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May 25, 2022
Toronto Globe & Mail
Obituary


Designer Michael Wrycraft created artful album covers and concert posters
by Brad Wheeler

michael-wrycraft-by neale-eckstein

Michael Wrycraft, a Juno-winning graphic designer who created thousands of concert posters and album covers, was a man devoted to music and musicians. He was a collegial presence at the backstages of Canadian folk festivals from coast to coast and embraced life and people with bear-hugging enthusiasm.

A larger-than-life figure with both a combustible temper and a fun-loving demeanour, he was an unsinkable, sparkle-eyed Falstaff who would not even allow a double-leg amputation to slow him down.

“I had an extreme pedicure,” he told friends, five years ago.

Mr. Wrycraft died on May 16 of cardiac arrest at Toronto Western Hospital. He was 65.

He was born in Toronto, Oct. 15, 1956, to sales and marketing professional Norman Wrycraft and homemaker Maureen (née Martin) Wrycraft. By the time he was eight, he had already decided on a career as a commercial artist after watching the American fantasy sitcom Bewitched. The magic that enchanted him came not from Elizabeth Montgomery’s nose-twitching witch character but from her husband, the buttoned-down advertising man.

“The idea of having a job where you get to create things from scratch for people and they pay you really turned my crank,” he told CKAU radio’s Peter North.

At Westwood Secondary School (now Lincoln M. Alexander Secondary School), his hip art teacher allowed students to play vinyl. To be an album designer was a dream job for Mr. Wrycraft, who often brought in Bruce Cockburn records for the class. He would later create 11 album designs for Mr. Cockburn, including 1999′s Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, which made its way into a Museum of Modern Art exhibit that celebrated the Helvetica typeface.

“I am very much saddened by Michael’s passing, though I expect he would be cracking some wry joke about it if he could,” Mr. Cockburn told The Globe and Mail. “He was the funniest person I’ve ever known, but also sensitive and kind, and a pleasure to work with.”

On the other hand, Mr. Wrycraft was strong-willed and profoundly committed to his artistic inspirations. “You could move him off his position, but, man, you really had to invest in it,” said singer-songwriter James Keelaghan, who hired the opinionated graphic designer for seven of his albums. “It was easy enough to let his curmudgeoness just roll off your back, though.”

Though Mr. Wrycraft studied at Ontario College of Art & Design University and Sheridan College, wanderlust got in the way of a diploma. He had already begun performing stand-up comedy in Toronto when he took off to Los Angeles to pursue an entertainment career in 1982.

In California he found work with an architectural ceiling firm while plugging away at comedy. Competing in a contest at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in the mid-1980s, he won a free automobile rental. He drove north to San Francisco – and stayed there for three years.

As the manager of the Lusty Lady Theatre, he spent the 1989 San Francisco Bay earthquake in the basement with naked strippers. He told the Roots Music Canada website that he was making $1,600 a week at the time, but that he blew his paycheques on music.

“I basically spent and wasted all of that money,” he said. “I could’ve bought a house.”

By the early 1990s, at the insistence of U.S. immigration officials, Mr. Wrycraft had returned to Toronto. Through an affiliation with fiddler Oliver Schroer he was introduced into the Canadian folk music scene. He became one the most loquacious and outsized personalities within the close-knit community, whether designing CD packages or promoting and emceeing a continuing series of concerts at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room club.

The shows he presented were tributes to songwriters, including his favourite, Tom Waits. Mr. Wrycraft would curate thematic bills of unknown, up-and-coming and well-established musicians to perform the songs of whichever artist was being celebrated that night.

“Sometimes Michael’s shows were train wrecks,” said music publicist Richard Flohil,” and sometimes they were inspired brilliance.”

Mr. Wrycraft won the Juno Award for best album design in 2000 for his work as creative director for Andy Stochansky’s Radio Fusebox. He received five additional nominations over the years for other album designs.

He created CD packages for albums by Murray McLauchlan, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Lynne Hanson, Watermelon Slim, Ron Hynes, Lori Yates and many others. He was known for thoughtful immersions into the music and lyrics that resulted in meaningful design work.

