Ballad Of The Absent Mare

Album: Recent Songs (1979)

Songfacts®:

  • This song's metaphorical lyrics are based on the twelfth-century work Mare Ten Bulls (or Ten Ox-herding Pictures), a series of short poems and accompanying pictures that are intended to illustrate the stages of a Mahayana Buddhist practitioner's progression towards enlightenment.
  • The Canadian's longtime friend and guest singer, Jennifer Warnes, shared on her website how a radiant Cohen came over to her house to share this song with her after he'd been away on a silent retreat. She recalled sitting at her little rented piano, "as Leonard's twelve elegant, spartan verses unfolded. I remember thinking... something miraculous is happening, right this minute, in my stupid little living room."

    "Leonard had found some old pictures somewhere," Warnes continued. "They were called The Ten Bulls, old Japanese woodcuts symbolizing the stages of a monk's life on the road to enlightenment. These carvings pictured a boy and a bull, the boy losing the bull, the bull hiding, the boy realizing that the bull was nearby all along. There is a struggle, and finally the boy rides the bull into his little village. 'I thought this would make a great cowboy song,' he joked."
  • Warnes asked Cohen if he would bend the lyric in a couple of places, for a cowgirl, and he sent her a new version, titled "The Ballad of The Runaway Horse," which can be found on the 20th anniversary reissue edition of Famous Blue Raincoat. Emmylou Harris also recorded this new version for her 1993 album Cowgirl's Prayer.
  • Warnes: "I was recently asked to write something about 'Ballad of the Runaway Horse.' 'Tell them it's not about a horse,' a friend advised, tongue in cheek. But Leonard was a member of a teenage band called The Buckskin Boys. Maybe his song is about a horse, I don't exactly know. Best to ask Leonard."

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