Something Bigger and of Greater Value: Talking with Bruce Cockburn

By M.D. Dunn
February 14th, 2018

At age seventy-two, after fifty years of recording, Canadian songwriter/guitar wizard Bruce Cockburn has produced some of the best music of his career on September’s Bone on Bone. Over thirty-three albums, Cockburn has offered fearless commentary on political issues, meditations on spirituality, and hundreds of brilliant songs that defy categorization.

He is perhaps best known for two mid-career hits, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” These songs, as different as they are from each other, are representative of Cockburn’s sprawling catalog. “Lions,” with its reggae-influenced rhythms is a showcase for his unique finger-picking style, and “Rocket Launcher” demonstrates a concern for social justice that runs throughout his songs. (Indeed, he brought politics into his art when musicians were encouraged to avoid “causes.” His involvement in the anti-landmine campaign helped bring about the Ottawa Treaty, in which 122 nations agreed to abstain from using the weapons.)

Admired by musicians and activists around the world, he is royalty in his country of birth. Yet, for all the critical acclaim, Cockburn is a humble working musician with a generous sense of humor. Of his legendary status, Bruce Cockburn has said: “You can be a legend, or you can be present. You don’t get to be both.”

In a recent interview, conducted over telephone, Cockburn discusses his music, songwriting, and the benefits of not selling out.

The Rumpus: How are things in California? From the outside, it looks terrifying.

Bruce Cockburn: San Francisco is such an anomaly in every sense: culturally, weather-wise, and in terms of its sociopolitical structure. As a city, it’s kind of all by itself, with the illusion of self-sufficiency. You’re insulated from a lot of the weirdness. One day, we won’t be. There will be that big earthquake, and it’ll be our turn.

Rumpus: Bone On Bone is a beautiful album. It gets more interesting with each listen. After about two plays, I could remember most of the lyrics, which says something about the strength of the writing.

Cockburn: I find it surprising you could remember because I have my difficulty with them. It took me a while to get it. I still struggle with the spoken word parts on “Three Al Purdys.” Of course, they are not my words, they are his. But it’s always touch and go if the lyrics are not just simple rhyming couplets.

Rumpus: That is such a cool song. Having Al Purdy’s poems “Transient” and “In the Beginning Was the Word” with verses from your narrator [a homeless performer of Purdy’s poems offering “three Al Purdys for a twenty-dollar bill”] is remarkable storytelling. Your verses in the middle fit perfectly with the verses from Purdy’s poems. My only complaint is that there are only two Al Purdys in a song called “Three Al Purdy’s.”

Cockburn: Well, I didn’t get the twenty dollars. Nobody was forthcoming with the twenty-dollar bill.

Bruce Cockburn on Fretboard Journal – podcast #185

5 February 2018 – On this week’s podcast, we talk to legendary singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Bruce was featured back in the Fretboard Journal #23 and he offers plenty of updates since then on his career, music and projects during our conversation. We chat about his Linda Manzer-built instruments (including the electric charango that she built for him), his memoir Rumours of Glory and the full-length documentary on his life, Pacing the Cage.

This episode of the Fretboard Journal Podcast is brought to you by our friends at Dying Breed Music, where you can find a bevy of great acoustic guitars from the Golden Era.

Fretboard Journal – Bruce Cockburn podcast #185 by Jason Velinde.

Bruce Cockburn: Just Wait and See –

by Adam Perlmutter –

19 December 2017 –

“I see the way the music unfolds as a kind of architecture,” says Bruce Cockburn. “There’s a sense of visual shape that goes with how a melody moves.”

After Bruce Cockburn released his self-titled debut album in 1970, the prolific Canadian singer-songwriter released at least one album every couple of years, yielding a body of work that would be covered by everyone from Chet Atkins to Michael Hedges to Jerry Garcia. But following his 32nd album, 2011’s Small Source of Comfort, things appeared to suddenly dry out.