“If something touched him, it touched him to the core,” Mr. Keelaghan said. “And nothing inspired him more than to be around people who wrote lyrics honestly or created music from their soul, rather than being part of some music business machine.”

For his 2009 album House of Cards, Mr. Keelaghan told Mr. Wrycraft he envisioned a cover involving a photo of a typical house made of playing cards, perhaps falling apart. Mr. Wrycraft listened to the idea, closed his laptop and said he’d talk to the musician soon. Two weeks later he came back with a concept that was nothing like what his client had in mind. The design, art unto itself, dazzled Mr. Keelaghan.

“I seem to have a sixth sense for creating imagery for people that they wouldn’t have expected but somehow touches them very deeply,” Mr. Wrycraft once explained.

A fan of live music as much as recorded music, Mr. Wrycraft took off on a road trip one weekend with Mr. Flohil and musician Paul Reddick to Woodstock, N.Y., where the former Band singer-drummer Levon Helm held monthly Midnight Ramble hootenannies.

Preparing for the journey, Mr. Wrycraft hid three Saran-wrapped marijuana cigarettes within himself in a private spot where no border guard would care to look. After successfully clearing the border, he then needed to clear the weed.

The trio stopped at a Bob Evans restaurant, where Mr. Wrycraft immediately headed to the restroom to delicately retrieve the drugs. “All of a sudden, everybody in the restaurant is hearing Michael yell from the john,” Mr. Flohil said.

What had happened was that after Mr. Wrycraft had expelled the dope, he naturally stood up. But it was an automatic-flush toilet – the stash was instantly gone in a swirl of water.

“There was a deep sadness to his howl that I’d never experienced before nor since,” Mr. Reddick recalled.

If Mr. Wrycraft could howl with the worst of them, he could laugh with the best. He was a burly, baritone-voiced raconteur who easily sucked people into his orbit with outlandish stories and a buoyant vibe. “He was an entertainer, and entertainers want to make people happy,” said Heather Kitching, a radio freelancer and folk-scene veteran.

In 2017, Mr. Wyrcraft lost his legs to osteomyelitis. Though he would require a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he refused to let the setback defeat him. “I’m not shaking my fists at the world,” he told The Globe. “None of this affects the best part of me – my humour, my optimism.”

But it did affect his ability to host his singer-songwriter tributes at Hugh’s Room. The tiered venue – “a festival of staircases,” he quipped – was not wheelchair-friendly.

Though the club wasn’t accessible, Mr. Wrycraft still was. In recent years he held court on a corner just outside Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods Park, sitting and reading in his wheelchair while talking to friends and passersby. So common was his presence there that he showed up on a Google Street View image of the corner.

Suffering from congestive heart failure, Mr. Wrycraft spent his last days in hospital. On Facebook, he signed off in his typical untroubled way:

Life is crazy
But it is also beautiful
I have had a good run

Mr. Wrycraft leaves three younger siblings, Kim, Kevin and Karen Wrycraft.


May 19, 2022
The Mockingbird
From the Success or Failure issue

“Big Circumstance” Has Brought Us Here - An Interview with Bruce Cockburn
by Ben Self


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.”[1] 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.

Mockingbird: To get us started, I’d love to hear a bit about your musical origins. What kinds of things did you listen to growing up?

Bruce Cockburn: Well, the first music I remember being aware of was the stuff my dad used to play. When I was born, I think he thought that he would educate me, so he enrolled us in the record of the month club. Every month we got a nice classical album in the mail, and we’d have to sit and listen to it. Some of them got listened to only once, some of them more than once. But he kept them, and I was able to rediscover those records when I was older.

Anyway, later on I heard all the stuff that was on the radio at that time — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Bobby Darin — as well as the first rock-n-roll. It was listening to that first rock-n-roll when I first got really interested in music. I was a huge Elvis Presley fan.

M: Is that when you started getting into the guitar?

BC: Yeah. The explosion of rock-n-roll all started around 1956 or so, and I started playing guitar in 1959. My parents were initially concerned about the association of the guitar with rock-n-roll — and the association of rock-n-roll with leather jackets and switchblades — so they were worried. But they said, “Look, we’ll support your guitar lessons if you promise not to get a leather jacket and grow sideburns.” And it was easy to make that promise. Like, what the hell! I couldn’t even grow sideburns.

