-- Soul Of A Man --
(cover version)

Found on:

Nothing But A Burning Light (1991)

Slice O Life (2009)

Rumours of Glory - box set Disc 5 (2014) [compilation album]

I'm going to ask the question
Please answer if you can
Is there anybody's children can tell me
What is the soul of a man?

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

I've travelled different countries
Travelled to the furthest lands
Couldn't find nobody could tell me
What is the soul of a man

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

I saw a crowd stand talking
I just came up in time
Was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
That a man ain't nothing but his mind

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

I read the Bible often
I try to read it right
As far as I can understand
It's nothing but a burning light

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

When Christ taught in the temple
The people all stood amazed
Was teaching the lawyers and the doctors
How to raise a man from the grave

Won't somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won't somebody tell me
Tell me what is the soul of a man?

Bruce Cockburn - Resonater Guitar & Vocals
Michael Been - Bass
Jim Keltner - Drums & Washboard

Album notes

"'Soul of a Man' was learned from a 1930 recording by Blind Willie Johnson."

Known comments by Bruce Cockburn about this song, by date:

  • Circa 1992 -

    Johnny Walker: You wrote all the songs on [Nothing But A Burning Light] with the exception of one, which is an old song you discovered by Blind Willie Johnson. Why did you decide to include that?

    BC: It's kind of circumstantial that it ended up on this album. I've known the song for a number of years and thought of recording it before, but it never seemed to fit with the content of previous records. In this case, T-Bone Burnett, who produced the album, was sitting around looking at all the possibilities for material, and I had fifteen or so songs of my own. And we went through them all and he said, "Well, just so we know that we've covered everything, is there anything else? Any old songs you want to do; other people's songs?" And that one came to mind and I played it for him, and he was knocked out, actually, and so we decided to record it. It dates from somewhere in the 1920's, written by Blind Willie Johnson.
    -- from Radio Interview, BBC Radio 1, 1992, Interviewer is Johnny Walker. Transcribed and submitted by David Newton.

  • 1991

    "With the exception of a... 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' which we we're doing in the live shows last time out, this is the only song that I've recorded that's not mine. It's written by Blind Willie Johnson who was one of the greatest of the, sort of gospel street singers in the 20's and 30's in the US. And I learned it off an old record of his, some years ago actually.

    It's a song I've thought of recording, other times, casually thought of it, but it never really fit with the content or the musical direction of other albums. But in this case it did, so we decided to tape it. His version of it is very heart-felt, it just seemed a... you know, like where does a guy get an idea like that, from playin' on the street in Memphis, or where ever it was that he played.

    The [album] title comes from that song. 'Nothing But A Burning Light' is what the one verse that ultimately does try to decide what the soul of a man is, and in the song, and as far as Blind Willie can understand, it's nothing but a burning light."
    -- from "Nothing But A Burning Light, The Radio Special D" (1991). Taken from: open ended interview clips. Submitted by Mark Barnes.

  • Spring 1993

    James Jensen: The album "Nothing But a Burning Light" introduced a new producer (T. Bone Burnett) and a new flavor or sound including Dobro.

    BC: "Soul Of A Man" is a long time favorite of mine and I'd played it live but never recorded it but T Bone asked me in pre-production if I had any other things I could think of to record and it just came to mind because of the content of the song and the style seemed to fit what we were doing. That album was a conscious attempt to get at singable melodies that didn't count on a guitar part to make them work which made the songs structurally simpler. It struck me at one point that I almost had no songs a non musician could just sit around and sing and I thought that was a kind of an absence and I'd rather be remembered for having songs that people could sing at a party or whatever. It seemed like there was a bit of a gap there and I was trying to address it and still am on the current album.

    JJ: [I was told that this album will be a first in that it contains only love songs.]
    -- from an Interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa Spring 1993.

  • 23 October 1999

    [After singing "Dialogue With The Devil"]
    "That's the oldest song I'm doing tonight. Except for "Soul of a Man ". Blind Willie Johnson wrote that before I was born and you don't get much older than that. "
    -- from a gig at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 23 Oct 1999. Submitted by Andrew Phillip.

  • 31 October 1999

    "This song, that was written by the blues musician Blind Willie Johnson around 1930, is one of the songs I'd really like to have written myself. Actually there are thousands of them..."
    -- from an intro to the song at a gig in Worpswede, Germany, 31 October 1999. Submitted by Simon Gorler.

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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.