Thursday, June 25, 2015

Leonard Cohen: Who By Fire (1979)

The song, “Who by Fire,” is the fourth track on side 2 of the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which was released on August 11, 1974. In this 1979 video, Leonard Cohen gives a brief, yet essential, explanation of the song’s biblical Jewish source and meaning and, equally important, his interpretation of the source for life and for death, or as Cohen puts it, “who or what determines who lives and who dies.”

The song is based on the piyyut, or the Jewish liturgical poem, U’netanneh Tokef (“Let us declare the importance”) of which Mi bamayim, umi ba’esh (“who by water, and who by fire”) is one of the lines. It is sung on Rosh Hashanah (“New Year”) and on Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”) in the Ashkenazi tradition, where it is recited during the Mussaf service, when the chazzan (or cantor) repeats the Amidah.  [You can also hear it sung in Hebrew herehere and here; all three are beautifully done.]

Who By Fire
by Leonard Cohen

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?