Cockburn hadn’t disappeared but had transferred his creative energies from songwriting to penning a memoir. In Rumours of Glory, published in 2014, Cockburn shares his personal and political life—he’s a longtime activist who has spoken out on human-rights violations and ecological devastation, among other things—and offers insights into his most popular songs, like “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (from 1979’s Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws) and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (on 1984’s Stealing Fire).

The period he spent working on the memoir also coincided with the birth of a daughter, and between the demands of fatherhood and writing, Cockburn didn’t feel he had any new songs to offer. In fact, after the book was completed, he wondered if his work as a songwriter was ending, too.

But then Cockburn was asked to contribute a song for the 2015 documentary film Al Purdy Was Here, a portrait of the late Canadian poet, and other new songs soon followed. These tunes are collected on Bone On Bone, which Cockburn recorded with his core band of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig, along with his nephew John Aaron Cockburn on accordion, and jazz trumpeter Ron Miles on flugelhorn.

Cockburn now lives in the United States, and, lyrically speaking, Bone On Bone is a product of life in the Trump era. Musically speaking, it’s a product of Delta blues, modal jazz, and non-Western influences—all distilled in the guitarist’s idiosyncratic fingerstyle approach, with its intricate counterpoint.

Calling from his home in San Francisco, the 72-year-old Cockburn discussed his return to songwriting, shared one of his secret guitar tunings, and explained why his Manzer instruments have been his longtime companions.

“Putting music to a set of lyrics is like scoring a film. You have words that need to be served by the music.”

After completing your memoir Rumours of Glory, you decided you wouldn’t go back to writing songs. Why did you change your mind?

It wasn’t really a firm decision. I just wasn’t sure about returning to songs, because it’d been such a long time since I’d written anything of that sort. The creative energy that went into the book is what would’ve gone into songs if I hadn’t been writing a memoir. Also, I started the book when my second daughter, who’s now 5 years old, was born. Not only was I having to embark on this completely new kind of writing enterprise, but also I was getting no sleep because of the baby. All of that just conspired to make an absence of songs. After the book was put to bed, I thought, it’s been a long time since I wrote songs, maybe I’m supposed to be doing something else now or maybe not. It was just wait and see. Then, during that waiting and seeing, I was hoping song ideas would come. Luckily, they did.

Did you learn anything about your songwriting in the process of working on the book?

I don’t think I learned anything I didn’t already know. It was in some ways instructive to go back over all that old ground, but all along I’ve had a pretty good handle on how my writing process works. It’s been this wait-and-see thing ever since 1970, when I tried being a disciplined writer for a year and that didn’t really work for me. This is in the book—I ended up with about the same amount of usable material at the end of the year of diligently writing every day as I would have if I had just waited for good ideas. Mostly what I was writing was just throwaway stuff. After that, I didn’t bother anymore, I just waited.

The Canadian fingerpicker’s 33rd album features his nephew John Aaron Cockburn on accordion and jazz trumpeter Ron Miles on flugelhorn, and was produced by longtime collaborator Colin Linden.

The opening song on Bone On Bone is called “States I’m In,” and overall the album seems to have kind of an anxious energy. Does the current political situation here in the U.S. factor into the writing?

In an indirect way, it definitely does, as it does for all of us. Who gets through a day without saying the name Trump? You can’t these days. It’s just ridiculous, the degree that his showmanship is able to keep us paying attention to the stupid things he does. In that sense, it’s definitely part of “States I’m In,” it’s part of “Café Society” … any of the things that have exterior references in them, pretty much. The political atmosphere certainly colors the songs.

On “Bone On Bone,” you’ve got an interesting concept going on—a combination of McCoy Tyner-sounding chords and blues fingerpicking moves. How did you arrive at that synthesis?

It’s a good question. I date myself every time I do that, because I’m a product of that period [modal jazz of the 1960s] very much. I went to Berklee for a couple years, studying jazz composition. Coming out of high school, that’s what I thought I was going to be doing with my life. Being surrounded by people who were dedicated to music and by the sound of their music 24/7 for a couple years was really great, and many influences came into my music because of that.