So I started taking guitar lessons, which exposed me to jazz and Les-Paul-style pop country guitar. Then I started studying composition on my own, and I eventually got more into folk music — country blues and ragtime, that kind of stuff. That period of anybody’s life tends to be so full. There’s this accumulation, this constantly shifting exposure to things, because you’re young, and you’re soaking it up like a sponge. By the time I got out of high school, I wasn’t good at anything, but I had a very well-rounded view of musical possibilities.

After that I went to music school in Boston for a year and a half, before dropping out. But I came out of that with an even broader view. By then it was the 60s, and we were listening to Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. And jug band music. Anyway, all of that went into me and formed this big musical soup out of which, eventually, songs came.

M: When you first started playing in bands in the mid-60s, you were playing mostly psychedelic rock. But then your initial solo work from the early-to-mid 70s was totally different. It seemed to have a kind of earthiness and acoustic purity that, at least to me, evokes the wild spaces of eastern Canada. Does that resonate at all?

BC: Yeah, I’m glad you could hear that in the music. One of things that maybe distinguishes a lot of Canadian songwriting from American songwriting, say, or British songwriting, is that sense of space. I think you can hear it in Leonard Cohen, in Joni Mitchell, in Neil Young — it’s there even in his electric stuff, I think.

In the 70s, I was focused on the natural world and the spiritual doorway that that seems to represent. I loved the way in which one’s own spirit feels enlarged. You find yourself in a setting where human presence can be either ignored completely or just isn’t there. From my experience, the soul expands, seems to touch the spirit of the wilderness. And that was a big part of my childhood — spending summers in Algonquin Park, canoe-tripping, portaging over horrible mud patches, surrounded by that wild Precambrian shield landscape.

M: You had a conversion to Christianity around 1974, which of course showed up very prominently in your songwriting. But you once said something interesting about that time in your life: “I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian now that I’d made this move, and the first thing you try to do is to find what all the rules are, and then you try to obey them. That makes you kind of a fundamentalist… But in the end I was completely unsuccessful at being a fundamentalist.” What did you mean by that?

BC: When I first started thinking of myself as a Christian, I listened to the loudest Christians, the fundamentalists. I mean, I’d gone to a very bland United Church for a while growing up — the sort where you have to put on your scratchy gray flannels, you know — but that hadn’t made a big impression on me. So now here I was in the mid-70s, calling myself a Christian, and I thought: I’m supposed to figure out what that means, and how to be a Christian in the world. And the loudest voices were the ones on TV.

So I started listening to Ernest Angley and the Bakkers and these other TV evangelists, and I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, but I wasn’t successful. The version of Christianity that they were presenting was just ridiculous. It didn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny that I could bring to it, emotional or intellectual. And there were other voices that were a little more subtle but in the end weren’t much better.

I’d buy these books that were by highly-reputed Christian writers or whatever, and you’d get all this BS. There was this one guy who kept going on about how minor key music should be banned because it makes people depressed. I mean, give me a break! That has nothing to do with Jesus. Sounds more like Hitler.

So it didn’t take very long for me to lose interest in that stuff. But even a decade later, I would still occasionally watch the TV guys, thinking there might be something there — that maybe I’m supposed to watch this today, maybe there’s something in there for me. Because I do think that things work like that. Quite often the things we’re exposed to have some purpose to them — it’s what I called “Big Circumstance” later on — where it’s not random but it’s not exactly preordained, either. It’s like the whole cosmos is this kind of jigsaw flux and you’re in it, and you’re moving in it. I’m not even sure what it is. You could call it the “will of God,” but it might not be that simple.

But anyway, once in a while I would watch the TV evangelists. Actually, occasionally I still do, if I’m in a hotel somewhere, you know, and I turn on the TV and on comes one of these characters, I might listen to them to see if there’s anything there. Generally there isn’t, but once in a while there is. Once in a while something turns up that’s valuable.

At one point in the 70s or 80s, I saw a very skeptical — you could say cynical — Canadian TV journalist interview Mother Teresa, and it was unbelievably great. Mother Teresa burned off the screen. She just was so absolutely real and free of any kind of pretense. It was an impressive thing to witness. I don’t remember what she said, but the way she came across made a big impression. Those kinds of things happen.

In the end though, my flirtation with that stuff turned out to be just that. I realized, well, these televangelists don’t really know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they do, but they’re not really communicating the part that’s true about what they know. They’re communicating “send me money” and all kinds of other stuff. So through the 80s I still thought of myself as a Christian, but I was less and less inclined to go to church.

When I moved to Toronto at the end of the 70s, I never found a church that I felt at home in. And I found myself mostly among people who were not believers, because I’d decided it was time for me to embrace human society in a way that I had not previously done; and in the 80s, humanity replaced nature as my focus. I mean, I still had the connection to nature, but as a source of energy and an avenue of spiritual expression, people became more the scene for me.

I got involved in the kinds of supposedly “political” stuff people say I got involved in — and I wrote songs about those things. That shift was natural; it wasn’t planned. Moving to Toronto and embracing human society was a deliberate choice, but after that, everything just flowed.

M: For people who are new converts, I think there’s often this sense that you have to live up to some strict Christian standard and follow all the rules, which can be very self-defeating. Did you feel that way — like a failed Christian?

BC: I certainly did at times, and I still do, I think. Not severely. I’m sure other people have felt it worse. But I don’t pay nearly enough attention on a day-to-day basis to my relationship with God. I talk about it a fair amount, but I don’t do much about it. But then, once in a while, I do do something about it, and I’m reminded that it exists, and that it’s really happening. And it feels pretty darn good when that happens. But, interestingly, one of the first tests of that for me came when I got divorced. A lot of stuff on the Humans album (1980) is about that.

M: Like the song “Fascist Architecture”?[2]

BC: Well, yeah, “Fascist Architecture” and “What About the Bond.”[3] Those are kind of break up songs. But they’re also liberation songs. I was working through a bunch of unexamined assumptions. Like: we got married in the presence of God, made promises in the presence of God, and we were breaking those promises. What did that mean? Turned out God seemed more interested in us growing as people, and we hadn’t been doing that together. I think both of us have done a lot of growing since then.

M: Did you feel wracked with guilt, though?

BC: Yeah. But I think guilt is an excuse for not feeling like a failure. It’s easier to look at the guilt than at the failure — at what should I have done differently? Where do I go next? I mean, guilt is a kind of demonic implant that gets in the way of taking that next step with a clear mind. So I think guilt is to be resisted, unless of course you’re genuinely guilty of some heinous crime. That’s different. We’re talking about spiritual or emotional stuff here.

M: Does faith help with guilt and shame?

BC: It’s supposed to. I mean, Jesus kind of says that. Like, I’m here for you. You’re never going to get it right, but I did, so lean on me. That, to me, is something that a lot of the church — the body of Christ — doesn’t pay attention to. There’s so much shaming.

But the message of Jesus is like a hammock you can relax into. It’s love and forgiveness. And it’s not just the Christian part of the Bible that talks about that — the Old Testament talks about love and forbearance; it runs right through. But Jesus exemplifies it in so many ways and makes it so clear, yet people still miss the message.

M: In the late 70s and early 80s you had some breakthrough hits that garnered you acclaim well beyond Canada; at one point you even played on Saturday Night Live. What were the blessings and the curses that came with that kind of success?

BC: It came about in a strange way. “Wondering Where the Lions Are” was the first actual national hit I had in Canada, and it got a lot of airplay in the United States — it was on the Billboard charts, and that’s what we ended up doing on SNL. But the song that people remember more than that one was “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” which came around 4-5 years later. It wasn’t as big a hit, but that’s still the one that made a bigger impression, which is odd because that one isn’t really a typical Cockburn song at all. It was such an anomaly.

