Song of the Day: Who By Fire by Leonard Cohen

‘Who By Fire’ is a song by Leonard Cohen, from his 1974 album ‘New Skin for the Old Ceremony’. The title and most of the lyrics derive from or are inspired by the second paragraph of Unetanneh Tokef, an eleventh-century Jewish liturgical poem recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The poem deals with the Lord’s control over the Books of Life and Death; the last sentence of the paragraph in question translates ‘But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!’

Lyrics:

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?
And who shall I say is calling?

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 shall I say is calling?

……

“Who By Fire” is adapted loosely from the Hebrew prayer “U’Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom” (“Let Us Tell How Utterly Holy This Day Is”), chanted on Yom Kippur. Like the original, Cohen’s song tells of a litany of ways one might meet their death: fire, water, suicide, drugs, and so on-some of which appear in the original prayer.

In Leonard’s own words:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquillity and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.

via [genius]

In this duet with folksinger Janis Ian, Cohen conceives his own litany of “the ways you can leave this vale of tears,” which include downers, avalanche and “something blunt,” ending each verse with the agnostic query, “and who shall I say is calling?” He also encouraged his musicians to improvise Middle Eastern maqams around “Who By Fire” onstage.

Leonard Cohen

Image result for Leonard Cohen

Birth name Leonard Norman Cohen
Born September 21, 1934
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Died November 7, 2016 (aged 82)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Genres
  • Folk
  • soft rock
Occupation(s)
  • Singer
  • songwriter
  • musician
  • poet
  • novelist
Instruments
  • Vocals
  • guitar
  • keyboard
Years active 1956–2016
Labels Columbia
Website leonardcohen.com
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