The way food is grown and distributed today means exploitation, displacement and hunger for nearly 1 billion family farmers.
Longtime SeedChange (formerly USC Canada) champion, Bruce Cockburn wants that to change. Listen to his message below and let’s remember who grows our food. Let’s work toward justice for small-scale farmers.
Besides being a legendary Canadian musician, Bruce Cockburn has been a donor and champion of our work for nearly 50 years. He became the voice of our public service announcements when SeedChange founder, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, retired. He also travelled to our programs in Nepal and Mali, witnessing first-hand the impact of donors’ support.
Canadian singer-songwriter and instrumentalist Bruce Cockburn has given us a lifetime of deep songs and engaging performances. His newest effort is an all-instrumental album called Crowing Ignites. The odd phrase is a literal translation of the Latin expression that is on the Cockburn family coat of arms.
That anchor in tradition and Cockburn’s identity drives the new music, which he says invites participation. As a songwriter who skips the words on this go-around, the listener is challenged to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.
In Studio A, Cockburn performed the flamenco-tinged “Angels In The Half Light,” and he also sang “States I’m In,” from the 2017 release, Bone On Bone.
As he also told me in our conversation, life and his music is a journey that finds it’s own path. Fifty years after his debut album, Cockburn recalls his own 50th birthday, and how life magically got easier and more rewarding because so much of the heavy lifting was already done.
[Recorded: 7/18/19; Engineer: Sam Lazarev; Producer: Sarah Wardrop
Bruce Cockburn in Studio A (photo by Nora Doyle/WFUV)
Musician Bruce Cockburn has been a singer and songwriter of poetic lyrics and bon mots for more than five decades.
There are times when being a part of history, albeit a tumultuously famous (some might even say infamous) one, becomes a badge of honour, the tipping point from which many other seismic life events are launched. Toronto’s Yorkville scene in the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s was such a place. Although today’s well-heeled visitors to the area might not be able to fathom it, Yorkville in those earlier days was comparable, on a smaller scale, to New York’s bumping Greenwich Village. The hub of a creative, nonconformist, bohemian, longhaired subculture, Yorkville’s hippie scene was entrenched in a tie-dye plethora of folk, rock and jazz music, suede and leather-fringed jackets, a surfeit of free love and, oh yes, a lot of marijuana smoking, which five decades later would become legal — a fact that no one would have imagined at the time.
One of Yorkville’s greatest contributions to music aficionados was the exceptional quality of musicians who got their start in the 40-plus coffee houses and bars that dotted the streets of the Yorkville scene, which encompassed Hazelton Avenue, Cumberland Street, Avenue Road and Bay Street. The famed Penny Farthing coffee house attracted big-name talent such as James Taylor, and Simon & Garfunkel. And the renowned Riverboat Coffee House, where stars such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young played, is also where Ottawa native Bruce Cockburn — folk singer, songwriter, author and multiple Juno awardee — often played. On the big stage, the singer shared a concert bill with a who’s-who of musical proficiency, including The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. With his ever-present round-rimmed spectacles, and his long, dark hair curling out from underneath a fedora trimmed with leather strips, Cockburn’s gentle, commanding voice and poetic lyrics captivated audiences. They knew all the words to his wildly popular, songs-for-the-decades hits, such as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1979), “Rumours of Glory” (1980), “The Trouble with Normal” (1983), “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984), “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (1984) and “Call It Democracy” (1986), to name just a few.
A man whose words shone like beacons in his lyrics, Cockburn’s ability to interact with others throughout his younger years was one that was fraught with angst and rage. “I was wrapped up in myself — not in a narcissistic way, but in terms of mistrust of the world. I was not open to other people,” Cockburn says. “A lot of my adult life has been a big learning curve in terms of empathizing and loving people. In the process of navigating through life, I have learned things — sometimes quickly, and sometimes as an uneven trickle. Every time there has been a discovery, there has likely been a song. We all have a lot in common throughout our lives, including scars. None of us gets out of our childhood/youth without some damage. The scars unite us; if we find those scars in a person and are open to the energy they offer from that place, then it is a binding agent. We are all in this together.”
After spending some time in Paris performing as a street musician, Cockburn attended Boston’s esteemed Berklee College of Music, where he spent a few semesters before quitting. “I was learning things at Berklee, but I had this strong feeling, a prompting that I needed to be elsewhere, do something else, which I’m still doing. Whatever predisposed me to listen to those promptings, it all worked out pretty well.”
Ironically, many decades later, Cockburn was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee. (One of many he has been awarded.) “I didn’t have to do the work and I got my degree,” he laughs. Cockburn’s awards are many: he is an inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2001); recipient of the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award (2014); an inductee into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2017); and the 2017 recipient of the Folk Alliance International People’s Voice Award. All of these awards are certainly balms that boosted the confidence of Cockburn, who, throughout his 20s and 30s, felt like a stranger in a strange land. “It certainly softens the effect of feeling like a loner,” he says. “But the feeling of affection and embrace that comes from the audience is really what fills me.”