In the United States people didn’t know my history. I had a relationship with Canadian audiences, but I didn’t have that relationship with the American audience, and so I got labeled a “political” singer because of “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” I mean, yeah okay, that political message is in there,[4] but I don’t like to be categorized, and I don’t like pinning down things that don’t need to be pinned down. Early on in Canada, after my first three albums, I was getting typecast as a nature guy, and I resented that. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” did the same thing later on in a different direction. I don’t like being called a “Christian” singer, either, even though that’s true. But I don’t want my audience to only be Christians who only listen to Christian singers.

I’ve tried so hard not to have an image, and maybe I made more of it than I needed to. I didn’t want to be a “star,” because that’s a falsehood. It’s a public construct. I wanted to be me. So I went out of my way to avoid all sorts of things that I thought might lead to the creation of the “star” construct. And I was fairly successful at that, except that I got the image of being a guy who went out of his way to avoid having an image. So, that became its own kind of trap. And the lesson there was: well, you can’t avoid this. As soon as you stand up in public and do anything, that process begins. And the more you do, the more it happens.

But the success I had also came with a lot of perks. There was more money, more gigs, better traveling and working conditions. You know, all that stuff came to me, and because of the public visibility that went with that, I got invited to do lots of interesting things — like go to Nicaragua and Nepal and other places where stuff was going on that was meaningful to me. In some cases, it provided material for songs — I mean, that’s not why I went to those places, but it was a side effect of being there, and it certainly deepened my understanding of people and how people work and what we’re capable of, in all directions.

M: In the late 80s, if I’m not mistaken, you experienced a period of writer’s block. What do you think caused that?

BC: Burnout. That’s what I felt at the time. I went for about a year and a half where I didn’t write anything — I didn’t have any ideas, or any motivation. I had the desire to write but nothing making it happen. And for half of ’88 and all of ’89 I felt like that. And I thought, this has been a decade of such intense travel for me, and travel in some places where there’s a lot of pain, and even though it wasn’t my pain, you still soak up some of it. And I just felt like I needed a break.

But my actual first thought was, “Well, this is the end. I’ve got to think of something new to do, because there are no more songs coming.” I thought about enrolling in art school, because I’ve always liked graphic novels, and I had some drawing chops when I was a little kid. But then I decided that before I did anything too radical, I should just take a rest and step away from it all.

So I declared myself on sabbatical for the year 1990, and you know, my sabbatical hadn’t even started yet when I started writing songs again. For Christmas, my then-girlfriend and I and my older daughter — who was 14 then — we went to a dude ranch in Arizona. It was a magical experience in lots of ways, but sitting there I wrote “Child of the Wind.” And all it took for the creative process to start again was the declaration to myself that I was free from whatever encumbrances I thought I had. And it came back. And on I went.

I wrote the songs that are on Nothing but a Burning Light (1991) through that period. And I ended up having a lot of fun on my year off. Riding horses and shooting — that’s mostly what I did. But I did a lot of playing music for myself, too, with no ulterior motive.

M: I listened to a recent podcast you did with Les Stroud and one of the things you guys talked about was the nature of creativity. You said you felt like some of your creative impulses basically come from God — that God is involved in the process, always “stirring the pot.” In crafting songs, what is the relationship for you between grace and effort?

BC: Hmm. First the grace, then the effort. And the effort is more like translation, in a way; it’s analogous to that at least. It’s a question of taking that initial idea — which is a gift, I find — and then kind of wrestling it into something that makes sense musically and lyrically, and will be as compelling as it can be for whoever hears it.

M: It sounds like Jacob wrestling the angel of God in the night.

BC: Haha — a little bit like that. Except you come away with something that might be a win.

M: Not a busted hip.

BC: Yeah. It’s a little bit hard to articulate. But the feeling is in the heart. And the process varies from song to song. Some songs require much more labor and some songs not so much. Sometimes a single idea will trigger an immediate flow of associations that shape themselves into a song, and other times that single idea will have to sit around for a while before you find something to connect it to, to develop it.

And some of these things I don’t look at too hard — I don’t try to imagine what God might want from these things. In certain songs, it might seem obvious, but other songs are just songs. They’re reflective of my life in various ways, of various attitudes and so on.

M: That’s interesting. What happens if the song-writing process doesn’t go well?

