Barley an hour after the conclusion of Sunday’s Grammy Awards, an email arrived from a friend expressing disappointment at the telecast making short shrift of the deaths of two of the greatest musical poets of the last century, Leonard Cohen and Merle Haggard.
Both were name- and photo-checked in the quick “In Memoriam” segment toward the end of the three-hour-and-40-minute marathon, while Haggard received an additional millisecond of recognition in new Grammy host James Corden’s rapid-fire rap monologue.
Off network cameras and during a pre-telecast, veteran folk-pop singer Judy Collins gave Cohen a gorgeous tribute in her performance of his song “Suzanne,” which she recorded half a century ago, helping bring him to the attention of the pop music world.
But oh, how much more Grammy officials could have done.
“I think [they] could have come up with great tributes to Leonard and Merle,” the email said. “I mean, Merle was the greatest country singer AND songwriter of the last 50 years. And Leonard Cohen is beloved by everyone. Imagine how historic the Cohen [tribute] would have been. Can't you picture people singing ‘Hallelujah’?”
The friend went on to flesh out a scenario that would have fit in neatly alongside the Grammy show’s typical multi-artist, cross-generation and genre collaborations: “If they had done Cohen, I guarantee an all-star singalong to ‘Hallelujah’ would be the thing you most remember today, even if they had taped some of the stars, i.e. Dylan, etc., singing the ‘Hallelujah’ line to supplement the lineup onstage ... What better way to salute the power of music than that?”
Hey, no argument here.
Despite the heartfelt tribute segments for George Michael and Prince — just two of an extraordinary number of high-profile musicians who died within the last year — posthumous salutes to Cohen and Haggard would have gone much further than many of the televised production numbers toward addressing themes of unity.
My own fantasy tribute for Haggard would invoke his 1973 hit “If We Make It Through December,” written during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, when he was under the cloud of the Watergate scandal, and during the economic recession and the Middle East oil crisis that had many Americans lined up for hours at their local gas stations waiting to fuel up.
Haggard’s tune addressed the struggle of working-class families — a topic to which he devoted many great songs — and how they were clinging to any shred of hope they could find.
That message is utterly relevant today:
I don't mean to hate December
It's meant to be the happy time of year
And my little girl don't understand
Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here
If we make it through December
Everything's gonna be all right, I know
It's the coldest time of winter
And I shiver when I see the falling snow
I’d love to have heard those words sung by Chris Stapleton and Katy Perry, or Sturgill Simpson and Alicia Keys, maybe Adele and Bruce Springsteen — heck, why not all of the above?
It’s understandable that Grammy ceremony officials want the show to be perceived as au courant, and that they strive to include as many current nominees and award winners as possible.
But the show also can be a platform for honoring the artists who have set the standards by which all others are evaluated, standards to which other musicians aspire.
It’s hard to think of two artists more richly deserving of that kind of honor from the music community than Haggard and Cohen.
Can I get a “Hallelujah”?
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