DANCING IN THE DRAGON’S JAWS
Bruce Cockburn is the greatest songwriter of all time!
OK…that may be an exaggeration…but not by much. Along with being intensely prolific, Cockburn is also incredibly intelligent, diverse, creative, original, stark, honest, transparent, intriguing…
Choosing which album to include was the most difficult of all choices. The primary reason is that each album can be so dramatically different as to why it is considered an impressive work. It could be musically challenging, lyrically compelling or thematically original.
I could have just as easily chosen…
…or quite possibly this…
…and possibly this one…
…and just as easily these….
Each of the above and even more could be worthy of consideration. Ultimately it came down to either “Humans” or “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.” The reasons for choosing the latter will hopefully become apparent as we discuss further this very encouraging, upbeat and, dare I say, worshipful album. But first it would be worthwhile to consider the artist himself.
When I was first hired as a 16 year old at a local Christian Bookstore I was already a “music expert” of sorts. I had begun collecting Christian music much earlier, first as “hand me down” albums from my parents and older brother and sister, and then using my allowance or money from odd jobs to buy my own. Then as I could save money I would ask my parents to drive me to Maranatha Village or other Christian bookstores in town to pick up the most recent releases from Sweet Comfort, Daniel Amos and Darrell Mansfield. My Youth Pastor subscribed to CCM Magazine and I subscribed to Camus Life, both of which had a heavy impact on my growing love and appreciation for the genre.
My first few days at my new job was primarily an education in how the store worked, my responsibilities and dealing with customers. But the owner’s daughter was a music fan, especially of more cutting edge and controversial artists. On one of those first few days she took an LP of “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” and placed on the in-store play system. As a fan of Bob Dylan I was immediately drawn to Cockburn’s nasally, borderline off-key vocals and compelling lyrical content.
This birthed my fascination with Bruce Cockburn, an artist I have had the privilege of seeing in concert over 10 times and one of the few artists that I own every album he has released. My favorites remain those released between the mid-70’s and the mid-80’s.
Cockburn had become a Christian at just about the time his solo career began despite being born and raised in an agnostic family setting. Cockburn’s Christianity would impact and influence his content from the earliest days. His brand of Christianity also informed his view of environmental and human rights issues. These two subjects, especially the latter, would be an integral part of his work.
Like the previously discussed songwriter, Bill Mallonee, Cockburn has drawn criticism from evangelical circles for his subject matter and for his use of provocative language. But also like Mallonee there never appears to be an illicit purpose for the use of language, but rather an understandable inclusion of such language to express or prove a point. The subject matter, though, is quite often more provocative than certain linguistic choices. Leaning toward the political left, Cockburn has rubbed American evangelicalism the wrong way on more than one occasion.
It should also be noted that Cockburn is quite the impressive musician. He is easily one of the finest acoustic guitar players around. His early work especially proved this point. One concert I attended was a solo concert in which 20 separate instruments were place behind him on the stage. That night he performed 20 songs using a different instrument for each song. I was later told be a friend that the following evening that the order of the songs remained the same but the placement and instrument choices on stage changed!
But what is it about DITDJ that make it worthy of our consideration and why this title over the album “Humans.” It should be noted from the outset that I actually prefer “Humans” as an artistic achievement over “Dancing.” Humans was written as Cockburn’s marriage was coming to an end and it is obvious in its content. It is a much darker, more “worldly” album both in its content and the musical expression. It is quite a sad album despite having two of my favorite Cockburn songs ever, “Fascist Architecture and “The Rose Above the Sky.”
Humans was written as Cockburn traveled through Central America and Asia. Those visual and musical images are apparent and, in fact, dominate the album. When listened back to back with “Dancing,” which was recorded just one year previous, it is though you are listening to a different man in a different world.
But it is not so say that I chose DITDJ because it is some sort of happy, poppy, CCM wanna be; that is not the reason at all nor would those words be used to describe the album in any way. Both albums are worthy of consideration and if this l”countdown” was comprised in a different manner both would actually find a home in the Top 50. But “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” shows the artist completely at peace with himself and with his Maker. It is this amazing combination of simple and majestic, lyrically expressive and instrumentally compelling. It is this author’s opinion Cockburn’s most “poetic” album!
It also contains the biggest hit in Cockburn’s career.
“Creation Dream” leads off with Cockburn’s famous guitar picking style acoustic folk pop with limited percussion accompanying guitar and voice. Everyone is free to imagine in their minds eye the visual expressed by the lyrics, but for I envision the wonderful creation scene from CS Lewis’ “The Magaician’s Nephew.”