BC: Even if I fail to get a good song out of what should have been a good idea, I don’t really see it as failure as much as just a blind trail, a false start. Because if it’s a real thing, it will come back around at some point.

I’ve never put much pressure on myself to produce. But I sometimes feel a visceral need to write. And when I don’t write for a long time, then I feel frustrated and kind of constipated, and it’s a great relief when stuff starts to come. For me, the control, and how “well” I do with a given idea, is all beside the point.

One other thing I notice in myself is a desire not to repeat myself. I don’t try to duplicate the songs that were “successful.” I am aware of certain things that I can put in a song that are going to make it more or less appealing to people, and those are creative choices to be made. But you see it all the time — certain artists who make one great record and then try to do the same record again, and it’s just not a good idea, you know?

M: In 2013, you started regularly attending a church again for the first time in several decades. How did that come about?

BC: It’s interesting, you know. It was one of those inexorable promptings. It was “Big Circumstance” at work. But it started with a tragedy. Sadly, a neighbor of ours that my wife was quite friendly with died in a house fire. That pushed her into looking for the meaning behind things like that, and looking in the direction of God for some understanding.

I have my own experiences and thoughts about that sort of thing, but you know we weren’t churchgoers then. I hadn’t thought of myself as a churchgoer for decades, and neither had she. But in the course of that search on her part, she discovered the San Francisco Lighthouse Church. And she kept inviting me to come with her — you know, like, “You gotta come check this out, the pastor’s really great, and there’s great music.”

M: Great music always helps.

BC: Yeah, but I resisted it for quite a while, and then I finally caved and went, and I just kept going after that. It was like, the minute I walked in I felt surrounded by love. And that’s something you don’t want to pass up.

M: For many people, these have been pretty dark and stressful times — with the pandemic, environmental crises, all kinds of intense political and social stuff. So in times like these, what gives you hope?

BC: Well, my relationship with God doesn’t depend on any of that stuff you mentioned. Of course, you can be distracted by external things of whatever sort, but really, if that relationship is where you’re focused, then the other stuff is tolerable in one way or another.

But, I mean, there’s still lots to worry about. We’re confronted with all sorts of precarious tipping points around us. We’ve got to be really careful where we step — as a culture, as individuals, even as a species. And it’s not clear to me that those steps are going to be taken the way they need to be. But that said, as individuals, we still have that relationship with the divine to keep us focused.

M: And free?

BC: Free! Yes. I mean, that’s real freedom. Never mind protesting about mask mandates or whatever. If you think your freedom is really about not wearing a mask, you’re already screwed.

M: Right. I love that line from one of the new songs you posted online recently: “Time takes its toll, but in my soul I’m on a roll.”

BC: I felt good about that line. But you know, it’s an old guy writing that song.

M: That’s true. Old and wise.



May 11, 2022
Christian Courier

RADICAL HOPE
Fifty years later, is Bruce Cockburn’s music still relevant?
by Brian Walsh

At 76 years old, Bruce Cockburn is one of Canada’s most decorated musicians: 37 albums, 13 Junos and a recipient of the Order of Canada. As Cockburn makes his way around North America for his 50th anniversary tour (second attempt, due to covid), one of his encore songs may catch listeners by surprise. “When the Sun Goes Nova” was on and off set lists in the 70’s, and the off-beat song has only very recently made a comeback.

When I first heard the song as a 20-year-old, it seemed like a bit of lightheartedness in the midst of an otherwise serious and dark album (Night Vision, 1973). With an almost Vaudeville-show-tune feel, a youthful Cockburn sang: “If you’re on the bum / And the policemen come / If you lose your grip / Or your trousers rip / I’ll be waiting dear.”

It’s taken me most of the past 50 years to understand that the song is more than just comic relief. Cockburn is no longer a young folksinger; the gravity and tenor of his septuagenarian voice and our 2022 context of plague, war and environmental collapse gives these lyrics a profound new meaning.


"When the sun goes nova / And the world turns over / I don’t want to be alone / So honey come on home"

NIGHT VISION (1973)


There is something disquietly apocalyptic about this. When the sun that gives us our energy and our secure place in the universe, blows apart. When everything is turned on its head and you can’t find your bearings. You sure don’t want to be alone. In the midst of the chaos that renders us desperately homeless in creation, in society and deep within ourselves, we long for the safety and familiarity of home.


