by Róisín West – Monitor Magazine
1 January 2022 – On the evening of June 26, 2002, activists and organizers from around the world settled into worn velvet seats of Calgary’s Uptown Cinema. This was the seventh day of non-violent protests against the G8 Kananaskis meetings, the first meetings of their kind to be held after 9/11. As the lights lowered, the concert organizer, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir’s Chris Brown, took to the stage. He was soon joined by the Brothers Creeggan of Barenaked Ladies fame and Bruce Cockburn. The Monitor recently reached out to Cockburn to discuss that concert and his lifetime of activism, catching up with him as he prepared to head out for his 2nd Attempt 50th anniversary Tour across the United States and Canada.
The Monitor: Music has always played a vital role in social justice movements. There are, of course, protest singers, like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, whose craft is centred around activism. But other artists like yourself and Tracy Chapman tend to weave social justice issues in as part of a broader tapestry. I’m wondering if you agree with that assessment and how you situate social justice within the landscape of your work?
Bruce Cockburn: Yeah, I do agree with that. I have not felt obliged to present myself or to try to create songs or a body of work that is focused on any one particular issue. I’ve always seen what I do as being about life in the broadest sense, whatever that means. And life in the broadest sense for me includes a moral consideration. I was raised to care about what happens to people around me, and the world in general, and to pay attention to it. And on top of that, adding the spiritual values that I have, including the notion of loving my neighbour. Well, you know, you can’t love your neighbour and ignore your own complicity in your neighbour’s pain. So that’s the starting point for my approach to those things, to songs that might be said to be about issues.
After that it’s circumstantial. I wrote the songs about Central America, which are the most blatant statements of that aspect of what I do, because I was there. I experienced the things I experienced and heard from other people about the things they were experiencing firsthand. Those things had an impact.
You only write your own feelings like that. I feel like that’s my job—to translate what I’ve experienced of life into something that’s communicable to everybody and can be shared by everybody. I’m always going to be writing from my perspective. And I think that in the case of the instances of injustice that I’ve mentioned in songs, those feelings would have been shared by any thinking person or feeling person in those circumstances.
So I feel like there’s something to share there [with people who] have not been in those circumstances or haven’t been exposed to those things. The songs are a way of kind of exposing and pointing a finger: there’s something you should look at.
I don’t feel like it’s my job to sell an idea to people, but I do feel that it’s appropriate to try to be persuasive. And in suggesting that people would probably feel the way I do it, if they were confronted with these things.