An Interview with Bruce Cockburn – Mockingbird Magazine by BEN SELF
19 May 2022 – The following appears in the Success & Failure issue of The Mockingbird magazine.
Despite growing up in what he calls “a typical 1950s Canadian middle class household” in suburban Ottawa, Bruce Cockburn has done his share of wandering. He first became a star in the Canadian music scene in the early 1970s, winning the JUNO for Folksinger of the Year three years running. In 1974, he converted to Christianity and went on to release several albums with overtly religious themes. Among the best of these was In the Falling Dark (1976), which includes stirring songs of faith like “Lord of the Starfields” and “Festival of Friends.” While he never quite embraced the label of a “Christian” musician, and has often struggled with the legalism and reactionary politics of much organized religion, the push-and-pull of Christian faith has remained a central thread in Cockburn’s work and life.
Following the dissolution of his first marriage the in the late 70s, Cockburn made a conscious decision to “embrace human society” and moved to Toronto, Canada’s largest city. His musical style soon became heavier and grittier, and his lyrics darker and more politically-charged. He was also deeply impacted by his travels abroad, especially an intense Oxfam-led trip to Central America in 1983. These influences culminated in a “North-South trilogy” of albums that included the bracing hit Stealing Fire (1984), which featured two of his career’s biggest singles: “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
After an exhausting decade that ended in a period of writer’s block, Cockburn reinvented himself again in the 1990s, shifting back to more acoustic, introspective material. His output from the period included deeply meditative albums like The Charity of Night (1997), which captures the world-weary wisdom of middle-age in songs like “Pacing the Cage” and the final track “Strange Waters.” The latter, for example, functions like a grungy, latter-day psalm:
You’ve been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?
Now in his mid-seventies and settled in San Francisco, Cockburn is still asking the deep questions and watching for those “inexorable promptings” of the Spirit, or what he sometimes calls “Big Circumstance.” To the delight of his fans, he continues to tour and release new studio albums, including the soulful Bone On Bone (2017), for which he won his 13th JUNO award, and the rich instrumental album Crowing Ignites (2019). Below he shares about both his musical and his religious journeys, his complicated relationship to success, along with insights on the creative process, and much more.
Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn talks about Christianity and what he’s dropping from his setlist
by Bill Forman May 11, 2022
When it comes to live shows, Bruce Cockburn has no shortage of songs to draw upon. There are the ‘80s hits like “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” the steady stream of albums that have followed in their wake (which have earned him ten Juno Awards in his native Canada), and a few unreleased songs he’ll be debuting on his current tour.
But one hit that Cockburn won’t be playing is “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” a song he wrote after visiting Guatemalan refugee camps back in 1984. It was Cockburn’s best-known hit in America, as well as his most controversial, with an accompanying video that depicted the genocide carried out against Indian villagers by the Guatemalan army, with whom the CIA happened to have close ties.
While MTV aired the music video frequently, radio programmers were less inclined to add the single to their playlists, not least because of its closing line: “If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die.”
The song has long been a staple of Cockburn’s live shows, but that changed back in March when Russia fired more than 30 cruise missiles at a Ukrainian military base.
“I’d been playing it on all the U.S. dates, but stopped during the Canadian shows, because I just felt like it’s gone too far that way,” says Cockburn. “It’s always made me uncomfortable when people cheer for that song. And I don’t mean applause at the end of it because it was a good performance or something. But just when I sing the various lines — like even at the end of the first verse, ‘If I have a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay’ — and there’s invariably somebody — some male — in the audience that hollers out, ‘YEAAHHH!’ And I hate that, because that’s not what it’s about. And if they were thinking about what they were hearing, they would not do that. And I just didn’t want to play into that kind of sentiment in the current situation.”
I think my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life.
— Bruce Cockburn
This isn’t the first time that Cockburn felt the need to give the song a rest. “The same thing happened after 9/11,” he says. “I didn’t sing it for a long time after that, because, you know, people were just looking for motivation to go out and do really bad things. Not that anybody in my immediate audience is likely to go do that, but it just was playing into the wrong part of the heart.”
While Cockburn has written numerous songs about human rights violations and third-world exploitation, he’s always done so with a poetic sensibility, and a depth of emotion, that sets him apart from more didactic political songwriters. He’s also a phenomenal guitarist, which is particularly evident on a pair of instrumental albums that prompted Acoustic Guitar magazine to place him on the same level as Django Reinhardt, Bill Frisell, and Mississippi John Hurt.
“When I was learning to fingerpick, I did my best to emulate Mississippi John Hurt and Mance Lipscomb, and some other guys like that,” says Cockburn. “Brownie McGhee was also an influence. I saw Brownie and Sonny [Terry] play dozens of times at this club in Ottawa that I hung out at on a regular basis. Well, probably it wasn’t dozens of times, but it might have been, because they’d come a couple of times a year. I love that music, and it’s still part of what I do.”
Cockburn was 14 years old when he found the dusty old guitar in his grandmother’s attic that would put him on the path to a life in music. Another pivotal moment, he says, was dropping out of Berklee College of Music.
“I was headed toward a bachelor’s degree in music, which would have entitled me to teach music in high schools, which I had no interest whatsoever in doing,” he says. “I was interested in the content of what was being taught, but not in terms of using it as a teaching career. And then I reached the point where I had this realization, ‘I gotta get out of here, this is not where I’m supposed to be.’ And I listened to that, and I acted on it.”
The other primary influence on Cockburn’s life has been his spiritual beliefs, which find their way into his lyrics without hitting you over the head with them.
“I think my relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, and the one I sort of struggle with the most probably too,” he says. “I wasn’t plugged into a community for a very long time, but through a combination of circumstances in San Francisco, I started going to church again after having not done it for maybe 30 years, 40 years. It was a small, non-denominational church with all these really accepting and loving people. The congregation was racially mixed — you know, people from all sorts of Asian extraction, African-Americans, white Texans, and Samoans — all kinds of different cultures mixed there. And it was accepting of gays and, you know, whatever else — people that feel, as I do, that their relationship with God is of paramount importance.
“When I showed up, they didn’t know who I was. I was just the old guy with an attractive wife, who’d discovered the church before I did, and eventually persuaded me to go. Then they found out I played guitar, and I ended up sitting in with the band and becoming more or less their guitarist. But then COVID, of course, killed that. So new things have happened since, but there was definitely a sense of community.”
All of which is a far cry from the divisive preachings — or, as Cockburn puts it, the vile bullshit — that comes out of the religious right.
“If you start using the Christian faith as a reason to hate people, it’s completely antithetical to what it’s about,” he says. ”And yet, historically, of course, it has been used for that over and over again.
“But, you know, I don’t think anybody who pays attention to what I have to say is gonna confuse me with that other stuff. The challenge, of course, is will they listen to what I have to say, or just write me off? Either way, I’m not gonna stop calling myself a Christian. And if you can’t deal with it, well, that’s your problem.”
17 April 2022 – Acclaimed singer-songwriter and Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn is many things. A skilled guitarist. A natural wordsmith and prolific lyricist. An experimenter of folk, rock, pop and jazz. A spiritually minded creative.
But if you ask the Ottawa-raised performer, he’ll likely tell you he’s merely a vessel: a man with a guitar trying his best to convey the human experience one melody at a time.
“An artist’s job is to distill what you can grasp from life into some communicable form and then share it with people; and life includes all of these different things: sex and politics and violence and love and the divine,” Cockburn said in a recent interview.
“I mean, it’s all in there, so why not sing about it?”
Now marking 50-plus years in the industry with an anniversary tour in Canada and the U.S. — including a stop at Peterborough’s Showplace Performance Centre on Tuesday — Cockburn is reflecting on his decades of work and his celebrated catalogue.
