-- Birmingham Shadows --
8 July 1995. Halton Hills.
Just behind the mountain
Sparse streelamps glow in hot half-moon haze
Shadows shorten into little black pools that elongate behind
We walk, talk some, laugh some
Worked hard, now wired, and hanging out
I'm curious what you might be all about
Curious, too, what that dark-shape in the hard shining cruiser might do
And you have no idea what you're getting
out of of your own curiosity and tense energy
Tattoo on chest like the key to the puzzle of your pumping heart
Wearing your shadows all over your sleeve
Wearing the role of young upstart
Under velvet trees, towering like the sides of a well
Birmingham shadows fall
You show a little, I let something show too
It's now or not at all
Out on the road, it's always instant get-to-know-you
Before the empty two office blocks
Which we're admonished not to enter
Policeman studies us, finds us confusing
More amusing than threat
Moves on, bemused
Pavement spirals down ahead like the fossil of a giant shell
Along the kingdom's midnight marches
I wear my shadows where they're harder to see
But they follow me everywhere
I guess that should tell me that I'm travelling toward light
I guess something you sang made me remember that
I guess I'm saying thanks for that
Got a head full of horrors and a heart full of night
At home in the darkness, but hungry for dawn
I only remember scenes, never the stories I live
The good things about that is, it's easy to forgive
Can't make assumptions about any of this
We're nomads following our own songlines
Who knows what could strike before we meet again?
But if I fall down and die
Without saying goodbye
I give you this: you'll have lost a friend
Bruce Cockburn: Resophonic Guitar and Vocal
Gary Craig: Drums
Rob Wasserman: Bass
Gary Burton: Vibes
Known comments by Bruce Cockburn about this song, by date:
There was considerable speculation about this song as you will see from the comments below. Cockburn played down, for quite some time, the fact that Ani DiFranco was the other person on the walk described in the narrative of the song before eventually conceding it. Prior to conceding DiFranco was person two, Cockburn had quite correctly pointed out to interviewers that their identity was not important to "getting" the song. Although Cockburn's reaction to the crass gossip that accompanied the speculation was understandable, the song's reference to DiFranco was clear which, unfortunately, didn't give him any rest from the relentless questioning.
The phrase "tense energy" certainly describes DiFranco's stage presence. The same word "energy" was also used by Cockburn for his 'thank you' to Ani in the album notes for The Charity Of Night, who added vocals to "Get Up Jonah" on the album. Ani DiFranco has a "tattoo on [her] chest" that is often visible in day-to-day life. "Wearing the role of young upstart" would also seem to fit DiFranco's "in your face" style of songwriting and pretty much everything else. Finally, the plural use of "our own songlines" suggested the other person on the road was also a singer-songwriter.
Fortunately, all this is now passé, and we can just get back to listening to the song, which really is one of the best ones on the album, and truly does transcend time and place.
"Well there's a lengthy instrumental part and the story tells the lengthy tale of the conversation between two people -- two strangers walking along a street in Birmingham in the course of an evening.
- from "Bruce Cockburn -- Night Visions" by Paolo Caru, Buscadero, No. 176, January 1997. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
Network: I get the strong sense from the liner notes to the album, thanking Ani DiFranco and the song "Birmingham Shadows", which I'm told is about an evening you spent with Ani after a gig, hanging out, talking, that she had a big effect on you...
BC: You got that off the Internet?
Network: Yeah, is that not true?
BC: Uh, well, let me put it this way, I never told anybody that...
Network: Oh! That's interpretation then?
BC: That is interpretation, yeah, which I won't comment on the veracity of, I mean, the song is obviously about somebody, and I'd just as soon not be the one who says who it is, so you can take that where you want.
Network: But you did thank her....
BC: I did thank Ani for reminding me what energy was for....
Network: ...One almost finds it surprising that you would need to be reminded of that, or that a younger performer would have that effect on you. Was it simply seeing how compelling she was as a performer, or hearing her do a cover of one of your songs that made you realize "o.k. I'm still relevant." because you've joked in the past about aging, you know, on "Tie Me to the Crossroads" (Dart to the Heart, 1994) the idea of the kids not knowing or caring who you are...so was that really a very energizing kind of experience?
BC: It was, but I don't know how much of it to blame on Ani and how much of it was me, or just the combination, at the right time for me. I don't think it was part of Ani's agenda at any point to educate me about anything (laughing), but it was the result of seeing her perform, and seeing her perform a number of times - she's one of the few performers I would go out of my way to see -especially the first couple of times.
Seeing her had the double effect on me of being profoundly exciting, because it was so good and so energetic and also kind of depressing because it was so much better than what I felt like I was doing, and if Ani represented some new wave of younger people coming along, then people like me should just shut up and get out of the way....that's kind of how I felt, and it was a purely selfish, maudlin thing (laughing) which I'm not proud of.
It's of no consequence, really, that I felt it, except for the fact that I got out of it and I got out of it largely because the other side of Ani was there at the same time, and it was like here's somebody who's not wasting any of their energy, you know, they're not pissing it away going, "gee, I could be this or I could be that or I'm not this or I'm not that or whatever," and the effect of seeing her was that this is just so focused and so economic in its use of energy and there's so much energy there, that it's like, yeah, this was a key to something for me - it was kind of an antidote to perhaps an overly thoughtful or overly reflective tendency that I can sometimes have about things."
- "The Network Interview: Bruce Cockburn" by Stephen Hubbard, Network: Volume 11, Number 1, Spring, 1997. Anonymous submission.
"Ani's in [Birmingham Shadows], which I tried to play down for a long time because I didn't want to invite the gossip. Of course, the gossip happened anyway. But to me, 'Birmingham Shadows' chronicles an event where there is that little bit of transcendence, a time when physical reality breaks down and the spiritual comes through sometimes in the oddest circumstances.
You know, a fifty-ish guy walking around with a very young woman in the middle of the night in Birmingham, Alabama, and getting stopped by a cop in an industrial park! It happened exactly like the song says, more or less.
I try to write out of my own experience. It's not that I feel like I've got all this stuff to teach people. It's just that my life and my quest have gone through these different things, and the songs are a trail. Hopefully, somebody can find something to use in there. I'm trying to describe what I see at each point along the way.
Most of the songs come out of very particular things, like Birmingham Shadows, or the stuff from Central America, or Get Up Jonah, for that matter. At other times they pull from more than one experience. But the important thing is that the songs come out of life. They're not a reproduction of life. They're not an attempt to pin life down. They assume a life of their own.
So in the end, the reason I didn't want people to originally know who it was in Birmingham Shadows is that it didn't matter who it was. The person is not the point. The point it that even a peculiar occasion like this can allow glimpses of the divine."
- from "Fire in an Open Hand" by Susan Adams Kauffman, The Other Side magazine, November/December 1999. Submitted by Nigel Parry.
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.