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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.

Speaking about the album’s spirituality, the number 33 has a powerful religious and spiritual connotation. Does the fact that this is album number 33 hold any meaning for you?

That’s an interesting question, too. I hadn’t thought of that, so I guess the answer’s “no,” but maybe subliminally it did. The number that I did think of is the [song] “40 Years in the Wilderness,” and that’s more specific, both as a reference and in my own life.

And there’s also the fact that it’s been seven years between albums, and seven is a potent number, as well.

Yeah, I know, we’re getting all numerological here.

And I don’t necessarily mean to!

It’s not a belief system that I adhere to, particularly, but I do find it interesting when those things show up. There are certain years in my life … I mean, a year that adds up to four is almost never a good year for me, and almost all the other ones are. So what does that mean? Maybe it’s totally subjective or maybe it’s not.

Or, if you head into those particular years with that mindset, you create your own issues.

Right, it’s impossible. I can never stand back far enough to be sure I’m not doing that. I think all of those kinds of esoteric ways of trying to understand things — whether it’s numerology or the tarot or astrology — they all have some functionality. They all work in some way. But what I’ve thought over the years is that they seem to operate as enhancements to your own sense of contact to the bigger reality, so it doesn’t really matter which one you use, if it helps you. If you have a sensitivity to that kind of listening state, those things help you listen, and they might help you listen — in the case of the tarot — to somebody else’s condition.

Once anything becomes a belief system that can be passed on and you can train people in it and so on, it’s kind of like training musician. I haven’t been to Berklee in some time, and really appreciated it as a great school, and it still is, but the problem with that and the problem with any system of education is, you teach people to be the same as each other. The geniuses will transcend that; they’ll learn all the stuff and then they’ll go on and be themselves. But the people that are not geniuses will end up being very good at what they do but sounding like each other. And I think the same thing applies to spiritual training: You can learn all that stuff and it doesn’t make you gifted.

It doesn’t, and I wonder how much “genius” here applies to a sense of bravery.

Yeah, maybe so, whether it’s bravery or necessity. Some people are brave and step out in spite of their surroundings or themselves, and others of us just luck into it. This is what I know how to do, and I kind of care what people think about it, but I’m not going to let their opinions stop me.

Right, and then speaking of another individual in that sense, your song “3 Al Purdys” … what is it about his use of language that holds such magic for you?

He had great insight for one thing — into people and the historical place of things. And, as a young poet, he’s kind of raw and brash and very Canadian, very colloquial, very rough around the edges, but interesting as all get-out. And then, as he gets older, as the poems become more recent, he becomes more speculative and thoughtful and more international, also. His thought processes are beautifully articulated and communicable, therefore.

He’s got some really visceral introspection’s.

His hit is the poem where he’s in a bar in Ontario, and he tries to get somebody to buy him a beer in exchange for a poem and it doesn’t work, and he reflects on what poetry is really worth, when it won’t even buy you a beer. And of course that’s the side of Al Purdy that my song is thinking of. Everybody who knows Al Purdy knows that poem, and it’s so archetypically Canadian. You kind of had to be there to appreciate it. I don’t know how it would seem to somebody from the U.S. Nonetheless, it captures some aspect of Ontario culture thoroughly. He’s basically my dad’s generation, and he spent the ‘30s riding the rails back and forth across Canada, looking for work like everybody else. Both of the spoken word sections in the song are excerpts from his poetry.

Congratulations, by the way, on being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I know the country has honored you in a few different ways, but what did it mean to be recognized for your songwriting?

It means people are listening. It’s gratifying and humbling, and I’m very grateful for it. An award is a thing, an event, and the event has its own meaning, and it had meaning. It was nice to be part of it, and then, you know, I have a thing to take home and put somewhere that I’ll have to dust. [Laughs]

What a way to look at it!

But what it represents, like I said, is that people are paying attention, and an artist can’t ask for anything more.

Very true. Well, my last question is admittedly silly. You’ve been called the “Canadian Bob Dylan,” so who would you say is the American Bruce Cockburn?

Um, I’d like it to be Tom Waits, but …

Alright, let’s just make that claim!

I don’t think anybody’s anybody except themselves, but I remember way back in the day being described in more than one review of a show as the Canadian John Denver, and the only similarity is that we both have round glasses. It’s such a cheap way to try to describe something. It’d be better to describe me as not the next Canadian this or that: He’s not the Canadian Bob Dylan. He’s not the next Leonard Cohen. He’s not the next Joni Mitchell. If you do enough of those, you can kind of get to what the person might be. If I had to be some American singer/songwriter, Tom Waits would be high on my list. Lucinda Williams would be high on my list, too. And Ani DiFranco is a terrific songwriter and closer, in a certain sense, to what I do. I forget where it was, but I was described as Ani DiFranco’s uncle.

No way.

It’s better than being described as “the next Canadian something or other.” It was actually kind of an honor, but these comparisons … if they’re not amusing, then they’re sort of not very nice.

Credit: The Bluegrass Situation – Counsel of Elders: Bruce Cockburn on Serving as Messenger By Amanda Wicks – Oct 20, 2017.