Recently a friend asked me to recommend something that a young man considering a call to ordination might profitably read. I went through “the usual suspects” (i.e., Bishop Lightfoot, John Stott, W.H. Griffith-Thomas), but actually came up with a novel, or rather a novella, to help him spell out the issues.
It is sometimes true that a work of art — a song or painting or short story or movie — gets through to me in a way that propositional non-fiction, say Bishop Lightfoot’s treatise on the ministry, does not, or maybe even cannot. I believe this is because music or fiction is likelier to connect with my unconscious. And our unconscious is where the action is, at least in the case of many human lives.
This is why I could just hit myself that it took me 62 years to discover Burton Cummings. Well, that’s not exactly true, since the group for which he was a leader, The Guess Who, got right to me in the Spring of ’70, when I was going through one heck of a crisis. I didn’t quite realize it was a crisis; but hey, I was “19” (Paul Hardcastle). How was I to know that behind “No Time” and “American Woman”, which were the soundtrack of our lives then, stood a kind of seer. Seriously, I mean seer.
Burton Cummings, who incidentally was a child in the Anglican Church of Canada, is such a medium for Inspiration that he has been just going and going and going since about 1965. He is still going, and I want to say, ‘Rats!’ over and over, because I missed his January shows at The Orleans in Las Vegas. Would have flown out there in an instant if I had known.
Anyway, B.C. wrote or co-wrote some of the most popular singles of the 1960s and early 1970s, which he also sang and performed with The Guess Who. (The Guess Who are enough to make any American citizen fall down on his knees and hug a Canadian, any Canadian whom you may happen to meet. What a great country! Just to have produced The Guess Who, and Burton Cummings, let alone “Chelsea Morning”.)
Around 1975 The Guess Who broke up, and Burton Cummings started writing and performing on his own. From that time through today, which is early 2014, he has produced what my wife calls a true body of work. There is so much to it, it has such a deep bench, that I defy even the most hungry of us to run through it in anything like … a lifetime.
You have ’70s ballads that can sometimes sound a little lame at first, until you begin to listen to the words, and to the intense personality of the voice and feeling. You have ’80s “synth”-type productions that can sound a little “lite” until, again, you take in the lyrics. After two or three hearings, you’ll be stuck in the Eighties. (Is that a bad thing?) There is also a true note of loss in many of these songs. That note pervades The Guess Who years, too, in my opinion. It’s just there, and I don’t know its explanation.
And so it goes and so it goes. The ’90s offer plenty of B.C. material, and our millennial decades, too. Around 2010 — the date depends on whether you lived in Canada or the USA — Cummings wrote, produced, and performed an album entitled “Above the Ground”. He was in his early sixties. It has some of the best and most inspired material he has ever offered the world. Listen to “Invisible”, “A Touch of Morning”, and “Above the Ground” itself. For Mockingbirds, “Invisible” could be the greatest song ever written, at least since The Song of Songs.
You can get a good flavor of Burton Cummings, both as a person and musician, through the video below that was recently published on You Tube recording his return to St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue, where his 1975 song “I’m Scared” came to him. That video is an excellent place to start.
In Mockingbird terms, I might portray Burton Cummings as an open conduit to emotional truth, with an openness, as well, to the religious and Christian side of life, which seems quite rare in a great pop success. He has said that he was never an atheist. Nor, however, was he a believer in a church-going sense. But all you have got to do is hear “Runnin’ Down the Street”, which was performed by the Guess Who and written by Jim Kale and Garry Peterson, to get Intimations of Mortality quite early in his career. I feel, myself, that several of his songs were written and performed In the Presence.
Here are two playlists, personal on my part, but also as a Mockingbird. The first is ten songs by The Guess Who, all of which feature Burton Cummings; and the second is ten songs by Burton Cummings on his own. They are not listed in order of preference.
The Guess Who:
- “Runnin’ Down the Street”
- “Hand Me Down World”
- “Rain Dance”
- “Albert Flasher”
- “Of a Dropping Pin”
- “Life in the Bloodstream”
- “No Time”
- “Sour Suite”
- “A Touch of Morning”
- “Above the Ground”
- “I’m Scared”
- “I Will Sing a Rhapsody”
- “Timeless Love”
- “Permissible to Cry”
- “Dream of a Child”
- “Heavenly Blue”