Note: This post is an entry in a series of essays considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.
Leonard Cohen’s musical influences are varied and sometimes surprising.
He includes, for example, among his early influences “Scottish Border ballads, the Spanish flamenco songs, the Portuguese fado.”1
The People’s Songbook
At age 15, Cohen was introduced to “The People’s Songbook,” and through it to such songs as “Passing Through,” “The Partisan,” and “Beloved Comrade.”
The song “Passing Through” is a song I learned when I was fifteen, from a very devoted socialist that I knew. That particular version of the song comes out of “The People’s Songbook” which was a song book developed out of the interest that the socialists had at one time in Folk Music, still have. It came out of the “Almanac Singers” who later became “The Weavers”, that’s the group that Pete Seeger was in – the book was edited by John Lomax. The book itself was very influential in interesting me in song and songwriting. I came across it when I was about fifteen.2
Leonard Cohen has frequently and unabashedly attested to his enjoyment of country music and the strong influence that genre has had on his own work. It is significant that Leonard Cohen has himself pointed out that “When I was 17, I was in a country music group called the Buckskin Boys.3 Writing came later, after music.”4
I’ve always loved country music. I lived in Nashville for a couple of years. Even in the dark periods of the seventies and the early eighties, I listened to a lot of country music because I felt that that’s where the emotion was, that’s where the lyric was, and that’s where real problems were being addressed. Country singers tend to be a little older. The audience tends to be a lot more loyal. So the singers and the writers can reveal themselves over a long period of time. You know that Johnny Cash is not going to be singing about anything frivolous, and you know that George Jones is not going to be presenting himself with any kind of bravado; you know that he is going to be telling the truth about himself in his song. When you have pop groups coming and going with tremendous rapidity, you can’t get the feel of the artist. 5
The musical values [of “urban folk music, country western”] are very sophisticated, not primitive as it’s usually taken to be. Very sophisticated and very, very minimal, but the emphasis is on the voice and the experience in the voice.6
[Country music] is the music I always reach for when I’m in the car. I like it because it’s a simple yet highly sophisticated music. It uses few chords, its simple structure lending it an attachment to austerity. Because of its simple structure, it has to be highly sophisticated if it is going to touch the heart without people saying yuk. Nobody gets away with anything in country lyrics. If you listen to them against pop lyrics, there’s no contest. Those guys know how to write a verse. It’s often complex stuff, about love and divorce and law and, eh, sometimes quite obscure feelings that make most pop music very, very kindergarten.7
[Europe has] this tradition of self revelation in popular music. We have it here – it’s called Country Western Music… I think that’s where the deeper and more complex subjects are treated.8
Sid Vicious Vs Frank Sinatra
Similarly indicative of Cohen’s thoughtful, counterintuitive musical pathway is his preference for the Sid Vicious cover of “My Way” over Frank Sinatra’s:
I never liked this song ["My Way"] except when Sid Vicious did it. Sung straight, it somehow deprives the appetite of a certain taste we’d like to have on our lips. When Sid Vicious did it, he provided that other side to the song; the certainty, the self-congratulation, the daily heroism of Sinatra’s version is completely exploded by this desperate, mad, humorous voice. I can’t go round in a raincoat and fedora looking over my life saying I did it my way — well, for 10 minutes in some American bar over a gin and tonic you might be able to get away with it. But Sid Vicious’s rendition takes in everybody; everybody is messed up like that, everybody is the mad hero of his own drama. It explodes the whole culture this self-presentation can take place in, so it completes the song for me.9
Pop Music On Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox
Tellingly, Cohen has identified the “biggest influence on [his] music” as
The jukebox. I lived beside jukeboxes all through the fifties. There was “The Great Pretender,” “Cross Over the Road.” I never knew who was singing. I never followed things that way. I still don’t. I wasn’t a student of music; I was a student of the restaurant I was in — and the waitresses. The music was a part of it. I knew what number the song was.10
Where The Good Songs Come From
One of the most popular Leonard Cohen quotes is “I don’t know where the good songs come from or else I’d go there more often.”11 Well, if Mr Cohen hasn’t found the home of good songs, it isn’t for lack of looking. Consider his portfolio of referenced singers, songs, and lyric sources.
Leonard Cohen has specifically endorsed such disparate tracks as “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, “Je ne regrette rien” by Joaquín Rodrigo, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” by The Beatles, “Etude Op. 10, No. 1″ by Chopin, “Black Lace” by Frankie Laine, “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People, and “Gums Bleed” by You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath.12
The list of musicians Cohen enjoys is equally long and varied, including Waylon Jennings, Beethoven, Pete Seeger, The Beatles, Chopin, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Josh White, Van Morrison, George Jones, Billy Joel, and King David.
And, Cohen has derived lyrics from an especially extensive, eclectic group of sources, including the King James Bible, an Andrews Sisters song, a Yom Kippur prayer, poems by Federico García Lorca, and Whitman, a Scientology precept, and a Burger King commercial.
I’m beginning to think that Mr Cohen, his protestations notwithstanding, has indeed discovered where good songs come from – and returns there quite often.
Next in this series: Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #3. Artistic Design – The Utility, Magic, & Mystery Of Songs
Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post is by Ian Cook/Time Life Pictures. Image of The People’s Songbook found at Leonard Cohen Prologues
- Conversations from a Room by Tom Chaffin. Canadian Forum: August/September 1983. Accessed 27 April 2014 at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- The Song Of Leonard Cohen – Portrait Of A Poet, A Friendship And A Film by Harry Rasky (1979) [↩]
- For more about the Buckskin Boys, see Leonard Cohen – Boy Wonder [↩]
- Leonard Cohen: Cohen’s New Skin by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker:1 March 1975. [↩]
- Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria. Aurora: July, 1990 [↩]
- Haute Dog by Mr. Bonzai (David Goggin). Music Smarts: July 10, 2010 (archived from 1988). Accessed 29 April 2014 at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- Tortoise-Shell Hero by Biba Kopf. New Musical Express, March 2, 1985. [↩]
- Backstage Interview With Leonard Cohen with Ralph Benmergui. Toronto: Nov 9, 1988. The concert was broadcast live on CBC radio and rebroadcast on March 11, 1990 on The Entertainers. See Leonard Cohen On Bunk Beds, Country Music, Song Writing, Terrorism, Religion, and – Yes – Sex [↩]
- Cohen’s Way by Mat Snow. The Guardian: February 1988. Accessed 20 May 2014 at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- Yakety Yak by Scott Cohen (1994) [↩]
- This has been used in many interviews, including in a June 28, 2006 NPR interview [↩]
- For information about these Leonard Cohen–endorsed songs and many others, see Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox. [↩]