WAR AND CLIMATE CRISIS

In our post-truth world, it might be good to hear again the kind of dismantling that Cockburn accomplished in his 1985 song, “People See Through You”. While written in the context of Reagan era interventions in Central America, doesn’t this song resonate with the terror we are seeing in Ukraine these days? “You’ve got instant communication / Instant data tabulation / You got the forces of occupation / But you don’t get capitulation / ‘Cause people see through you” (World of Wonders).

Or how about the climate crisis? Isn’t it good to have someone remind us that:


"In this cold commodity culture / Where you lay your money down / It’s hard to even notice / That all this earth is hallowed ground / Harder still to feel it / Basic as a breath / Love is stronger than darkness / Love is stronger than death."

“THE GIFT,” BIG CIRCUMSTANCE (1988)


Don’t these tight eight lines capture both the heart of the problem, and the deepest resource of hope? We reduce the world to a commodity, forget that the earth is nothing less than the temple of God and become alienated from the love that is the very foundation of all creation.

Why should we seek a path of caring wisdom in the face of ecological insanity? Because love goes all the way down. In Cockburn’s imagination, the love that fires the sun calls forth love in response. “We’re given love and love must be returned / that’s all the bearings that you need to learn / see how the starwheel turns” (Joy Will Find a Way). Sounds like Psalm 19. Heck, it sounds like Jesus!


HYMNS OF LAMENT

In contrast to much superficial, sentimentally happy, Christian music, Cockburn knows the power of lament. He bears witness to the deep struggles of faith, doubt and disappointment.

In his 1996 song “The Whole Night Sky,” Cockburn offers words of empathy: “Derailed and desperate / Hanging from this high wire / By the tatters of my faith.” Listeners are invited to insert their own tragic loss or to think about times when they questioned everything about themselves, faith and God. “Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere / And knocks you off your feet.” When you’re going through such a season, isn’t there some comfort, some sense of recognition, when you hear a contemporary psalmist describe your reality? “And look, see my tears / They fill the whole night sky” (Charity of Night).

But Cockburn is no “singer of songs without hope” (“Feast of Fools,” Further Adventures Of). Playing off the 13th century hymn “Stabat Mater” which sings of Mary’s sorrow bearing witness to Jesus on the cross, Cockburn’s 2016 song, “Stab at Matter” (Bone on Bone) situates the artist at the foot of the cross. But “Stab at Matter” takes an apocalyptic turn as the song bears witness to a world still hanging on that cross: “you got lamentation / you got dislocation / sirens wailing and the walls come down.”

Again, Cockburn does not avert his gaze or allow us to ignore the dissolution all around and deep within us. Walls of protection are crumbling and we are left defenceless. But there is hope in these falling walls. “You got transformation / thunder shaking / seal is broken and the spirit flies.” The world might be imploding and the false temples of our civic religion trembling, but somehow this is all a sign that “the Lord draws nigh.”

For good reason, apocalyptic imagery and eschatological hope intensifies during times of deep historical crisis, debilitating anxiety and cultural collapse. When it is all falling apart, when the story of your life and the life of your world seems to hit a dead end, all you can do is to “step out from the past and try to hold the line” while you are asking, “so how come history takes such a long, long time / when you’re waiting for a miracle” (“Waiting for a Miracle,” Waiting for a Miracle). And if you have eyes to see “just beyond the range of normal sight” you might catch a glimpse of Jesus in the fray of our history, “this glittering joker . . . dancing in the dragon’s jaws” (“Hills of Morning,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws).


THE JESUS TRAIN

Fifty years (and counting), Bruce Cockburn’s art continues to speak beautifully and powerfully into our 21st century realities. Recognized as one of the finest guitarists of our time, Cockburn’s fusion of folk, rock, reggae and jazz speaks into our malaise, as he bears witness to radical hope.