For an extensive part of his career, Cockburn was known as much for his sense of rage as he was for his mastery of music. He credits acquiring a sense of perspective on that rage as a part of growing up. “A lot of what I have written comes from that place [of rage],” he says. “When I wrote ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher,’ I didn’t feel like I was venting. I know the song was the cause of head scratching for some people, but for me it was an expression of pain and outrage at what I felt — what I empathized with — which was the plight of the Guatemalan refugees. I was trying to paint an emotional picture of what I felt — it came from a deep place. How it was perceived by people who weren’t familiar with the situation was really an expression of their rage. The radio success of that song was a big surprise to me.”
“Every Time I Hear That Music I Am Transported To Some Windswept Headland, Sipping Whisky Out Of A Seashell”
Like many of his activist peers in the ’70s and ’80s, Cockburn used his music as a commentary on political events that were concerning to him. He does not consider himself an activist per se (he considers himself more in the domain of reactivism than activism), but his political voice and opinions have definitely resonated in an impactful way on a wide range of issues over the years, including native rights — particularly the Haida peoples’ struggles around land claims in British Columbia — as well as human rights atrocities in third-world countries, third-world debt and the ecological decline of the environment. His politicking has taken him to Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal, to name a few. And while some of his politically active counterparts, such as Buffy Sainte-Marie, felt that their careers were impacted by their activism (Sainte-Marie discovered that the FBI had a file on her in the 1980s), Cockburn feels his outspokenness did not affect him. “I was inducted into the Order of Canada (1983), and then promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada (2003), so I don’t think that suggests any kind of repression,” he says. “I have allowed my mouthing off to be used for people who are truly activists, and I feel good about being allowed to be used that way, if the cause is good.”
The most active cause Cockburn is currently involved in is the raising of his daughter, Iona, who is seven. “I have limited time to be in her life and I want to make the most of it,” the singer says. Cockburn, 74, married his current wife, Mary Josephine (M.J.), an attorney, in 2014. “A lot of the kids think I am Iona’s grandfather,” Cockburn says, with not a twinge of awkwardness in his voice. A proud father, Cockburn describes Iona, who is bilingual, as sharp, independent and a constant source of amazing stuff. “She learns songs really fast and knows all of the lyrics to my songs; her favourite is ‘Call It Democracy,’ although I am not sure why.”
Jenny, now 43, is Cockburn’s daughter with his first wife, Kitty Macaulay. “When I was a parent in my 30s, I don’t think I was good at it. I was self-involved and focused on my art. But it all came out OK. Jenny has her PhD and teaches at a college in Montreal.”
Crowing Ignites, which is to be released in September, is Cockburn’s newest album. It was produced by Cockburn’s long-time friend and collaborator, guitarist and songwriter Colin Linden, whom the singer has known since he was 14. A fully instrumental album, Crowing Ignites (a literal translation of the Latin motto Accendit Cantu) embraces Cockburn’s Scottish heritage, one with which he feels a deep kinship. “As a Scottish Canadian, I feel like I am part of a continuous line, one that runs through from earlier times, and will hopefully continue. Somewhere, I am a little bead on that chain,” Cockburn says.
This newest album of Cockburn’s embodies a journey of musical experiences, including Tibetan cymbals, chimes and singing bowls — and, of course, the classical bagpipe music of Scotland, featuring a style of bagpipe musical effects called pibroch. “Every time I hear that music I am transported to some windswept headland, sipping whisky out of a seashell,” Cockburn says with a smile. “The effect is hypnotic and meditative — I get a rush when I hear it.”
Cockburn’s philosophy on life centres on taking what understandings and glimpses of life he experiences and sharing them through his songs. “I am the person I am because of all the stuff that I have been exposed to, which has resulted from the choices I have made, and the choices that I have been handed. I have always tried to be available to the next thing,” he says.
The anger and sense of rage that have been a lifelong and intrinsic part of Cockburn’s personality — the undercurrent that drove many of his lyrics, as well as his outspoken championship of many causes — seem to have been pinpricked, dissipating the pent-up helium of wrath. In its stead, there is an increased aura of thoughtful insight, a wry sense of humour and a relaxed sense of openness. In fact, I noticed in Cockburn a significant change from the 2016 interview I did with him (albeit over the phone). He feels warmer, more loquacious and willing to share an easy laugh.
“Behind the pain-fear etched on the faces, something is shining, like gold but better.” Certainly, these celebrated lyrics to “Rumours of Glory,” which Cockburn penned and sang with such elegance in 1980, seem to have come full circle, becoming a prescient way of life for the singer — whom author Nicholas Jennings called “a troubadour for the common man.” But says Cockburn with a laugh: “I really don’t know what that means.”
In 1984, Bruce Cockburn scored an unlikely pop hit with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which describes the Canadian singer-songwriter’s fantasies of violent retribution following a visit to a Guatemalan refugee camp that was regularly shelled by government helicopters. Cockburn originally recorded the song in a rock-band setting, flush with electric guitars and synths, but when he stopped by AG’s studios to film a private lesson last spring (see “Band in a Box” on page 20 of the print/digital edition), he stripped the song down to just guitar and voice.
The transcription on the following pages captures that performance note for note. At a glance, the notation might appear dense and complex, but you can make things easier on yourself if you break the song down and approach it systematically. You could play the first ten bars of the intro exactly as written, but it would be equally effective to improvise the natural harmonics. What’s most important here is the continuous eighth-note stream of open E notes—play them as firmly and evenly as possible, using palm muting if you’d like.
The heart of the song appears in bars 11–14. Riff A is the harmonic sequence for the subsequent verses and guitar solo, so be sure to spend plenty of time learning to play it with precision. In bars 11 and 13, maintain a barre across strings 3–5 at the seventh fret; grab the ninth-fret B and E with your third and fourth finger, respectively, or barre them both with either of those fingers. For the C6/9 chord in measures 12 and 14, keep your second finger stationed on the eighth-fret C and your first finger barred at the seventh fret, while stopping the tenth-fret G with your fourth finger.
In his off-the-cuff-feeling solo, starting at bar 45, Cockburn continues the eighth-note bass action established in the intro, above which he adds lines based mostly on 16th notes. Key to playing an effective solo here isn’t necessarily playing exactly what’s on the printed page but understanding how it works. The solo might sound intricate, but Cockburn is simply playing notes from the E natural minor scale (E F# G A B C D) entirely in seventh position—notes within easy reach of the chord shapes in the main riff. (For the lowdown on soloing with chord shapes, see Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers’ Weekly Workouts in the June 2017 and March 2018 issues of AG.) Be sure to put in the time studying this approach, as it will pay dividends for you in solo-guitar settings in general.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the September/October 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 60.
The National Music Centre in Calgary has been the physical home of three Canadian Music Halls of Fame—the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame Collection—since opening in 2016. Members of all three Halls of Fame have visited their plaques, such as Sarah McLachlan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Cochrane, Burton Cummings, Bob Ezrin, Randy Bachman and The Tragically Hip, to name a few.
On Saturday September 23, 2017 Bruce Cockburn along with Neil Young, the group Beau Dommage, and Stéphane Venne were inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Scroll to the end for Bruce’s acceptance speech in his own hand.
14 January 2018 – This is the short film biography that was shown on the big screens during the celebration.
Published to YouTube by: Matt Zimbel – What an honour to tell this man’s story. Writer / Producer MZ, Editor Hugh John Murray, Voice Over, Olaf Gundel.
(The following is from Billboard article by Karen Bliss)
The impact of four life-changing Canadian songwriters — Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, the group Beau Dommage, and Stéphane Venne — was the common thread at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF) induction ceremony over the weekend at Toronto’s Massey Hall, where professional musicians of all ages — and one former astronaut — expressed their respect and gratitude for their music.
This was the first induction ceremony in six years. The CSHF was created by music publisher Frank Davies in 1998; the inaugural gala was held in 2003 with six more to follow. The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers (SOCAN) purchased it in December 2011 and has been working to update the brand and educate the public about its inductees and mandate.
The historic Massey Hall, which opened in 1894, was the perfect setting for such esteemed honorees. Both Young and Cockburn have recorded live albums there and the late Jonathan Demme’s final doc on the folk-rocker, 2011’s Neil Young Journeys, culminates in two performances at Massey. It’s a venue many Toronto artists dream of headlining — our Carnegie Hall.
The four-hour show, which ran an hour over schedule, was a bilingual affair, giving equal time to the two Quebecois legends, even if, truth be told, many of the Anglophones in the audience found their own grade-school French studies proved absolutely useless. Each artist was feted with covers of their songs and stories about their influence, plus the customary tribute video.
To view above speech in standard pdf viewer click here.
Here’s the text version:
Thank you, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Thank you SOCAN.
I spend so much time playing and singing my own songs — it’s very interesting, very moving, to hear them performed by others! And on an occasion like this — to be so honored in the company of these wonderful artists.
I’ve been at my craft for a long time — long enough that the beginning seems like yesterday.
Under the influence of those who were a bit quicker on the draw than me, Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie among others, I was seduced away from the pursuit of an education in jazz composition by songs…creations that combined music with something like poetry.
Though I didn’t understand it at the time, I came to realize that art, including the art of songwriting, is about sharing the human experience. Music is a spiritual bonding agent, a means of sharing deep feelings of all times. When you add words, the sharing becomes pointed — specific. A song can offer inspiration, distraction, solace, solidarity – a sense that we are not alone in our feelings. The human ability to create songs is precious and vital. We have always done it and I think we always will — the artifice of machines (and ISIS) not withstanding.
I’m immensely grateful to have been allowed to live a life centered around songwriting. And immensely grateful for the attention my efforts have received. To be able to do this and make a living at it is truly a great gift.
Re “Making a living at it,” I want to offer a word of thanks to Bernie Finkelstein, my friend and long-time manager, from whose asute ears and talent for strategizing I have benefited greatly. So too, all the excellent producers and musicians I have worked with, some of whom are here tonight, who have helped give my raw material the power to appeal to the world at large.
In a world increasingly defined by its fakery, we’ve together pulled off the greatest trick ever — we spread truth.