You were dancing I saw you dancing
Throwing your arms toward the sky
Fingers opening Like flares
Stars were shooting everywhere
Lines of power Bursting outward
Along the channels of your song
Mercury waves flashed Under your feet
Shots of silver in the shell-pink dawn…
Few artist can create such a tapestry of expression in just a few lines. Cockburn appears to do this at will. And of course the marriage of music and lyric strike the right chord and the audience is immediately lost within the vision the artist weaves.
After such a magical expression it would only make sense that Cockburn would bring the listener back to earth, so to speak. With a straight ahead, more traditional folk groove, “Hills of Morning” expresses a more human experience but still set within a lyrical expression that hints at something more majestic.
Women and men moved back and forth
In between effect and cause
And just beyond the range of normal sight
This glittering joker was dancing in the dragon’s jaws
But Cockburn closes the song by pointing to something greater than himself and those around him. He points to one that makes the normal and mundane and the glorious and mystical. He then reaches out and proclaims his desire to take part in a life controlled by one greater than himself.
But everything you see’s not the way it seems —
Tears can sing and joy she’d tears.
You can take the wisdom of this world
And give it to the ones who think it all ends here
Let me be a little of your breath
Moving over the face of the deep —
I want to be a particle of your light
Flowing over the hills of morning
“Badlands Flashback” contains the finest guitar work on the album and some of Cockburn’s best in his career. The song itself is sung in French and lasts over 6 minutes with very limited lyrics as it is really about the music this time.
“Northern Lights,” like nearly every song on this album uses the backdrop of nature and creation to express a truth about the human condition and mankind’s need for a greater connection. He we get a beautiful, though subtle, picture of the Gospel and the gift of God.
I’ve been cut by the beauty of jagged mountains
And cut by the love that flows like a fountain from God.
So I carry these scars, precious and rare,
And tonight I feel like I’m made of air…
It is not hard to see in this album the poet that Cockburn truly is as the vision of God’s creation creating a spiritual wound that helps the poet realize and reflect on the love of God that flows like a fountain. Both the created order and the creation of the human experience are a reflection of the love and work of God.
Again on “After the Rain” the normal and mundane experience of observing the world around us after a rain storm belies the fact that something greater than ourselves is at work. From oily streets to splashing puddles Cockburn demonstrates that there is a love available to those who look deep enough, even within these normal occurrences. This more jazz influence folk song has Cockburn singing in double time, which has been a landmark style for this artist who writes too many words for his melody.
Engine throb street cruise light bullet car flash
Hollow beauty night gleam oily river tension glass
Ultraflame! Glittering dust falling in slow motion
Clouds tumbling one over another into apparent emptiness
It’s like a big fist breaking down my door
I never felt such a love before
Maybe to those who love it’s given to hear
Music too high for the human ear
What follows is the song that would become Cockburn’s biggest hit in his career. Though rock radio would embrace the song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” several years later, pop radio made “Wondering Where the Lions Are” Cockburn’s only Top 40 single.
The song examines the inexplicable inner joy and peace one has despite being surrounded by difficulties and pain. Like the early Christian’s who were martyred by being fed to the lions, Cockburn uses the imagery set against a love song where love conquers even the most difficult challenges. But through it all Cockburn expresses a desire for the eternal.
Walls windows trees, waves coming through
You be in me and I’ll be in you
Together in eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
Up among the firs where it smells so sweet
Or down in the valley where the river used to be
I got my mind on eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
…And I’m wondering where the lions are.
This is Cockburn’s most positive expression lyrically and it makes sense that the accompanying musical expression is just as bright and joyful.
“Incandescent Blue” continues the albums theme of juxtaposing the human and mundane with the mystical and marvelous. The poet finds inspiration in children playing and fighting while waiting for a train yet ultimately points to his needs for his creator.
Hear that lonesome violin play
See the notes float up into the overcast
And change to white birds as they sail on through
And soar away free into incandescent blue
Concrete vortex sucks down the wind
It’s howling like a blinded violin.
Oh — tongues of fire, come and kiss my brow
If I ever needed you, well I need you now
The album closes with the slow and contemplative, “No Footprints.” This song is both the most human and physical as well as the most spiritual and emotional. At its core it is a love song. It is both a love song v=between a man and his love and between God and his creation. The work of God at drawing all things toward him is compared to a true emotional and physical connection between a man and woman. Ultimately he points to his need h=for god to find fulfillment even in his physical and intimate relationships. he also points to the fear and joy of the unknown future within the relationships.
Through these channelswords
I want to touch you
Touch you deep down
Where you live
Not for power but
Because I love you
Love the Lord
And in Him love me too
And in Him go your way
And I’ll be right there with you
No footprints when we go
No footprints when we go
Only where we’ve been, a faint and fading glow…
“Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws” is a beautiful expression of the joy and tension of being human and relating to both one another and to the God of the universe while dancing merrily within the dragon’s jaws..