Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thoughts on Bruce Cockburn: High Winds/White Sky

High Winds, White Sky (1971) is immediately a much more buoyant and
joyful album and a step forward both musically and lyrically. The songs are
lyrically more self-assured and the music feels less fragile, the arrangements
more complex. Happy Good Morning Blues has a similar feel to
Going to
the Country
with its sprightly blues beat, intricate picking, and a cast of
more fully rounded characters than in the first album. You can almost picture
Bruce dancing down the street on a sunny day, greeting the “fat balloon man”,
“uncle tom cat”, and tipping his hat to “Herr policeman”.

Let Us Go Laughing starts out as a quiet meditation on nature, with Bruce canoeing at
sunset watching the sun slip away and the stars and moon rise. As distant
lightning “stirs the cauldron of the sky” he turns the canoe towards the
shore. The mood changes during an instrumental interlude and the pace of the
music picks up. The music turns into an Irish fiddle tune or jig. Bruce
meditates on life and death and in the chorus suggests that we get on with it
and “let us go laughing”. He hopes the “holy hermit” will “guide [us] to the
shortest path.” Solitary meditation is all well and good, he seems to be
saying, but we need to move and we need to be with others and “go laughing.”

Love Song is filled with a child-like innocence and is permeated with a sense of
discovery and surprise. Bruce uses an interesting mix of long and short
phrases to create that sense of surprise. Musically, the verse phrase appears
to be eight quarter notes, followed by a whole note, followed by two eighth
notes and a quarter note, with each note being a syllable. It seems a little
like a jack in the box, where it winds up slowly, stops, and then releases.
The interplay between two guitars gives the music depth and adds to the joyful
bounce of the lyrics.

Bruce switches gears to country-folk on One Day I Walk, and is supported by an ensemble, including
mandolin, banjo and bass and harmony vocals on the chorus. Here, Bruce seems
to be in no hurry at all, taking in the good and the bad that life has and will
throw his way. He seems to be saying that it’s all good and sooner or later
he’ll get home. He’ll stop and smell the roses when he can, and he’ll
appreciate the stones. The second verse suggests busking on a corner for
change, where he’s sitting watching the world go by and singing other people’s
songs (“
cried out glad and cried out sad/with every voice but mine”).

Bruce plays the piano
on Golden Serpent Blues and croons about a woman who may or may not be
his lover. The first few notes sound serious, stately and almost classical, but
he quickly moves to a shuffling blues. Perhaps she’s a waitress weaving
through a crowd of people, as “she moves like a golden serpent all day long,”
and “she likes to give me honey when I’m down.” But clearly she is something
special: “
She can drive away the devil with a song
.” She
reminds me of the woman or type of woman that he describes in greater detail,
but with similar imagery, in See How I Miss You from World of Wonders:

I watch this woman in a tight
sequined lizard dress
Tosses her scarlet hair like a sly caress
She a got midnight voice like some beckoning saint
She got something special but you she ain't

High Winds White
is another love song. The dreamlike, fragmented
imagery convey his loneliness. He is looking out at the world from a high
vantage point. He describes the woman as a princess. He may have given her a
“glittering ring” and she’s the “daughter of the stars/[she is]/life beginning.”
But then “the wind’s travelers’ tales tease” the treetops and “the ships have
all sailed to the mouth of the sea,” suggesting a bitter end to the
courtship. The last verse is suggestive of emptiness and time moving on and
the song ends on the unsentimental and unromantic line, “falsehood lies panting
like a fish in the palm.”

An autumn walk by the
sea is the subject of You Point to the Sky. He and his lover are
enjoying the scenery and talking of how their lives have changed and
speculating about the future, “construct[ing] a tapestry of what will come.”
She “point[s] to the sea” and Bruce “see[s]/what seems to be so free/bound by/
empty sky.” In the context of this song that might be a throwaway image or
random observation. However, the sea as a symbol of freedom crops up in other
songs, most importantly in “All the Diamonds”. At the end of the song, they
“tumble down the path” towards home. The final line is a very self-effacing
comment about how they are just “comic beggars trading laughs for scraps from
the tables of the wise.”

As a lyrical
statement, the song seems very slight, like a sketch that an artist might make
for a later painting. They go for a walk, talk about the past and future and
“climb toward the melting point of time” and then go home. And yet it feels
like much more than that. Bruce has a way sometimes of making something out of
almost nothing, hinting at something much deeper with a few well-place brush
strokes. One of the elements of his spirituality and artistry is a very strong
sense that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

Life’s Mistress is a winter song, set in a cozy house in the country among the trees,
guarded by three cats and a large gentle dog. His lover has “the keys … to
open any door.” Bruce sits quietly in the sun by the window and just
“watch[es] her go by.” The song is almost a little fairy tale and by the end,
she has been transformed into an almost fairy tale being:

Queen of field and forest pathway
Understands the speech of stones
She weaves peace upon her loom
Life's mistress

Perhaps because of the fairy tale touches, you don’t really
get the sense of a flesh and blood woman.

Ting/the Cauldron is a meditative instrumental piece with an eclectic and exotic Eastern
feel. It sounds by turns Middle Eastern, Oriental and even African. There are
gongs, cymbals, marimbas and other assorted instruments supporting Bruce’s
guitar. This is the first real song to show the influence of Django Reinhart
on his playing, but Bruce’s characteristic bass plucking is not really in
evidence here.

The album closes with
the song Shining Mountain, which describes an actual hike or camping
trip in the mountains east of Vancouver on a summer day. The mountain is
shining in the late afternoon sun. Bruce watches the sun “sink into the sea”
and “drown in golden fire.” After night falls, the “fireflies danced” and
trees and crags “began to sing/above the black forest.”

The opening musical
phrase picks up from the previous song and sounds almost Oriental again, but
then the song transforms into a slow, medieval folk song, almost chanted rather
than sung, about a quest of sorts. Bruce climbs the mountain “to see what I
could see” and “to see what I could be.” In the final verse, he changes those
lines to “to know what I did know” and “to know whence I did know.” In other
words, Bruce has tested and validated his sense of himself with this journey
into the Mountains. Bruce’s dense dulcimer picking and steady rhythm frame the
lyrics and a gong sounds like a church bell chiming as the song fades out at
the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment