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BRUCE COCKBURN > News > Interviews > As he gets inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame, Bruce Cockburn looks back on the highs and lows of summer festivals

As he gets inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame, Bruce Cockburn looks back on the highs and lows of summer festivals

The 79-year-old musician will play the Lightfoot Stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia on July 7.

July 3, 2024

By Nick Krewen – Special to the Star
The second time he played the Mariposa Folk Festival, in 1969, Bruce Cockburn wasn’t supposed to headline.

That honour belonged to Neil Young, fresh from his split with Buffalo Springfield, until a last-minute health issue forced the Ottawa-born folksinger and songwriter — who, until that point, had played in such bands the Children, the Esquires, the Flying Circus and 3’s a Crowd — into the spotlight.

“I was terrified,” recalled the 79-year-old Cockburn from his home in San Francisco. “But I got up, did my little half-hour set and people liked it. It was really the first time I played as myself in front of a big audience.

“It was pretty intimidating, but I got away with it. And it set me up in a pretty great way in terms of the Toronto folk scene.”

Cockburn, who will be inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame in Orillia at 7 p.m. on Sunday, following his ninth performance at the event, looked back fondly at the festival’s earlier years.

At 1971’s Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Bruce Cockburn (right) played with Eric Nagle. - photo Reg Innell
At 1971’s Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, Bruce Cockburn (right) played with Eric Nagle. – photo Reg Innell

“In the beginning, it was the only one (festival),” he remembered. “Later on in the ‘70s, the western festivals started up — Winnipeg and Edmonton and Vancouver — and they were good festivals, too.

“The scene was great. Back in those days … I’d play whatever I was there to do, and the rest of the time I’d go around and hear this amazing music that you might never encounter otherwise.

“There was also a nice social part of it, too. You’d get to see the people that over time you’d get acquainted with, and you’d only see them at festivals.”

Cockburn — whose upcoming performance on the Lightfoot Stage caps a diverse July 5-7 weekend lineup that includes Canadians William Prince, Maestro Fresh Wes, Bahamas, Donovan Woods and non-Canadians Noah Cyrus, Band of Horses and Old Crow Medicine Show — appeared every year at Mariposa from 1968 to 1972.

He returned in 1974 — and then played sporadically, finding himself in demand elsewhere due to his growing worldwide popularity, fuelled by a successful recording career and international hits such as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

“The way we toured changed completely,” he said. “Back in that era, we spent half the year driving around Canada in our pickup truck with a camper on the back. That’s what a tour was: you’d play Winnipeg and a month later, you could play Saskatoon, and a month later, you’d play Edmonton. In the meantime, you’d have all this time to hang out and explore. I fit into that kind of scenario very well.

“But now, with Mariposa, for instance, we’ll arrive 3 a.m. the night before and leave after the show or that night — and that’s the most I can get out of it.

“I can’t walk around and enjoy the festival so much because people want to talk to me … which I like. It just doesn’t give me the same opportunity to stay for some music that you’ve never heard before or artists that are new to you.”

Cockburn is also known for his activism, and his songs have covered everything from human atrocities in war-torn countries to environmental concerns to romantic love.

Over the course of a career that has lasted more than a half-century, the former Berklee College of Music student has expanded his horizons from folk to other genres, expressing himself and his immaculate guitar work on 40 studio, live and compilation albums that earned Cockburn entry into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Order of Canada and a dozen Juno Awards.

His latest album, “O Sun O Moon,” came out in 2023, which raises the question: does Cockburn have plans for another?

“At the moment, no. I haven’t written anything,” he said. “What we’re thinking about doing is an album of other people’s songs. I’ve wanted to do this for decades. Now might be the time to do it, before it’s too late, I suppose.

“I’m not going to be covering other singer-songwriters particularly. I have some connection to what I grew up with — and just songs I like — old stuff, primarily. Some of it’s blues … some of it is (standards). Some of it’s whatever ragtime is.”

He’d also like to tour with a band again, considering his treks over the past several years have featured just him and his posse of guitars.

“I don’t know if we could pull it off,” he said. “If I was playing big shows like I play in Canada, we could do that. But those big shows are mixed with a whole bunch of U.S. dates where the audiences and the venues are smaller, so it’s hard to make that work economically.

“I like playing solo and I think it works really well because of how intimate it is and how it makes people really feel the songs. But I miss having some extra energy on stage with me, and I think people have seen enough of the solo thing now. It’d be nice to add some other players, but I have no idea if and when that will actually happen.”

What is planned is a Moroccan vacation with his wife and daughter immediately following the Mariposa ceremony; a stay in Ontario in August while his daughter attends summer camp; and then a return to San Francisco, where he’ll rehearse for November solo dates.

As for the “R” word: retirement?

“Well, it’s in my vocabulary but not in my intentions,” Cockburn said with a chuckle.

“Who knows? At some point, the hands will give out or some other body part will give out or the brain, and I won’t be able to continue. But until that point, I don’t see any reason to stop.”

As for the Mariposa induction, Cockburn — who recently received an honorary doctorate of music from Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, his 10th such degree from various institutions — said he’s thrilled to join such peers as Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan and the Travellers.

“It definitely feels like an honour and a welcome kind of recognition,” said Cockburn. “But it isn’t a life-and-death thing. I’m very happy to be included in the Hall of Fame, and Mariposa over the years has meant quite a bit to me, especially at the beginning. So, it’s pretty meaningful that way.”

Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email:

As he gets inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame, Bruce Cockburn looks back on the highs and lows of summer festivals