#464: I’m Scared by Burton Cummings

Peak Month: April 1977
12 weeks on Vancouver’s CKLG chart
Peak Position #7
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ #61
YouTube.com: “I’m Scared
I’m Scared” lyrics

Burton Cummings is the former lead singer and keyboardist for the Winnipeg, Manitoba, based rock ‘n roll band The Guess Who. He was with the band from 1965 to 1975. Cummings sang, wrote or co-wrote many hit songs. These include “American Woman”, “Clap For The Wolfman”, “Hand Me Down World”, “Laughing”, “No Time”, “Share The Land”, “Star Baby” and “These Eyes”. His solo career includes many hit singles, including “My Own Way To Rock” and “Fine State Of Affairs”. His first solo hit single was “Stand Tall”, in 1976, which was his biggest hit as a solo recording artist.

Cummings was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1947. When he was sixteen he dropped out of high school. In 1962, while only fifteen, Cummings founded a band named the Deverons. All members of the band learned to play by ear. Cummings played piano, saxophone and lead vocals. Their high school dance concerts comprised of covers of songs from the late 50’s and early 60’s including “This Time” by Troy Shondell, “Wild Weekend” by The Rebels, “Sheila” by Tommy Roe and “Only Love Can Break A Heart” by Gene Pitney. The Deverons released a couple of singles and Cummings got some positive word-of-mouth and reviews in the local Winnipeg papers. This was pretty exciting for bandmates who still all lived in their parents homes.

In January 1966 Cummings was asked to join another Winnipeg band, The Guess Who, when keyboardist Bob Ashley left the group. By May 1966 Burton Cummings became the lead vocal for the group when Chad Allen left to pursue solo work and host the CBC TV show Let’s Go. The Guess Who had previously been Chad Allen and the Expressions. Their first national hit was “Shakin’ All Over”, which peaked at #2 in Vancouver (BC) in February 1965. After Burton Cummings joined the band a year later, they had twenty-one Top 20 hits in Canada, including these other number one singles on the Canadian RPM record charts: “Laughing”, “No Time” and “American Woman”/”No Sugar Tonight”.

In 1975, Cummings began a solo career after The Guess Who disbanded. In 1975 Cummings began a solo career after The Guess Who disbanded. That year he added backing vocals for Eric Carmen’s track, “Marathon Man”, from his Boats Against The Current album. Burton’s first two albums went double-platinum. His first was self-titled. His first release was “Stand Tall”, his only Top Ten hit in the USA. The second single from the album was “I’m Scared”.

I'm Scared by Burton Cummings

“I’m Scared” is a song written by Burton Cummings which he wrote in New York City. He wrote it as a song for his band, The Guess Who, to record. However, his bandmates turned the song down. It was a catalyst for Cummings decision to split from The Guess Who and pursue a solo career. His last album with the band was in 1975 for Power In The Music. Burton recorded “I’m Scared” on his album Burton Cummings.

“I’m Scared” is a song about a person who has “never been much on religion” but they are now open to hearing a “call” from God. The song references lines from traditional Christmas carols. The first is “goodwill toward men.” This is a phrase from the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1863 poem “Christmas Bells”. The poem expressed longing for peace and unity during the American Civil War. The poem was also prompted by the injury of Longfellow’s son, Charlie, a soldier fighting with the Union.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s poem was set to music by the English organist John Baptiste Calkin in 1872 as the carol “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day”. Burton Cummings must have sensed the age old longing for peace and harmony in a world of war and strife. The carol, as with the poem, offers the sound of bells ringing on Christmas Day as a catalyst for a hoped for peace between people in conflict.

Cummings also references a choir singing about sleeping in heavenly peace. The phrase comes from the Christmas carol “Silent Night”. In 1818 Franz Xaver Gruber wrote the music to “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” after reading the lyrics by Joseph Mohr. They lived in the small Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. Mohr was the new priest at the St. Nicholas Parish in the town, and had written the carol two years earlier while living in the town where he was raised. Mohr brought the words to Gruber in December 1818 after river flooding had damaged the church organ. Mohr asked Gruber to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the Christmas Eve mass. “Stille Nacht” was performed in public in 1819 for the Emperor of Austria, Franz I and the Emperor of Russia, Alexander I. It was performed in German in New York City in 1839. The carol was translated into English in 1859 by Father John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest at Trinity Church near Wall Street and Broadway.

