Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Anthem" - Leonard Cohen


By titling his masterful "Anthem" as such, Leonard Cohen was clearly pandering for inclusion in this list. It's an irresistible choice nonetheless, even though the song is in some ways an anti-anthem: a caution against easy optimism; a warning that some changes may never be wrought:

The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.

Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
The dove is never free.

But "Anthem" is also a call to true activism, encapsulated in its immortal chorus:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in ...

I think we need anthems for our moments of defeat. Cohen's song, which seamlessly blends waltz and dirge, is perfect for times of setback in progressive causes: a bulwark against utopianism and hubris, including its progressive varieties; but also a call to press on and "ring the bells that still can ring." And as a bittersweet hymn for a progressive friend's funeral, it is peerless.

The original recording of "Anthem," from The Future (1992)


 A live performance, with band introduction:


A cover version by Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla, offering clues about adapting "Anthem" for activist purposes, especially with female voices:


An example of a crowd of folks whooping it up to "Anthem," thereby confirming its anthemic potential:


Other Resources

Song available on: Leonard Cohen, The Future (Columbia, 1992), track 5.













Link to full lyrics.

Also available on Live in London (2009, CD & DVD) (CD 1, track 9).

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