Throughout my adult life – my years as a campus chaplain, as a writer, scholar and professor – I have found Cockburn’s music to resonate deeply with scripture, and to be a faithful companion on the path of Christian discipleship. Some years ago, after Cockburn had written his memoir, Rumours of Glory, I asked him if he had written any new songs. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve written something very ‘Christian’.” “Like, ‘how Christian?’” I asked. “Like ‘get on the Jesus train’ Christian,” he replied.

“Jesus Train” was released in 2017 on the Bone on Bone album. And while the motif of ‘trains’ has been ubiquitous in Cockburn’s body of work, this train has a clear destination. “I’m on a Jesus train . . . headed for the City of God.” The artist finds himself “standing on the platform / awed by the power.” He feels “the fire of love.” The love that fires the universe is somehow all around him, compelling, inviting, calling. He testifies, “feel the hand upon my shoulder saying ‘brother climb aboard’ / I’m on a Jesus train.” There is something wonderfully simple and direct about this. Cockburn knows all about “post-ironic postulating” (“Don’t Forget About Delight,” You’ve Never Seen Everything), his path has led through “dark places,” and sometimes the darkness was his friend (“Pacing the Cage,” Charity of Night). He has known “wounded streets and whispered prayers” (“Everywhere Dance,” You’ve Never Seen Everything), and he has been led beside “Strange Waters” (Charity of Night), but when it comes right down to it, he is on the Jesus Train, headed for the City of God.

So friends, have you found yourself “derailed and desperate”? Then Cockburn invites you to get back on track, to get on board the Jesus train. Maybe after all these years, Mr. Cockburn serves as a conductor on this train. It’s going home.


May 11, 2022
Colorado Springs Indy

MUSIC IN DANGEROUS TIMES
Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn talks about Christianity and what he’s dropping from his setlist
by Bill Forman


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.

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.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.”


April 27, 2022
A Journal of Musical Things

bruce cockburn 25apr22 wof star

Photos from Bruce Cockburn’s 50th-anniversary tour and his Canada’s of Walk of Fame Star
by Ross MacDonald

It is not often that a concert starts with a standing ovation; however, that is exactly how Bruce Cockburn‘s show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa started off. But then again, Bruce Cockburn is folk/rock royalty, with over 50 years as a professional musician, countless album sales, 13 Juno awards, and being a major influence to many of today’s folk and rock guitarists. And Bruce has been much more than that, as an environmental activist and proponent for the rights of farmers and indigenous peoples throughout the world; notably Oxfam (famine and poverty relief) and SeedChange (formerly USC Canada: farmer and human rights advocacy).

As Bruce began the evening, he joked that this is his second attempt at starting his 50th-anniversary tour (there have been a lot of re-starts to touring around the world the last couple of years). He released his debut self-titled album in 1970. He also spoke about how in his youth going to summer camp in Algonquin Park, spending a great deal of time canoeing, which he said was synonymous with nature.

The concert started with an instrumental ‘Sweetness And Light’, off his latest 2019 album Crowing Ignites. The song had riffs that harkened back to some of his music from the 70’s. It was a stripped-down evening with just Bruce alone on stage with his acoustic guitar (except for one song with lap steel guitar), and on some songs playing chimes with his foot.

But Bruce put on a spectacular show of his craft, simultaneously picking and strumming his guitar, stretching out his fingers on the fret-board playing bass and high notes at the same time. And his voice hasn’t changed, powerfully hitting all the high notes in all his songs. The fans showed love for Bruce’s new singles, but were especially ecstatic to hear long-time favourites ‘If A Tree Falls’, ‘Lovers In A Dangerous Time’, and everyone was singing along to ‘Wondering Where The Lions Are’. And of course, the evening closed with an even longer standing ovation.

On Monday 25 April, the National Arts Centre hosted a special event for Bruce Cockburn. In November 2021 Canada’s Walk of Fame inducted Bruce, along with ten other prominent Canadians. Unfortunately, it was a virtual ceremony due to the COVID pandemic. So the Walk of Fame took the opportunity to honour Bruce with a Hometown Star in his home town of Ottawa.

Bruce was joined at the ceremony by his family and long-time friend, manager, and founder of True North Records, Bernie Finkelstein. