Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
It took only a few chiming chords to inspire a rush of enthusiastic applause from Bruce Cockburn’s audience of adoring fans in Seattle’s Fremont Abbey last Thursday night.
The song was “Lord of the Starfields” from Cockburn’s 1976 record In the Falling Dark—a pleasant surprise, but then every song he played that night seemed surprising. When a performer has thirty-one albums behind him, and is asked to play a short, seven-song set, each selection seems to take on great significance. And after finishing that particular song, Cockburn told his listeners—some of whom have been following him for five decades now—that this song was his attempt “to write something like a psalm.”
Here’s some video of that song shot from the audience on Thursday:
What is it about “Lord of the Starfields” that makes it a lasting favorite for so many people, when there are as many psalm-like praise choruses as there are stars in the starfields?
Surely it isn’t the short list of familiar and easy metaphors for God’s glory:
Lord of the starfields
Ancient of Days
Universe Maker. . .
Wings of the storm cloud
Beginning and end. . .
Sower of life. . .
Voice of the nova
Smile of the dew. . .
Maybe it’s the poignant cry of longing that serves as the song’s refrain:
O Love that fires the sun,
Keep me burning. . .
After all, most praise choruses remain focused on lines about how wonderful God is. But here, the acknowledgments of God’s wonders provoke from the singer a very human desire to remain alive, to go on standing in awe, even in this falling dark.
And while that may seem a little self-centered to those who think that praise choruses should just be about God, consider two of our favorite psalms—psalms that Cockburn would smilingly refer to as “the pop hits” of the Old Testament. Psalm 19 piles on the admiring observations about how God speaks through creation, and how his laws sustain the soul; then it concludes, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight. . .” The psalmist, seeing the glory of creation, wants to be a part of it, wants to be found acceptable by such high standards of creation.
Or consider Psalm 23, which describes the faithfulness, generosity, and power of God, and then concludes, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
O Love that fires the sun, keep me burning!
But I suspect that there’s more than that in “Lord of the Starfields” that keeps it burning. I suspect that it has something to do with the song’s concentrated quality; it does not become redundant. It does not overstay its welcome. And, just as every song in this seven-song concert seemed hugely important, so every line in this concise something-like-a-psalm carries a lot of weight. The artist does not seek to heighten our emotions by singing the same things over and over to an increasingly euphoric soundtrack. He is not sentimental, nor does he seem disproportionately interested in amplifying his listeners’ emotions.
What’s more, I believe that the song remains a Bruce Cockburn classic because—and this is the point that brought me to sit down and write about it—context is everything.
Cockburn’s career has become legendary not only for his extraordinary guitar playing (I’ve read that Eddie Van Halen, when asked by Rolling Stone back in the 1980s what it was like to be the greatest guitarist in the world, replied, “I don’t know—why don’t you ask Bruce Cockburn?”); not only for his soulful vocals; and not just for the way he’s been willing to sing with reverence and humility about spiritual mysteries (in songs like “Rumors of Glory,” “Hills of Morning,” and “Strange Waters”).
I think it has much to do with the fact that these songs shine out in the midst of dark, troubled, even despairing testimonials, songs written during and after the artist’s own explorations of some of the world’s most violent and devastated places.
How can someone sing about the glory of the Creator and then turn around and murmur, over low and haunting notes, these lines from “The Charity of Night”?
Lascivious laughter floats on the darkness from the police post next door —
Male voices — and a woman’s —
Little clouds of desire painted around the edges with rum
In the muddy street a pig suddenly screams
Or these from “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”?
Here comes the helicopter — second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher. . . I’d make somebody pay.
Listen to “The Mines of Mozambique”:
There’s a wealth of amputation
Waiting in the ground
But no one can remember
Where they put it down
If you’re the child that finds it there
You will rise upon the sound
Of the mines of Mozambique
But these acknowledgements of horror, of questions we cannot answer, of human weakness and the impulse to seek vengeance: don’t they make the prayer of praise a bolder, braver act?
Don’t they remind us that to praise God for his faithfulness is an act of faith, considering the evidence?
I grew up in church youth groups, in Christian school chapel services, in Christian summer camp fireside sing-alongs. I’ve stood in sanctuaries where praise bands led congregations in enraptured anthems, the power chords prompting people to raise their hands on waves of emotion. I’ve heard voices sing about deliverance that give no sign of understanding what they’ve been delivered from. I’ve heard phrases from the Scriptures pulled out of context, beaten into dullness by a kind of desperate repetition, and claimed without any comprehension of what they mean, or of what the writer had to suffer before he could arrive at those words in the first place.
I would never dare to deny that some of those blissed-out congregations were raising genuine prayers to the Almighty as they sang. But I can state from a lifetime of experience that those songs—while they may have moved me in the moment—were often stirring up in me merely emotions. I was moved not so much by what I was singing as by the associations that those chord progressions carried, derivative as they were of greater songs with greater substance.
In bringing us along, decade after decade, through the infernos, the purgatories, and the paradises of the world; in singing about them with particularity, personality, and courage; and by insisting on acknowledging ugliness alongside beauty, lingering questions alongside suspected answers, and moments of human failing alongside rushes of spiritual rapture, Bruce Cockburn brings an integrity to this simple something-like-a-psalm.
And when Anne and I asked our friend, Seattle singer and songwriter Bryan Rust, to perform a song during our wedding ceremony, we chose “Lord of the Starfields” not for its sentimental value, but because we wanted to lift up a prayer that we might find the faith and hope to build a marriage that would last in a world that brings so many down. We were both old enough to have experienced painful losses and failed relationships—and in my case, the devastating collapse of a previous marriage. So we knew what we wanted to pray together in that sanctuary, as Bryan Rust sang the refrain: “O Love that fires the sun, keep us burning.”
And our fingers entwined tightly, more than eighteen years into our marriage, when Cockburn played those opening chords on Thursday night. So far, so good.
You can read about Bruce Cockburn’s journey in his newly published memoir from HarperCollins: Rumors of Glory. It’s quite a large book. It would have to be, considering his lifetime of travels, his long history of faithfully bearing witness to the truth. And it’s named after this song, which Cockburn also performed on Thursday night.
I wish you could have been there with me for that special performance, when Cockburn received the honor of the Twelfth Annual Denise Levertov Award.
What is the Denise Levertov Award? It’s a prestigious honor given by the good people of Image “to an artist or creative writer whose work exemplifies a serious and sustained engagement with the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Past recipients of the award include poets Scott Cairns, Luci Shaw, Madeline DeFrees, and Franz Wright; nonfiction writers Kathleen Norris, Thomas Lynch, Patricia Hampl, and Eugene Peterson; and fiction writers Bret Lott and Ron Hansen. The only musician who has received the honor previously is singer and songwriter Sam Phillips, and I cannot tell you what a joy it was for me to interview her onstage at that event.
Image’s editor and publisher Gregory Wolfe interviewed Cockburn onstage during Thursday night’s festivities. If that interview becomes available for a larger audience in any way, I’ll be sure to announce that on my Facebook and Twitter accounts.
In the meantime, you can enjoy this recent Acoustic Guitar interview with, and performance by, Bruce Cockburn here: