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Counsel of Elders: Bruce Cockburn on Serving as Messenger

The Bluegrass Situation – By Amanda Wicks
Oct 20, 2017

Life in Trump’s America doesn’t end at the country’s borders. The present-day era’s global scope means that, sonar-like, the current U.S. president’s impact tears across the world, including upward to the country’s endearing northern neighbor. Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote his new album, Bone on Bone, under the unnerving atmosphere that has settled like grey ash over contemporary life ever since the 2016 presidential election. Several songs, including “Café Society” and “States I’m In,” touch on the agitation rippling through communities and individuals, while “False River” decries a more specific issue: pipelines. “Life blood of the land, consort of our earth, pulse to the pull of moonrise, can you tally what it’s worth?” he sings against a locomotive rhythm that practically pulses with exigency. Trump, specifically, doesn’t pop up on the album, but his influence can be felt in the at-times brooding reflections which spur Cockburn’s latest songs.

The LP marks Cockburn’s 33rd and arrives seven years after his last effort, Small Source of Comfort. The time in between took his attention to other places, including fatherhood and his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory. It took contributing a song to the documentary Al Purdy Was Here (about the Canadian poet) to spark his songwriting once again. Cockburn has long pointed his weapons of choice — namely, his pen and his guitar — at issues impacting the world, and Bone on Bone makes clear that his song-based activism hasn’t eased any. If anything, he doubles down, impressing upon listeners the detrimental forces propelled by division, isolation, and more. Cockburn tapped Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, Brandon Robert Young, and even singers from the church he regularly attends — known on the album as the San Francisco Lighthouse chorus — to offset his dusky vocals and paint an inclusive picture of community, even while his song’s subject matter toed a more solitudinous line. His lyricism, as pointed and precise as ever, proves that the septuagenarian still has important messages to share, and will do exactly that — so long as his mind and breath and energy allow him. A new inductee to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the timing couldn’t be more aligned.

It feels more important than ever to have messengers like you.

Thank you for saying that. It does feel like a time when we have to emphasize communication, because everything is so polarized. We’re all looking at slogans and talking in slogans all the time, but it seems really important to share an experience with each other.

Yeah, in keeping with that idea of slogans — even thinking about the way social media packages thought — how do you feel your songwriting has had to change to reach across the aisle, so to speak?

I don’t really have a good answer for that. It’s a legitimate question, but I feel I haven’t really changed my approach to songwriting. I think it’s a question of maintaining some sort of footing in reality. We all have our own idea of what reality is, but social media creates a false reality. I’m not very involved in social media, so I’m not the best person to be passing judgment on it. At the same time, I’m not involved with it because I don’t trust it, because I don’t like it. There’s a great usefulness to it, granted — it’s really great when you can communicate with people at a distance quickly, and if you have something sensible to communicate — but it doesn’t stop at that. For me, it’s a world of BS and I don’t really want to spend time in that world.

Sure. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said, “If there was a sensible message.”

It’s not very hard to find opinions being passed off as news that really are offensive, whatever your perspective. Most of the time you don’t learn anything, because you just get annoyed. That’s a problem, because it could be a forum for greater understanding.

You touch on a bit of that with “States I’m In,” and I love the title’s play on words: Noddings toward the division people may now feel as individuals and as a country. What’s the most significant message you think listeners need to hear today?

Well, I don’t think the song offers an answer, really, except a spiritual one. I didn’t design the album to have a particular theme, but there is that underlying theme that the spiritual world is one where we can actually meet — or where we need to go, whether we meet or not. It puts things in a perspective that is less prone to being blown this way and that by the winds coming out of various high-profile people. [Laughs]

“States I’m In” is a kind of capsulized dark night of the soul experience. The song unfolds with a sunset and it ends with dawn and, in the meantime, there’s all this stuff — it’s not all autobiographical, although the feelings are. I think the feelings that the song expresses are feelings a lot of us experience, so it has that application for somebody other than me. You can get swept away by all the stuff, but in the end, what’s essential is that relationship with the divine. That’s the whisper welling up from the depths and, if you can shut up long enough to listen for that whisper, it’s there.


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