I’d already had a great interest in jazz, and I was a big fan of Coltrane and all that stuff. At the same time, I was listening to Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy and all the older bluesmen, trying to fingerpick like them, which I never really learned how to do. In the process, I ended up mixing a kind of mutant fingerpicking with a lot of the jazz elements that I was learning.

At first, I was self-conscious about the jazz thing. I didn’t want to invite comparison with actual jazz guitars, because I didn’t think my playing warranted that. I’m not that great an improviser and have never been any good at playing on changes and stuff like that. So I didn’t include jazz in my own musical thinking for a long time. It crept in little by little. By the mid ’70s, I had enough confidence to bring in actual jazz musicians to play with me in the studio, and to some extent live. Then it grew from there.

Cockburn favors a tuning he calls EGAD. “It’s like DADGAD,” he explains, “but with the 6th string kept at E instead of lowered a step. I like how easy it is to get that McCoy Tyner movement under your fingers in that tuning.”

The Paul Leslie Hour #12 – Bruce Cockburn – audio interview

3 November 2017 – Bruce Cockburn is a prolific Canadian singer-songwriter and recording artist with more than 300 songs in his catalog. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Dan Fogelberg, the Jerry Garcia Band, Barenaked Ladies, Ani DiFranco, Jimmy Buffett, k.d. lang and many others. This interview discussed many things including his most recent 33rd album “Bone On Bone.”

LISTEN – direct link

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.

Bruce Cockburn reflects on impact of Rocket Launcher

July 7, 2017 –

It has been 33 years since the release of Bruce Cockburn’s darkly infectious hit, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, a stirring commentary on the injustices the Canadian singer-songwriter experienced during a visit to Central America.

Today, the song remains as valid — and potentially misunderstood — as ever.

“A lot of people relate to it currently, in terms of Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, any number of places,” Cockburn said in a recent interview in advance of his July 15 appearance at the Vancouver Island Music Festival in Comox.

“Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be running out of war and pain.”

Cockburn recalls the “scary” experience of playing the song for 2,000 Christians at a music festival in England in the 1980s, and everyone enthusiastically singing: “If I had a rocket launcher … some son of a bitch would die.”

For reasons like that, he is not comfortable with people singing along to the song.

“There’s nothing joyful or celebratory about it. It’s truthful, but that’s not a pleasant truth to me. I don’t like reliving it.”

Cockburn playing free show in Prince George tonight

July 4, 2017

Rock ‘n’ roll poets are few, but Bruce Cockburn is one of those rare legends of both instrument and word.

His songs have been quoted in books and movies and even in other songs (by U2 in God Part II). Cover versions of his songs have catapulted other acts to stardom (Barenaked Ladies). And his name has been evoked in global conversations for humanitarian efforts and social development.

Other stars like Jackson Browne, Jimmy Buffett and Emmylou Harris are outspoken fans. Steve Bell, one of Canada’s most notable Christian performers, did an entire album of Cockburn covers.

Cockburn is, by any estimation, a master of the guitar. He plays a finger-style that was honed on jazz at the Berklee School of Music but the raw material was carved from the blues found around his Ottawa upbringing, then steeped in international concepts he picked up along the way. When Cockburn travels, he always brings a little something home.

He also has a healthy appetite for poetry, from which his abundant lyrics emerge.

He’s written some lightning bolts, the most famous of which is “gotta kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight” found tucked in the folds of his classic hit Lovers In A Dangerous Time.

It is hardly alone. Sizzling metaphors and turns of phrase engorge the sails of his music career.

He told The Citizen that he studies master poets and reads it for fun as well, but he knows his place on that bookshelf.

“In a way, writing songs gives you an out. You can get away with – and sometimes you’re obliged to get away with – things that wouldn’t really stand up on the page very well, because they have to go with the music,” he said.

