Leonard Cohen: Legendary Canadian performer had roots in Lanark County

The music of legendary Canadian poet, songwriter and performer, Leonard Cohen, has been resonating with fans for more than 50 years. Following the launch of his first album in 1967, Cohen’s unique, smokey voice set him apart in the music scene, and even after his death in 2016, Cohen’s music continues to be celebrated around the world.

What’s not as well known about Cohen is that the man who made the fedora a trend-setting fashion statement had roots in the small Ontario town of Maberly, situated in Lanark County, roughly a half hour’s drive from the City of Ottawa. In a 2010 article in the Globe and Mail, Cohen remembered his ancestor’s past in Lanark County, and gave thanks for the hospitality his family enjoyed after coming to Canada.

“My great grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, came to Canada in 1869, to the county of Glengarry, a little town in Maberly. It’s customary to thank people for the help and aid they’ve given. On this occasion, because of the great hospitality that was accorded my ancestor who came here over 140 years ago, I want to thank this country, Canada, for allowing us to live and work and flourish in a place that was different from all other places in the world.”

Plans are in the works in Lanark County to erect a plaque on the former Cohen family property to commemorate the story of the family’s initial settlement in Maberly.

That story is both eventful and inspiring; Cohen’s great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, his wife, Fraidie, and their family, including Cohen’s grandfather, Lyon, immigrated from Poland to Canada in the 1860s. After settling in Maberly, the Cohen family purchased the Rigney General Store, called the Red Store, from Jacob Goldberg in 1885.

Although the store has since been torn down, the lot where it was located is remembered as the site that supported the Cohen family’s early beginnings in Canada.

The property where Cohen’s great-grandfather purchased the Red Store was Con. 8 Lot 14 South Sherbrooke, and was highlighted in the book A Short History of South Sherbrooke, by Bud Van Alstine. The Cohen family eventually moved on from Maberly to settle in Quebec, where Cohen was born in 1934 to parents Marsha Klonitsky and Nathan Cohen, who was also a shopkeeper, maintaining the family’s shopkeeping tradition.

Cohen launched his musical career in 1967 with the release of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, followed by 11 albums over the next 40 years, until the release of his final album, You Want it Darker, in 2016. Before this death, Cohen was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was named a Companion to the Order of Canada in 2003. 

Among his most famous songs are Hallelujah, Suzanne, Everybody Knows, Bird on the Wire, and First We Take Manhattan.

A link to musical performers from Lanark County is one that has been seen time and again; Lanark County is home to two Juno award winning musicians, David Francey and Jenney Whiteley. Musical history was also made in the town of Carleton Place, when Stompin’ Tom Connors penned his hit song about French Canadian folk hero, Big Joe Mufferaw, at the Mississippi Hotel, now The Grand Hotel, in 1967.