical fire of the heart.”

There is no way of knowing until we know, but I’d wager the still small voice in this song carries a fairly accurate explanation of what we are and where we came from.

 

Links: 

Bruce Cockburn Homepage 

Colin Linden Homepage