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January 1, 2022
Monitor Magazine

Choices of Rhetoric and Choices of Action
by Róisín West

An interview with Bruce Cockburn about art and activism and a lifetime of kicking at the darkness.


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.

M: In Rumours of Glory, you suggest that the song that will forever be most associated with you is “If I had a Rocket Launcher.” Why do you think it is such a memorable piece from a career that spans 50 years and 34 albums?

BC: When I say that, it's just based on the fact that that's what people ask for all the time and the one that people who don't really pay much attention to what I do associate with. So I mean, as opposed to Wondering Where the Lions Are, which was a bigger hit by quite a bit, actually back in its day, but very few people, especially people that don't have little kids know it.

But I hear far more, oh yeah, Bruce Cockburn, you're the guy who wrote the rocket launcher song, you know, that kind of thing.

So that's why I say that. Not because I think it's more memorable than others. But I think what people have responded to in it is that sense of outrage or the expression of rage that everybody feels. We all carry it with us. And so that gets a rise out of people, even if they've never paid any attention to what someone's actually talking about... I think that did expose the raw, kind of pain and anger. That's in that song. I think people have responded to that.

M: Virginia Woolf is famously quoted as saying “as a woman I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” When I listen to your body of work, I feel like this quote could be repurposed to read that, for you, as a musician “the whole world is your country” as you both draw on global musical traditions and demonstrate global solidarity in your lyrics and your politics. What drew you to push beyond traditional boundaries, and how do you hold on to that in a time when fear of the other seems to be reaching an all time high?

BC: Well, I don't find I have to expend effort to be either interested or to hold onto these things. I just want to know what's going on over a wide area. I'm interested in a lot of different things. And I read about those things, but I've also been lucky enough to be able to travel the way I have.

What impelled me to go to Central America in the first place was curiosity. I didn't go there looking for a cause to attach myself to. My brother Don was involved with solidarity work back then in El Salvador and he kept feeding me Central American things to read and what I read about the Nicaraguan revolution just made me want to go there and see what it looked like up close.

[Growing up], it felt like there was something really momentous about the success of the Cuban revolution and the overthrow of Batista and the Nicaraguan revolution felt momentous in the same way. Except the Nicaraguan revolution seemed to be free from what I was reading at the time of the abuses that the Cuban revolution carried with it. I forget which Sandinista I spoke to about this—it might have been Ortega himself—he said, each revolution, we learn from the one before. So the Russian revolution was different from the French revolution, and the Cuban revolution was different from the ones before, and the Nicaraguan revolution. You know, they're trying not to make the mistakes that they can see that have been previously made in circumstances like that. So there was a feeling that, had it been allowed to succeed, we'd be looking at a pretty different world, right?

Of course, it wasn’t allowed to. And Ortega has not carried on in the way that it looked like he was starting out.

M: The reason I wanted to talk to you for this issue of the Monitor was because of your performance at the Uptown Theatre in Calgary during the G8 demonstrations in 2002. I was listening to an episode of Nora Loreto and Sandy Hudson’s podcast recently and Nora was trying to explain to a listener who had submitted a question how different it was to protest right after 9/11. Because if you don't know, you don't know. And you performed at the solidarity concert in Calgary on that Wednesday night with Chris Brown and the Brothers Creeggan.

I was wondering if you could take us back to that concert, if you have any particular memories of how it felt to be in Calgary at that time, or how it felt to be a part of solidarity movements at that time.

BC: What I remember was a kind of heady atmosphere of adventure... that we were all out there making a statement, but there was this sinister side of it, that the event itself was moved out into the wilderness and heavily guarded. And there were all kinds of rumours. I don't know if they were true or not. The military guarding the conference had orders to shoot on site and that sort of thing. Nobody had put that to the test as far as I know, but they made it very hard for anyone protesting to be seen by any of the heads of state or their delegations that were present.

Those people were aware of what was going on of course, because they were watching the news as much as anybody else, I'm sure. But I thought that was a dark move to have made. It made certain kinds of practical sense from the government perspective. But it seemed to fly in the face of the rights we have to be heard.

I think in Canada—and this may be ignorance talking because I don't spend very much time in Canada these days—it seems to me, we were insulated to some extent from the worst effects of the anti-terror attitude that exists in the world. I think that you get a worse version of it in England and the U.S. and I'm sure in some other countries it's far worse, but it's still there.

It showed up when we were involved in the landmine issue. There was a campaign to ban landmines, and at the same time, there was a confrontation going on in BC, between the RCMP and [the Ts'peten Defenders at Gustafsen Lake]. They were in a confrontation without very much actual violence, but at one point the RCMP employed what they called an in-ground explosive device.

So basically they mined that protest camp’s access road and they're lucky they didn't kill anybody. They blew the real wheels off somebody’s truck.

It's a strange simile to use maybe, but one time I was being taken on a boat ride in a rainforest area of Australia. There were crocodiles, and we didn't see any, but at one point in this little tiny creek that we were in, a ripple went across the surface of the water in front of us. That was a crocodile under the water. It was big enough that exerting itself underwater, you could see the ripple on the surface, this kind of V-shaped ripple as if there was a boat there.

And to me, incidents like that landmine episode in BC are that ripple. The reason that we don't see as much of the worst effects of any terrorist policy in Canada is that we're lucky. And it doesn't come up very often. If it was more present in its negative effects if there was such a thing as terrorism that was more present in Canada we would see a lot more repression.

We don't get challenged a lot on things. It's interesting that a guy who shoots up a mosque in Quebec can be called a terrorist. But that kind of terrorism is handled very differently... Islamic terrorists are not [treated] the same as homegrown, white honky terrorists because only one side gets extrapolated.

M: Are there other solidarity efforts in Canada and the U.S. that you have supported, and stand out in your memory, over the past twenty years?

BC: I think one of the most important things that I felt drawn into was the issues faced by Indigenous People in North America. I think that, and which, which are common, like across the whole continent.

I confess I'm kind of in the same boat, as I think a lot of white middle-class people are with these things, because I'm not in it every day. And because my focus has been, in the last decade, on my family.

It's always impressed me and it still does that the Indigenous groups that end up getting a voice are so restrained in their use of that voice, even now. I find that impressive and moving. And, I wonder how long we can expect that to last. As things get more kind of down to the wire, environmentally and socially, and this kind of very confrontational climate that we're all in, and there again, I mean, there's anti-terror mentality in action against Indigenous protest groups.

I mean, it's obscene, actually. I could say the RCMP, but I don't think it's just the RCMP in it. But the way that authority responds to even the slightest suggestion of things being disrupted is so heavy handed and so conspicuously racist it's very disturbing and it seems to me that we ought to be able to fix that easily, but we haven't and we don't.

M: Do you think that the role of artists and musicians in resistance movements has changed in the age of anti-terrorism?

BC: I think you have to assess who the artists think that their audiences are. Most of the time, when people take those political stances, they're playing to an audience. If you don't think anybody's listening to you, or if you think that you're going to drive away the audience you have, by making a particular statement, you're going to think pretty hard about that statement. The Van Morrisons and the Eric Claptons taking this strong anti-vaxxer stance, I mean, I have no reason to think they're not sincere in doing that, why would they not be? But I think they’re also interested in that audience and maybe only because they feel that's who they're communicating with.

To me, I don't think the role has changed that much. I think that it's everybody's job in society to take a stand on issues, especially on issues that affect everybody. We're all supposed to be paying attention. We're all supposed to take responsibility for what happens. An artist's position in things is such that you can make a point publicly and be heard. And therefore you should.

That's how I see it. And I don't think that's changed. I think the tolerance for outspokenness with respect to issues is a kind of whimsical thing, almost. It's kind of an unpredictable element because when a point of view is seen to be widely popular, then the media will be a willing participant in conveying that point of view from the artist to the public. When it's not, they won't.

So, that's kind of what it comes down to. I don't think it's about the artists. I think that when you don't hear these kinds of things—there was a period, a decade ago, where you didn't hear very much protesting coming from the artistic community. It's not because the artists weren't doing it, it's because the media weren't talking about it or weren’t covering it.

Fashions come and go, too. There are times that it's just not so fashionable for a young artist, for instance, to be thinking about those things. The eighties were like that where, oh, I don't want to talk about issues, you know, just want the money. And that was the prevailing attitude. But that was a reaction to there having been a degree of fashionable acceptance of protest before that. So it looks like the pendulum just keeps swinging back and forth.

I think the job of us human beings is to maintain our commitment to whatever extent we can to as many good things as we can, regardless of where the pendulum is.

M: What roles can artists and musicians play in undoing and repairing the harm that two decades of anti-terrorism legislation has brought to communities at home and abroad?

BC: I don't know, in the big picture, how we get out of it. I think somebody has to be, so somehow someone has to develop a voice and have it be heard. And I don't know how that's going to happen.

You look at someone like Greta Thunberg. We’re hearing her voice. I wonder, why are we hearing her voice, and not the voices of others who might be saying the same thing? Is it because she's the most effective of all the possibilities, or is it because it's good to have a mascot out there saying the things that we know should be said, but [to whom] we don't really have to pay that much attention? I'm a little afraid it’s the latter. But at the same time, it’s great that she's there, and that we’re at least hearing her voice. But I don't know how we get it.

I think on a personal level, the answer lies in trying to be as discerning as possible and paying attention to the impact of our own choices on others. So the choices of rhetoric and choices of action: it comes down to that.

When I go out the door in the morning, I want everybody I meet to have a good day and I do whatever I can to facilitate that. Mostly, what it means to me is that I'm polite to people and respectful as much as possible.

We're now comfortable insulting each other and, and, you know, behaving like a bunch of angry teenage boys, thoughtless and rude and lacking in judgment. I mean, I think that the whole society is being encouraged to behave that way. And so whatever we can do on a personal level to offset that is going to be a good thing.

And that's a moment by moment thing, really. We can have all the ideas we want about the big picture and we need some. We have to work on the big issues. But, it really comes down to how you treat the people you meet.


Bruce Cockburn was recently inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. He is currently on his "Second Attempt" 50th Anniversary Tour across the United States and Canada.
 

Artwork by Katie Sheedy





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