Leonard Cohen’s Early Influences


Buckskin Boys – Leonard Cohen on guitar

In assisting the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (more familiarly known as the MAC) in preparing for the  2017 Montreal Leonard Cohen Exhibition,1 Cohencentric gathered information in two areas:

  1. Leonard Cohen’s Early Musical Influences
  2. Recordings Of Leonard Cohen Speaking/Singing In French

That data, already forwarded the MAC, is also being shared with Cohencentric readers, many of whom contributed to the effort.  Today’s post focuses on Leonard Cohen’s Early Musical Influences. For context, the original request from the MAC follows:

Ari Benjamin Myers, one of the exhibition’s participating, artists is interested to learn more about the origins of Leonard’s musicality. He is specifically interested to learn more about the encounter(s) that took place between Maury Kaye and Leonard in the 50’s. We of course have listened to Leonard’s first performance at Dunn’s in 1958. [see Leonard Cohen & All That (Montreal) Jazz] Fascinating! Would you by chance have access to the entire recording? Do you know if there is any more recorded material from that period? Ari is also interested to learn about the sings that Masha would sing to Leonard as a child. We have read that she used to sign lullabies in Russian and Yiddish. Would you know anything more about this? As well we are interested to learn if there is any recording available of the Buckskins Boys?

Buckskin Boys, Maury Kaye, & Masha

While no Buckskins Boys or Maury Kaye-Leonard Cohen recordings have been found,  there is a bit of specific information about Masha’s preferences in music. Sylvie SImmons wrote

As noted in the epilogue of my book, Leonard’s mother loved the Donkey Serenade and had a dance teacher teach her a dance step to it. That was the onlyspecific song Leonard mentioned in regards to his mother – other than saying that her favourite of his songs was Famous Blue Raincoat, which he was not so fond of, feeling he had released it before it was ready.

“The Donkey Serenade,” a reworking by Herbert Stothart of Friml’s 1918 orchestral piece “Chanson,” became popular as sung by Alan Jones in the 1937 musical film, The Firefly.2


References: Leonard Cohen’s Early Musical Influences

Mikal Gilmore summarizes Leonard Cohen’s early influences in this excerpt from Leonard Cohen: Remembering the Life and Legacy of the Poet of Brokenness (Rolling Stone: 30 November 2016):

Long before mystery junctions between spirit and flesh made their way into Cohen’s songs, he had already established himself as an unorthodox and powerful poet and author. His mother had encouraged him in those ways. His early influences included metaphysical poets – Andrew Marvell, John Donne, W.B. Yeats – and W.H. Auden, who mixed cultural and religious themes. Nobody affected him so much as surrealist Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, who collected Spain’s folk songs, turning them into poetry, before he was executed by Spanish nationalist forces in 1936. Cohen also heard socialist folk songs from a director at summer camp. “The lyrics of these songs,” he said, “touched me: ‘To you, beloved comrade, we make this solemn vow/The fight will go on. . . /We pledge our bodies down/The fight will go on.’ A very passionate and heroic position.” Around the same time, Cohen started a country band called the Buckskin Boys.


Masha & The Synagogue Cantor

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  1. See Help The MAC Create The 2017 Montreal Leonard Cohen Exhibition: Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything []
  2. Wikipedia []

Leonard Cohen On His Early Influences: National Anthems & Folk Songs

I used to sing ‘Rule Britannia’ at school and ‘Flow Gently Sweet Afton,’ and the one that goes ‘In days of yore, from Britain’s shore, Wolfe the dauntless hero came.’ Those rousing national hymns touched me. In fact, all expressions of a serious and committed point of view have always touched me in songs. There were several distinct folk traditions — the Quebecois, the Scottish border ballads (because the Scots settled Montreal). And a number of real Canadian folk songs were coming out, you could get country music on some of the radio stations late at night. We had a lot of music coming to usquotedown2

Leonard Cohen

From Melancholy Baby by John Walsh. The Independent Magazine: May 8, 1993

,Leonard Cohen On Using Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir For You Want It Darker


Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue – Montreal (about 1910-11)

We can hear the voices of the choir of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue of Montreal, why did you choose them? 

Even as a boy I loved their singing. It is what made compulsory synagogue attendance enjoyable. I’ve wanted to work with the cantor and the choir for a long time. The touring years interrupted this intention. On a secondary but still urgent note, there are times when you want to show the flag, when you want to indicate that there is nourishment to be had from this culture, that it is not entirely irrelevant to the present situation, that it does not serve a nation’s best interests to reject and despise it. This is more important in some countries than in others.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Le Dernier Empereur by J.D. Beauvallet and Pierre Siankowski (Les Inrocks: Oct 19, 2016) [from interview transcript]

Leonard Cohen on “being influenced continually by things I come across” – from King James Bible to instructions on cereal box

Interviewer: Are there other poets that you admire or have influenced you?

There’s so much excellent work. Every time I turn on the radio, I hear something good. Every time I pick up a magazine, I read some writing that is distinguished. My pace and viewpoint is being influenced continually by things I come across. You recapitulate the whole movement of your own culture. Occasionally we are touched by certain elaborate language, like the language we associate with the Elizabethan period, with the King James translation of The Bible, or Shakespeare. In certain moments you are influenced by very simple things. The instructions on a cereal package have a magnificent clarity. You’re touched by the writing in National Geographic — it represents a certain kind of accomplishment.

Leonard Cohen


From Leonard Cohen — Haute Dog by Mr. Bonzai (David Goggin). Music Smarts: July 10, 2010 (archived from 1988).

Note: Originally posted May 7, 2014 at DrHGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric

Video: Leonard Cohen Confesses To Having “Lifted” Lines From Ibsen In 1985 Interview

nrk1Gordana Stupar has again uncovered a gem of a Leonard Cohen interview. In this brief question and answer question, Leonard touches on the difference between a singer and a writer (“They seem to be part of the same racket”), pessimism and seriousness (“We live in a butcher shop”), and stealing lines lines from Ibsen. He reports that he “lifted” the notion of a self being an onion with layers covering its nonexistent core from Ibsen’s Peer Gynt to produce these lines for Wishing Window from Night Magic

Your famous heart is like an onion,
All layers and layers of wild distress
All gathered into rings round nothingness.

The interview, from the NRK Archive, also includes a performance of Suzanne from the February 6, 1985 Oslo concert. Tore Johannessen’s interview with Leonard Cohen, first broadcast February 9, 1985, can be accessed at NRK: Johannessen-Cohen Interview

Leonard Cohen on poets who “seize the ephemeral” & his own standing among poets

[Federico García Lorca] is the first [poet] who left a mark on me. I appreciate Dante, Shakespeare, and all the classic poets; they have the gift of precision, they know how to seize the ephemeral. I’m only a minor poet. If I could have one day a tiny place in anthologies …quotedown2

Leonard Cohen


Je Ne Suis Qu’un Poete Mineur [I’m Just A Minor Poet] by Gilles Medioni, L’Express (France): October 4, 2001 [via Google Translate] Found at Leonard Cohen French Web Site.