Songs can serve many purposes.
When I was 18 I moved to Montreal and went to university, where I drifted into the Religious Studies faculty, guided simultaneously by my love for my older brother, who was also studying that, and my desire to understand God.
It didn’t help with the latter, but I did learn about the “occasional letters” of Paul of Tarsus. In epistolary scholarship, an occasional letter is one that is “occasioned” by something specific, a need, for example, to encourage the budding Thessalonian Christian community, to answer a set of questions posed by the Corinthians, or to chastise a group of foolish Galatians. It was compelling to imagine that Paul’s epistles, which serve as a pillar to what we sometimes call Western culture, could have been prompted by specific events, questions, people.
The life of a song is sometimes lived by a similar logic. Leonard Cohen lost the publishing rights to “Suzanne” to the record companies, but in later years he was circumspect about this, remarking that he had heard a group of sailors singing it on a boat on one of his far-flung travels. Those of us touched by the song have all drank Suzanne’s tea and eaten her oranges, and we are bound together in a kind of eucharistic communion, far away from the original occasion or set of occasions that prompted the song. The mystery of that communion has a powerful hold over me.
(Though I also would like to preserve the right for songs to stay where they were born, and where they grew up, if they wish to. No need for them to become worldly.)
My mom sometimes uses a shorthand that I find equally endearing and irritating to describe songs. Some, she says, are “immortals”, destined to be sung by unknown sailors the world around.
She loves “We Are With You Now and Forever”. It was an occasional song, prompted by a specific parting I was negotiating in my heart. I played it for the first time at a barbecue going-away party in Wakefield, QC, and it served the purpose for which it had been written.
In its own very modest way, the song has since taken on other lives. I played it at a concert/community gathering that served as my own goodbye party when I went abroad for a couple of years. Upon request, I’ve played it at other people’s going aways, and at some people’s weddings. The recorded version, by Honeyman & the Brothers Farr, has been played at weddings to which I have not been invited, which I find multivalently delightful.
Truth be told, I’m a little embarrassed by the song now. It lays its cards on the table, both melodically and lyrically, in a way that I find a little garish—a straight flush of hearts, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Maybe it’s slightly humiliating to me how simple my feelings tend to be.
The older I get, the more I’ve mostly made peace with who I am and who I am not, and what my capacity might be to move from the former to the latter. This is a long way of saying: I am not Leonard Cohen.
But I have loved to see people beyond my immediate circle, which constitutes my audience as a relatively unpopular musician, enjoy the song. It has given me a very tiny morsel of that feeling of the sailors singing, and I have savored that taste. A lot of art, even just-decent art, and even art that is done purely to satisfy some inner call, yearns for an audience. It allows significance to echo back and forth among people, unveiling and revelating powerful relationships that were previously latent.
I am grateful to those who have listened and enjoyed, and invited the song into their life in such an openhearted and gracious way. Imagine all of us as guests at your dinner table together. The song is seated at your right hand, making people laugh and telling stories, leaving room for others to share the good things that they know. We eat, the evening wears on, we take coffee with lashings of cream, leaning back in our chairs, our hearts and bellies full. We push the chairs away from the table and rise to meet the night, knowing one another better, and ourselves, and our God. This is one good way for a song to be, and there are many other ways, and other ways still.
I hope my song is a good guest, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.