Over the decades churches distribute candles to those attending a Christmas Eve service, and they light the candles during the congregational singing of “Silent Night”. Among the aspirations in the song is the wish for the child of Mary to “sleep in heavenly peace.” But, the sentiment extends for all who are singing the carol and long for this serenity.

Cummings sings about stopping by to see Saint Thomas. On January 9, 1824 Saint Thomas Episcopal Church Fifth Avenue was incorporated. The church is home to the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, a choral ensemble comprising men and boys which performs music in the Anglican tradition at worship services and offers a full concert series during the course of the year. The current building was built between 1911 and 1913. It has ashlar limestone exterior surfaces and sandstone interior surfaces in French High Gothic style, embellished with dense French Flamboyant Gothic detail in the window tracery, in the small arches of the triforium, and in the rich stonework of the reredos. The exterior of the church, its sanctuary and the choir are outstanding. Burton Cummings sings of the experience “something in the air was oh so rare.”

The impact of hearing the choir singing “Silent Night”, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” and the visit to Saint Thomas cause the seeker to fall down on their knees. They feel terrified, petrified and scared. They admit they’ve been “living in confusion” and “searching for truth I’d never found.” They have arrived at a place in their life where they reflect “I needed something to really believe.” The seeker wants the Lord to offer some sign that they are listening to their “talking” and “crying.”

In a Christianity Today article titled “5 Stages of Spiritual Awakening” the author writes that the first stage is Awakening to Longing. Dave Ferguson states that awakening to longing “is the universal feeling people have that “there’s got to be more” to life. We all feel the longing for love, purpose, and meaning. And it is the quest to satisfy these basic longings that sends us on a journey.” The person in “I’m Scared” reveals they’ve been searching for truth and living in confusion. It seems they are betting there is more to life and are longing for a life beyond the confusion and turmoil. Another stage of spiritual awakening is Awakening to Help. At this stage the person admits they need to connect to some source that is going to turn their life around. They admit that what they’ve been doing so far isn’t working anymore, and they need a fresh start.

“I’m Scared” peaked at #4 in Hamilton (ON), #7 in Vancouver (BC) and #8 in Peterborough (ON). The single stalled at #61 on the Billboard Hot 100.

His third album, Dream Of A Child, went triple-platinum. It included two Top Ten singles in Canada: “I Will Play A Rhapsody“, and the debut single, “Break It To Them Gently”. The album, Dream Of A Child, earned Burton Cummings a Juno Award in 1979 for Top Selling Album.

Cummings has lived in both California and Winnipeg. Among the many highlights of Burton Cummings career, in the 1980’s and 1990’s he toured with Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. Cummings also starred in the 1982 feature film, Melanie, and won a Genie Award for Best Original Song in 1983. The Guess Who have toured from time to time on reunion tours since 2000. Burton Cummings has performed in concert with the Bachman-Cummings Band and also gone on tour as a solo act. In 2009, Cummings received the Order of Canada. More recently, he published a book of poetry titled The Writings off B.L. Cummings. As of January 27, 2020, Burton Cummings has nine concert dates scheduled between February 21 and March 20, 2020. He will appear on stage in Alberta, Arizona, California and Washington. With fifty albums recorded, he shows no sign to slowing down in his seventh decade.
January 27, 2020
Ray McGinnis
Cummings, Burton. The Writings of B.L. Cummings. Rock Paper Merchandise.com, 2017.
Burton Cummings – Bio, Burton Cummings.com
The Deverons, Manitoba Music Museum.com.
Robert Girard Carroon, “The Christmas Carol Soldier,” Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, West Hartford, CT, October 1998.
Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue – Choir of Men and Boys,” Saint Thomas Church.org.
Jason Daley, “It’s the Bicentennial of ‘Silent Night’: The Classic Christmas Tune was First Composed as a Poem, and it was set to Music for the First Time in the Winter of 1818,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 17, 2018.
Dave Ferguson, “5 Stages of Spiritual Awakening,” Christianity Today, March 2015.
Vancouver’s Official Music Survey,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC, April 5, 1977.

3 responses to “I’m Scared by Burton Cummings”

  1. Damian says:

    I believe that “Shakin’ All Over” was recorded by Chad Allen and the Expressions in December 1964, before Burton Cummings joined the band in 1966

  2. ray says:

    Thanks Damian, I’ve corrected the error

  3. Susan McCaslin says:

    I wasn’t previously aware of Burton Cumming’s “I’m Scared.” You track down so well the various religious influences and sources—Longfellow, a hymn, a particular church etc.

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