It all started with an old guitar. At the age of 14, Cockburn discovered the stringed instrument in his grandmother’s attic. He was transfixed. Already enamoured with early rock and roll, the avid sci-fi reader and lover of poetry put down his clarinet and picked up the guitar.
“I understood that whatever my life was going to be about, it was going to revolve heavily around the guitar,” Cockburn said. His parents supported his dreams — with a few conditions: take lessons and don’t grow sideburns or wear a leather jacket.
“I didn’t know if I had a knack for it or not. I just knew I wanted to do it and, in taking lessons, I progressed. By the end of high school, there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life except play guitar,” Cockburn recalled.
The Canadian music icon has been making music for most of his life, and there’s no sign of his slowing down. In fact, Cockburn is about to embark on the Ontario leg of his cross Canada and the U.S. tour. This feature interview touches on his music, and activism – both in the climate crisis and anti-war movements.
We are beyond thrilled to welcome one of the most essential artists of the last half-century to the True Tunes Podcast. Bruce Cockburn has written over 350 songs and released 30 studio or live albums since 1970, and four different compilations. 22 of his albums have been certified either Gold or Platinum in Canada. He has received 13 Juno Awards, is in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at a ceremony that included testimonials by Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, and Bono. He holds multiple honorary Doctorate degrees – and continues to write and record. He recently released a 30-song collection of his singles called – simply – Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits 1970 – 2020.
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.
19 December 2021 – A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet Bruce in a long and deep interview. He shared some chapters of his long journey in life and music, from his beginnings at Berkley Music School in Boston to his latest release, Bruce Cockburn Greatest Hits 1970-2020, from the music scene in Ottawa and Toronto to his new life in San Francisco. A profound narrative through reflections, encounters and songs of an artist who continues to stray from familiar territory and elude any kind of definition.
I am so grateful for the time he dedicated to me and for the legacy of his songs. If you have the chance, get some tickets for his upcoming shows… he’s as great as ever!
Many thanks also to Bernie Finkelstein, for making this happen, and to Daniel Keebler for the beautiful cover photo (and many others) and all the support. Thanks to Victor Johnson for a footage of a recent performance of Stolen Land. I hope you’ll enjoy! ~ James Meadow
11 December 2021 – Bruce Cockburn joins us on Episode 611 of Folk Roots Radio for a wonderful in-depth conversation about his new career spanning retrospective, “Greatest Hits 1970-2020”, a double CD set featuring 30 songs he has released as singles. After 34 albums, 13 Junos, thousands of shows across the world and numerous other awards, it’s been quite the career. The good news is that Bruce Cockburn is still going strong, still working on new songs, and still playing shows. In fact, this month he sets out on his 50th Anniversary tour. It’s actually Take 2 – because COVID put paid to the first version last year. There was a lot to talk about which is why we’ve given over the whole of this episode to the interview. So settle down and enjoy Bruce Cockburn… in Conversation on Folk Roots Radio & Jan Hall.
One of Canada’s finest artists, Bruce Cockburn has enjoyed an illustrious career shaped by politics, spirituality, and musical diversity. His remarkable journey has seen him embrace folk, jazz, rock, and worldbeat styles while travelling to such far-flung places as Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique, and Nepal, and writing memorable songs about his ever-expanding world of wonders.
With 34 albums, 13 JUNO wins, two Hall of Fame inductions, Officer of The Order of Canada — and new inductee into Canada’s Walk of Fame this year — all spanning a 50+ year career — it’s no small task to encapsulate Bruce Cockburn’s inimitable imprint when it comes to Canadian music and culture.
Throughout his career, Cockburn has deftly captured the joy, pain, fear, and faith of human experience in song. Whether singing about retreating to the country or going up against chaos, tackling imperialist lies or embracing ecclesiastical truths, he has always expressed a tough yet hopeful stance: to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight. “We can’t settle for things as they are,” he once warned. “If you don’t tackle the problems, they’re going to get worse.”