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Sunday, 28 December 2014

Politics, nature and spirituality in the songs of Cockburn and Dylan

I'm enjoying the opportunity to do some reading on my post-Christmas break. I've read Michel Faber's brilliant The Fire Gospels and am now well into Bruce Cockburn's fascinating memoir Rumours of Glory.

Cockburn's trajectory as an artist is almost the opposite, although they share many preoccupations, to that of Bob Dylan; as Cockburn begins as a nature mystic before catching the intoxicating poetry of the urban and political.

He writes:

'My songs tend to be triggered by whatever is in front of me, filtered through feeling and imagination. I went looking for humanity in all its guises. I wrote about what I found: the love, the meanness, the artists, the farmers, the juntas; the books, the slums, the palaces; the conflicts, the peace, the music. That's why I don't think of the things I write as "protest" songs. They reflect what I see and how I feel about it. The songs are not ideologically driven. They are meant not as calls to action - though if someone heard one of my songs and was inspired to help the poor or save an ecosystem, all the better - but as an attempt to share my personal response to experience with anyone who feels a resonance, or even someone who doesn't, because life is one long conversation.'

'As a songwriter newly attuned to political subject matter,' he writes that he began to question his 'unexamined notion that art must remain "pure," untainted by the political ... I began to understand that if an artist's job is to distil the human experience into something that can be shared, then the political, as much a part of that experience as God or sex or alienation, deserved to be seen as raw material. The arts contribute significantly to social movements and cultural cohesion.'

Interestingly, Cockburn rates In the Falling Dark, The Charity of Night and Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu as the records with which he is most satisfied. For me, he really hits his stride with Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws (the masterpiece of his nature mysticism) and Humans (which begins his series of insights into the urban and politics). Stealing Fire and World of Wonders showcase his hard-hitting and informed political reflections, while Nothing but a Burning Light and You've never seen Everything wonderfully merge his earlier and later preoccupations.

Cockburn was dealing with spiritual themes at a time in rock and folk when such things were not fashionable or widely recognised within the work of several of the most significant artists of the day. Lou Adler, who 'dreamed up [for Dylan's Gospel by the Brothers and Sisters) the concept of matching the words and music of Bob Dylan with the majestic, booming voices he had heard in the recording studios - the vocals of the singers who came from the Baptist churches of South Los Angeles to belt out back-up for the big names,' was one of those able to see the spirituality in the songs of Bob Dylan:

'Listening to a lot of his songs, I felt there was a gospel feel to them, both spiritually and lyrically ... I think you can find something spiritual about all of Dylan's lyrics. Certainly something that goes beyond just being a pop song.'

Merry Clayton says, of recording the album, 'We took it to the church. That's how we approached it. Just like we were singing in our choir in our church.' The results, as Jessica Hundley has written, 'are wonderfully cathartic.' 'This is Dylan elevated into a sound huge and shimmering and rich - a chorus of voices lifting up his poetry ... into something close to scripture.'

That was 1969, when the Brothers and Sisters recorded a representative retrospective of Dylan's work from The Times They Are A-Changin' to Nashville Skyline by way of Another Side of Bob DylanBlonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. There are many other Dylan tracks from the same period which could be given similar treatment including 'Blowin' In The Wind,' 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall,' 'When The Ship Comes In,' 'All I Really Want To Do,' 'Sign On The Cross' and 'I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine,' among many others.

Sid Griffin, writing on 'The Importance of The Basement Tapes,' describes in Biblical terms how the 'beat poetics' of Dylan's political and urban songs 'morphed into whimsy or Biblical-like prophecies'; 'songs derived from old sea shanties, melodic reflections about life's absudities, hard-rockin' and often hilarious fictitious character sketches, musical tributes to past heroes which bordered on pastiche, musical pastiches so authentic they bordered on being tributes, devout spirituals, C&W laments, a new take on blues balladry, and, yes, love in all its guises':

'A year earlier [1966] the singer had been in the middle of an exhausting World Tour ... And then, during a break in the touring, the singer saw a light as bright as Saul witnessed on the road to Damascus when he fell to the ground blinded. Bob Dylan, also temporarily blinded, fell to the ground from a motorcycle and when he healed he had changed his thinking almost as dramatically as Saul did. He too sought a new peace in his life for he'd found a direction home ...

Bob Dylan would now place a new emphasis on family, on his new home and its immediate community, on his personal spirit, and would view Mammon with even greater suspicion that he did before.'

Griffin notes that 'when you look at the song titles on an "Americana" chart in any trade magazine today you are seeing the Basement Tapes' musical grandchildren.'

In 1966 Dylan described the range of music and imagery which he has tapped since: 'Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes from legends, bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death. ... All these songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels - they're not going to die. .... I mean, you'd think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact ... In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. ... It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy.'

He has stated clearly that: 'Those old songs are my lexicon and my prayer book. You can find all my philosophy in those old songs. Hank Williams singing 'I Saw The Light' or all the Luke The Drifter songs. That would be pretty close to my religion. The rabbis, priests, and ministers all do very well. But my belief system is more rugged and comes more from out of the old spiritual songs than from any of the established religious attempts at overcoming the devil.'

More reflections on the work of Cockburn and Dylan can be found in my co-authored book The Secret Chord.


Bruce Cockburn - Open.

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