“I can say yeah, I’m a pretty good guitar player for a songwriter, or I’m a pretty good songwriter for a guitar player. It’s not really poetry, what I do, but it’s so much like it I hold myself to that standard.”

A Conversation With .. Bruce Cockburn – FYI Music News

Jun 30, 2017 – by Bill King

We lived in what was stamped a “hippie haven” in the early seventies – Gothic Avenue, which borders Quebec Avenue – in High Park, Toronto. The brown rice/alternative lifestyle sanctuary was a haven for writers, musicians – in fact the late Billy Bryans lived only a few steps away and was playing in a band called Horn. Music was big fun and discovery. You could start in the early morning after a hit of a hash/tobacco joint and walk in on neighbours. Music played day and night, in fact it was all about checking out the person next door’s album collection.

The progressives blasted Emerson, Lake and Palmer – the countrified – Pure Prairie League – and the folkies loved their Tea for the Tillerman/Cat Stevens and a newcomer rising on the Canadian scene, Bruce Cockburn.

Even if you didn’t pay much attention you learned who the artists were were through peripheral listening. I had Bruce’s voice memorized as well as his fluent guitar playing. Cockburn stuck with you like he belonged in your life. Right time, right place!

The debut – Bruce Cockburn, produced by Eugene Martynec, came with a single that seemed to follow Canadians everywhere – Going to the Country. I know the inhabitants of Gothic Avenue were served a new side each year we survived the developers wrecking ball – High Winds, White SkySunwheel Dance, Night Vision, Joy Will Find a Way and In the Falling Dark.

Come September, Cockburn is inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (CSHF)and releases his thirty-third recording, Bone to Bone. I connected with Bruce from his San Francisco home and collected his thoughts on a number of issues, episodes and events.

You have a couple of big events in September – induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and your 33rd recording – Bone to Bone. Your thoughts?

Any particular order? The exciting thing for me of course is the album – it’s been awhile since I’ve had an album out. I’m happy with the songs and how it came out. I’m anxious to get it out and get people to hear it. The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame thing is nice. There’s a lot of ‘halls of fame’ in the world. In one way, it’s delightful to be recognized by the scene – people who enjoy what I do and people who are close enough to it to appreciate what I do. That means a lot. I can also remember thinking, getting inducted into some kind of hall of fame means you should already be dead or about to be. I don’t feel like that now. It feels pretty good. I also remember being somewhere and there was the towing and removal hall of fame – every industry has one. This is a national one and a big deal – it’s nice and I’m very appreciative.

It’s about songwriting too – something very special.

It’s nice to be recognized by the people who understand what you do.

You have a healthy attitude about your career. It’s spanned decades and there is no reason to retire – just keep making music..

Yes – as long as I can keep doing it, that’s what I want to do. I don’t take it for granted or assume my feelings would ever change – it could, but hasn’t so far. I like what I do and I like performing the songs I write for people. It’s the way they get to hear them best and the way I get to share them in the presence of actual human feedback. As long as I’m physically able to do it, I expect I will.

Do you still enjoy your time on stage?

I’ve always been terrified on stage and that hasn’t really changed that much. Terrified would be overstating now but back in the beginning it was terrifying, now it’s just kind of stressful. When you perform your songs to actual human beings in a live situation, that’s where the song really lives and becomes meaningful. If nothing else, the experience of being there focused on the same thing with a whole bunch of people is a pleasant sensation. Then afterwards, it feels good for a few minutes and then you start thinking about all of the things you did wrong and then it takes a day or two before you start feeling good about it again. Along with the precarious situation is the idea of making a living without having a boss. Being able to travel – some people would find it as having an adventurous lifestyle. It’s a great thing – a gift and not everybody gets to do it.

The Long-Lost ’06 Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” Interview (with Audio)

by Cathleen Falsani
Updated on May 26, 2016. Original post published in March 2011.

In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)

As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.

Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006

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