But the hope of "Turning Toward The Morning" now seems tempered by concern that a better day isn’t necessarily dawning; for Bok is looking at the world through "Other Eyes," the title of his most recent CD, and the view should be unsettling to anyone who leads a reflective life.
Time was when the less hardy souls among us could take comfort in Gordon Bok’s 1975 masterpiece, "Turning Toward The Morning," which gently reminded that those depressed by winter’s onset could learn from flora and fauna to endure, that the north wind means no malice and the dawning of each day brings the world a little closer to the return of spring – a welcome theme, perhaps especially so in his Camden, Maine, hometown, which can be a hardscrabble place after Labor Day.
It’s a pity we don’t know what the little flowers know. They can’t face the cold November; they can’t take the wind and snow. They put their glories all behind them, bow their heads and let it go, but you know they’ll be there shining in the morning.
Well the world’s still turning, and the soon-to-be-72-year-old Bok remains the keenest of observers as well as the definitive though mellowed-with-age bass voice of the great downeast. But the hope of "Turning Toward The Morning" now seems tempered by concern that a better day isn’t necessarily dawning; for Bok is looking at the world through "Other Eyes," the title of his most recent CD, and the view should be unsettling to anyone who leads a reflective life.
"One can have hope and still be concerned, eh?" the amiable but reserved Bok muses when asked whether his optimism has waned. "We humans need crises to learn anything, and we seem to be manufacturing a big, scary crisis right now. I just hope we have sense enough to get scared in time to save ourselves and other species. Otherwise it’s going to be a long darkness."
And that kind of constructive fear may require other eyes and ears – as in those of a natural world either under siege or suffering neglect by the shortsighted (to borrow a title from an old Bok recording) “Ways of Man.”
In an intriguing collection of original songs, covers and even rare and old poems put to the sound of his finger-picked nylon and steel strings, Bok assumes the role of the wild’s denizens sounding a distress call.
There’s the Aleutian Islands seal being clubbed or shot for its fur. And the seal of Maine, whose barking will forever entertain mankind, if afforded the necessary sanctuary. The herring that once was fished near shore in a sustainable manner but now is trawled on spawning grounds. The walking fish, the gurnet, that only seems to be dancing in the net that will be its doom.
And as only a women’s chorus could do, there’s a recitation of a mother dolphin’s anguish as her young is netted as by-catch or for an aquarium exhibit.
Sounding an alarm
"Think about the dolphins in the Mediterranean lying like logs on the surface. Think about the mass strandings on so many coasts. Think about the degradation of their soundscape from ships and U.S. government sonar bombings. Think about the degradation of their habitat with oil and acid water and overfishing. These are not stupid beings; we are not listening."
So perhaps this CD will find an audience beyond a modest but devoted worldwide audience Bok has nurtured over the past half-century punctuated by 34 recordings. To his longtime fans, it’s but the logical progression of an artist’s work whose prior recordings viewed life through the eyes of a schooner captain, a fisherman, a likely-to-be fisherman’s widow, a logger, a carpenter, a migrant farm worker — in short, the folks Bok has interacted with since his boyhood as a boat-builder’s son on Maine’s mid-coast.
Coming from a musical family and influenced by a melting pot of traditional hymns, ballads and chanties with an emphasis on all things maritime, Bok has long seemed the voice of a Homer Winslow or Andrew Wyeth painting — the crashing of the waves, the sound of the foghorn, the cry of the gull, the lament of an old salt resigned to calling the tides his master.
And he’s always timeless, never clichéd, no matter how many other artists have tapped into the same themes. A self-described "rememberer," Bok sustains tradition while adding to it.
Now he’s found new subjects in which to express himself, and it’s far from all pensive. "The Brandy Tree" concerns a joyous otter that might have been right at home in "The Wind and the Willows." And the first song, "Bold Reynolds," is about an old fox near the end of what’s been a fulfilling life.
The years have passed, my vixen died, and I am on my own. My legs are tired, my coat is rough and all my seed is sown. I do not wish a lingering death, the hunt once more I’ll find. And lead them on through Marlpost wood for the final time.
Could be Bok empathizes with that critter the most, although his wife –– a fine harpist and singer named Carol Rohl –– is alive and well and handled the programming for "Other Eyes."
Still, everyone’s race is eventually run, and Bok –– like that fox and so many of us –– is much nearer the finish than the start. But he still has a message to deliver, from his eyes and others.
Contact Neil Cote at email@example.com.