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From Bob Dylan to Joni Mitchell: 21 of Leonard Cohen’s favourite songs of all time

We’ve spent much our time in lockdown pawing through and bringing to life playlists composed by our favourite artists. While some are easier to find than others, finding a list of songs or artists that the mercurial poet-singer Leonard Cohen liked, let alone loved, was an incredibly difficult task.

Perhaps it was because such a straightforward question as: “What’s your favourite song/album/singer?” would only elicit a straight forward response, and that just wouldn’t do. Or perhaps Cohen was more concerned with reading than listening to his contemporaries. Either way, it’s meant that finding a list of Cohen’s favourite songs was nigh-on impossible. Until now.

Thankfully, some years ago, Leonard Cohen’s Jukebox was released and offered us a window into the musical preferences of one of our favourite artists. A collection of 25 tracks make the album and, with it, the publisher has shown off an array of artists that have helped to shape Cohen’s career in one form or another.

As well as including four pieces of poetry on the record, one from Allen Ginsberg, one from Federico Garcia Lorca and two pieces from Jack Kerouac, the album is also full of Cohen’s contemporaries. While not all of the songs featuring in the album have a specific quote from Cohen attached, it’s clear that he held some artists in high esteem.

It’s also highly likely that Cohen reserved special attention to those songs which had soundtrack his life. Speaking with Rod Sward in 1984, Cohen remarked: “Well, like the Talmud says, there’s good wine in every generation.

“We have a particular feeling for the music of our own generation and usually the songs we courted to are the songs that stay with us all our life as being the heavy ones,” he added. “The singers of my own period, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, all those singers have crossed over the generations. But we have a special kind of feeling for the singers that we use to make love to.”

All of those artists feature in the list below and offer up a pretty clear direction for Cohen’s most beloved songs—writers. Real writers. So as well as girl group classic ‘Be My Baby’ from The Ronettes, the LP is teeming with references to literary songwriters. Picking Joan Baez and Judy Collins, though admittedly not performing their own songs, falls in line with his admiration for Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

Dylan had been a strong friendship for Cohen to rely on up until his death, the pair seemingly sharing a common bond. Of Dylan receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature, Cohen famously once said: “To me, [the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain,” such was his admiration for his work.

Of course, Cohen and Joni Mitchell shared a brief love affair after the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Of Mitchell’s work in the same 1984 interview, Cohen said: “Joni was some kind of musical monster, that her gift somehow put her in another category from the other folksingers. There was a certain ferocity associated with her gift. She was like a storm. She was a beautiful young woman who had a remarkable talent.”

Another former lover is also on the list, Janis Joplin, about whom Cohen famously wrote the song ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’. Picking up her performance of ‘Get It While You Can’ would likely have a pang of guilt attached after having splayed their romance on record for all to hear, later confirming Joplin as the mystery woman—something he would later regret.

So, while we can’t attest, and never will be able to, whether these 21 songs are actually what Cohen would consider his favourite songs ever—if he even had a list, to begin with—we can use the playlist to pass some time and reflect on the intense life Cohen shared on his own songs and who these songs reflect that exact same sentiment.

Leonard Cohen’s favourite songs:

  • ‘Careless Love’ – Josh White
  • ‘Jezebel’ – Frankie Laine
  • ‘Which Side Are You On?’ – Almanac Singers
  • ‘La Complainte Du Partisan (The Partisan)’ – Anna Marly
  • ‘Goodnight Irene’ – The Weavers
  • ‘Red River Valley’ – Gene Autry
  • ‘Tennessee Waltz’ – Les Paul / Mary Ford
  • ‘Be My Baby’ – The Ronettes
  • ‘Just One More’ – George Jones
  • ‘The Great Pretender’ – The Platters
  • ‘Unchained Melody’ – The Righteous Brothers
  • ‘What’d I Say’ – Ray Charles
  • ‘The Twist’ – Hank Ballard
  • ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ – Judy Collins
  • ‘Downhearted Blues’ – Alberta Hunter
  • ‘Jokerman’ – Bob Dylan
  • ‘California’ – Joni Mitchell
  • ‘Get It While You Can’ – Janis Joplin
  • ‘Gloomy Sunday’ – Billie Holiday
  • ‘I Shall Be Released’ – Joan Baez
  • ‘Your Cheatin Heart’ – Hank Williams
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