Cohen & Country

Leonard Cohen and Country Music

Laurence Coupe

Academia Letters, Article 5297 (2022)


I have discussed Leonard Cohen’s work before in a previous article for Academia Letters, in which I focus on the song ‘Suzanne’ (1967) – seeing it as both song and poem. There, of course, the text had been a written poem initially, and then put to music; but my argument was that great writing should always be taken seriously, and if necessary read closely line by line, whether it take the form of poem or song. That is not to say that the music does not matter; but with the most interesting songs, the tune is there to give full force to the text.

With the theme of ‘song as poem’ in mind, I want to emphasise Cohen’s little-known interest in country music, and to indicate why that genre might have appealed to him. This interest may seem odd, given that country is a genre which is frequently dismissed as a shallow form of diversion for unthinking and insensitive consumers. However, we know that Cohen did not subscribe to that dismissive viewpoint. The first band Cohen ever performed with was ‘the Buckskin Boys’, and they played chiefly country music. Later in his career, Cohen was explicit in his admiration for Hank Williams, a leading pioneer of the genre.[1]  Cohen even referred humorously to Williams’ influence in ‘Tower of Song’ (1988), seeing him as a fellow-inhabitant of a tall, monumental building where the great poets live out their last days.[2]

In the discussion of Cohen in my book Beat Sound, Beat Vision, I explore the tension in his work between the ‘profane’ world of experience and the ‘sacred’ world of illumination – a tension which becomes a persistent dialectic.[3] There is the sphere of suffering and that of salvation, and they constantly interact in our imaginations. They do not make full sense if we view them apart. For example, in ‘If It Be Your Will’ (1984), which takes the form of a prayer, Cohen seems to be espousing an orthodox monotheism, the basis of a doctrine of salvation for the righteous; but the imagery simultaneously celebrates the suffering sinners. He speaks for all those ‘on this broken hill’, dressed in ‘our rags of light’; and asks that ‘all these burning hearts in hell’ be made ‘well’ at last.[4]  A plea for mercy from a God of justice, the song dwells chiefly on the frailty of humanity; but paradoxically, this frailty is the very source of its spirituality. Only in the depths of the profane does the sacred need to be made manifest.

To give a more succinct example of the dialectic of the profane and the sacred, here is the refrain of ‘Anthem’ (1992): ‘Ring the bells that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.’ [5]


Everyone interested in country music would agree that Hank Williams was a songwriter of rare genius. Indeed, he has more than once been referred to as the great ‘Poet of Pain’. My instinct is that ‘Poetry of Pain’ is a perfect description of some of the best ever country music.[6] Here is a verse from Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949): ‘Did you ever see a robin weep / When leaves began to die? / Like me, he’s lost the will to live: / I’m so lonesome I could cry.’ To me, those  lines are reminiscent of verses penned by the likes of Tennyson, Dickinson, Hardy and Housman – all known for their melancholy reflections. This other verse is unforgettably striking: ‘The silence of a falling star / Lights up a purple sky, / And as I wonder where you are / I’m so lonesome I could cry.’[7] Here, as with Cohen’s work, we can see how, with beautiful economy of expression, Williams is able to convey a powerful apprehension of the tragedy of human existence, set against a cosmic order. Here is solitude and sadness; there is sublimity and serenity.

Only a year before, Williams wrote and sang ‘I Saw the Light’ (1948). Here we have the ‘aimless life filled with sin’; but it is in the depths of the night – a night symbolising the miserable state of the sinner – that ‘my dear saviour’ comes to him. Just to enforce the message, the sinner is seen as ‘a blind man’ who ‘wandered along’ until ‘God gives back his sight’ to him. Sin, suffering and salvation are the elements of a total vision.


There’s a talented country artist with whom the poetry of pain is at its most intense, seemingly without reprieve: Townes Van Zandt. In his work there is very little by way of Biblical allusion, and not much talk of salvation. The pain is stark and it has to be honoured. One of his first songs – ‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ (1968) – gives us his bleak impression of life’s journey unadorned. There is no apology in these words: ‘Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is takin’ me, / Sometimes I don’t even know the reason why. / But I guess I keep a-gamblin’ / Lots of booze and lots of ramblin’. / Well it’s easier than just a-waitin’ around to die.’[8]

‘Waitin’ Around to Die’ might be said to set out Van Zandt’s challenge to himself. Is life just one damned thing after another, as the saying goes? Is there no redemption? A later song of his, ‘Rex’s Blues’ (1978), is rather more complex. It explores the paradoxical nature of the human condition: ‘Legs to walk and thoughts to fly, / Eyes to laugh and lips to cry, / A restless tongue to classify: / All born to grow and grown to die.’ Now, looking back, he realises how he came to feel as though he is ‘…chained upon the face of time, / Feelin’ full of foolish rhyme.’ But it is in this moment of realisation that he is open to revelation: ‘There ain’t no dark till something shines: / I’m bound to leave this dark behind.’[9] The paradox of listening to Van Zandt is that, though he faces the worst, and though he uses what he modestly calls his ‘foolish rhyme’ to do so, he really does help you — for the duration of the song, at least – to leave the dark behind. Perhaps all country music, at its best, does exactly that. In doing so, it deserves to be celebrated alongside Cohen’s own work.

Finally, it is worth pondering those last two lines or ‘Rex’s Blues’ further.  Could it be that Cohen had heard the song himself, prior to writing ‘Anthem’ – in particular, that chorus we quoted earlier?[10] For surely the revelation granted by each song is very close: they both articulate with superb economy of expression the dialectic of dark and light, profane and sacred, suffering and salvation. Certainly, I would presume to claim that Van Zandt stands as one of the greatest songwriters ever, and that it  would be no insult to Leonard Cohen to see Van Zandt as a fellow-inhabitant of his in that ‘tower of song’.


[1] Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (London: Vintage Books, 2013), pp. 39-41, 206.

[2] Leonard Cohen, ‘Tower of Song’, Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), p. 363.

[3] Laurence Coupe, Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song (Manchester: MUP, 2007), pp. 182-194.

[4] Leonard Cohen, ‘If It Be Your Will’, Stranger Music, p. 343.

[5] Leonard Cohen, ‘Anthem’, Stranger Music, p. 373.

[6] See Laurence Coupe, ‘The Case for Country Music as a Poetry of Pain’, PopMatters

[7] Hank Williams, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ (1949)

[8] Townes Van Zandt, ‘Waitin ‘Round To Die’ (1968)


[9] Townes Van Zandt, ‘Rex’s Blues’ (1978)

[10] I am indebted to my friend Dominic Williams for alerting me to this possibility.