May 3, 2013 – Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn was at McMaster University Tuesday night to take part in a celebration of his recent donation of a huge chunk of his personal archives to McMaster University.
It’s hard to be humble when one of Canada’s top academic institutions enshrines your life’s work alongside collections representing the careers of philosopher Bertrand Russell, and authors Farley Mowat, Margaret Laurence and Pierre Berton.
But Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn managed to be just that Tuesday night at a reception to honour the donation of his personal notebooks, correspondence, recordings, photos and memorabilia to the McMaster University archives.
The Ottawa-born writer of songs such as Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If I Had a Rocket Launcher sat quietly in the front row at Convocation Hall, listening to a string quartet perform instrumental versions his music.
Cockburn, 67, then heard university provost David Wilkinson tell the 180 invited guests and dignitaries assembled there what a significant gift the collection represents to the institution.
When called to the stage to say a few words, Cockburn bashfully downplayed the importance of his gift.
“I want to thank McMaster University for graciously accepting all my crap,” joked Cockburn, who is known almost as much for his social activism as for his music.
Cockburn spoke for about 10 minutes, relating anecdotes from a career that spans five decades. He told the audience about the time he brought a shoulder bag filled with unarmed landmines to an anti-mine news conference at Parliament Hill, much to the chagrin of the Centre Block security guards.
“My major regret is that I couldn’t include those landmines in the donation to McMaster,” Cockburn deadpanned. “But I had to give them back.”
During the reception, several artists performed versions of Cockburn’s songs. The rock group Of Gentlemen and Cowards, all of whom are former McMaster students, sang an acoustic version of Wondering Where the Lions Are.
Hamilton’s Tom Wilson sang All the Diamonds and Colin Linden, who flew in from Nashville for the event, sang Anything Anytime Anywhere.
Wilson and Linden are members of the group Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and are longtime friends and collaborators of Cockburn.
The Cockburn collection is stored in 63 boxes of varying size in the basement of McMaster’s Mills Memorial Library. It includes correspondence from notable figures such as former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, former cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy and John Crosbie, environmentalist David Suzuki, Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave and singer Anne Murray.
The collection also includes fan letters, photos, tour shirts, recordings, videos and guitars, all carefully catalogued in a 64-page finders’ guide for researchers.
The core of the archives, however, is found in 32 personal notebooks, in which Cockburn wrote many of his songs, as well as snippets of poetry and day-to-day observations.
The notebooks, which cover the years 1969 to 2002, offer insight into how Cockburn worked his songwriting craft.
“That process is documented in the mongrel assortment of stationery that is now in the hands of McMaster,” he said.
Credit: Cockburn thanks Mac for taking his ‘mongrel assortment by Graham Rockingham – thespec.com. Photos by Scott Gardener / The Spec.
- McMaster.ca Library Archives
- Bruce Cockburn donates his archives to McMaster – audio interview
- In photos: Bruce Cockburn donates archives to McMaster University by Brad Wheeler