Leonard Cohen Hand Whistling Compendium

Leonard Cohen: “I Play Hands At A Crucial Point In The Song”

Three previous Cohencentric posts have dealt, to varying extents, with Leonard Cohen playing hands (aka hand whistling, hand cooing):1 Today’s entry consolidates this information and adds another documented exhibition of this instrumental skill by the Canadian singer-songwriter.

In The Beginning – Songs Of Leonard Cohen

The first official recording of Leonard Cohen’s hand whistling was on “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” a track on his first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, recorded in 1967. Ira Nadel, writing in “Various Positions – A Life Of Leonard Cohen,” posits

The most unnerving element [of the album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen] is the scream or wail at the end of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong.”

Leonard Cohen – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Songs Of Leonard Cohen:1968
The video automatically begins a few seconds before the “scream or wail.”


Leonard Cohen Warns Listeners To Not Be Alarmed When His Hand May Leave The Guitar

Not long after Songs Of Leonard Cohen was released, Cohen performed “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” on a BBC program, warning the audience that his hands might move from his guitar to his mouth, at which point he would commence playing his hands. The warning, he explained, was necessary because a friend, unexpectedly encountering him hand whistling during this song, went into a catatonic stupor as a result.

Leonard Cohen – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
BBC: 1968
Video begins just before the hand whistling
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Leonard Cohen On The Hand Whistle – 1970

A comment by Cohencentric contributor and Polish correspondent, apolinary, on a post about the renaissance of Cohen hand whistling in 2010 pointed out that Leonard Cohen utilized the same hand whistling technique in his 1970 performance of “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” at the Isle Of Wight Festival. This sequence can, in fact, be viewed on the recently released Leonard Cohen: Live At The Isle of Wight DVD, from which the screen captures atop this post were taken.

Leonard Cohen – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Isle of Wight: 1970
Video automatically begins just before the hand whistling


And, in fact, it may well be that Cohen performed on his hand whistle at numerous concerts. The notes for the bootleg of the Leonard Cohen June 22, 1976 Zurich, Switzerland concert, for example, include the notation “Leonard Cohen – vocals, guitar, hand whistle.” Similarly but more precisely, the description of the band accompanying the bootleg of the Leonard Cohen October 26, 1980 Zurich, Switzerland concert begins with “Leonard Cohen – guitar, vocals, two-hand whistle.”

Another episode of Cohen hand whistling was documented by this comment from Thelma Blitz in her comment on Leonard Cohen, Forest Hills 1970 – “Nervous, Uncomfortable, Oppressive, Lifeless” & In A Tiff With Dylan:

It should be noted, for the books, that at Forest Hills, July 25, 1970, my journal reminds me that Leonard played the hands-that is , blew air into the hollow of his hands, varied the shape of the cavity and produced different musical notes. It sounded like the Shofar ( ceremonial rams horn of Jewish New Year). I also used to play the hands but did not have the control that Leonard did and was most impressed. I also realized at that time that he had played the hands on his first album. I couldn’t identify the sound until I saw him do it.

In a subsequent email, Thelma notes

I should have added that the hands must have been played with “One of us Cannot be Wrong.” I didn’t know what the sound was when I heard it on the record because it was never mentioned on the album cover

Fancy Hand Whistling By Leonard Cohen At The Bottom Line – 1974

Leonard Cohen performed shows on Nov 29, Nov 30, and Dec 1, 1974 at the Bottom Line in New York (two shows each day). This is an audience recording of “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong” from the second show on Nov 29, 1974. It opens with an exchange of lines between Mr Cohen and the audience and ends with an especially exuberant display of hand whistling by Leonard Cohen.

Leonard Cohen – One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
Bottom Line, New York: Nov 29, 1974
Video automatically begins just before the hand whistling
Video by Allan Showalter


Leonard Cohen On The Hand Whistle – 2010

The April 2010 post, And, On The Hand Whistle, Leonard Cohen, featured a brief passage of the Canadian singer-songwriter performing on the hand whistle during “Heart With No Companion” at the August 10, 2010 Helsinki show. While Helsinki marked the first instance of Cohen hand whistling during the Leonard Cohen World Tour, it was not the last. “Heart With No Companion” was concluded with a cupped hand whistling segment at, for example, Gothenburg (August 12, 2010) and Odense (August 14, 2010).


Leonard Cohen – Hand Whistle Segment From Heart With No Companion
Helsinki: Aug 10, 2010
Video from MaartenLC


Update: Leonard Cohen Performs Passing Through With Hand Whistle – Bonn 1980

Bonus: I’ve Seen The Future Baby – And It Is Hand-whistling

Now that Leonard Cohen has reawakened his inner hand-whistler, can fans anticipate more extended and elaborate performances at future concerts? As a demonstration of possibilities, Cohencentric offers this virtuoso effort by an unnamed artist.

Barber Of Seville
Video from handsplay


Comments From Original Post

Vicki Woodyard: One of Us Cannot Be Wrong is a favorite of mine and the hand whistling seals the deal. Unbelievably sweet to hear him take this challenge on in such confidence. What if he suddenly got dry mouth and the whole thing turned into hands gone wrong? I shudder. Yet he never allowed this to happen. And the hand whistle scatting he did, vamping away on his mouth, was silly and sweet at the same time. Altogether, Allan, this is some of your finest work. I look forward to the fifth post on the subject.

Sally: I have a girl who hand whistles all the time in my class. I showed her the videos and told her she should aspire to this. She loved them.

Christine Roberts: When I first played the original version I was convinced that he had a small flute hidden in his hand and had to watch a second time. Marvelous videos-thanks Dr. H.

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted June 17, 2011 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com.


  1. Some readers may be asking, “Why is DrHGuy devoting four posts to Leonard Cohen producing a few notes by blowing into his hands?” To those viewers, DrHGuy responds, “You’re new around here, ain’t ya?” []

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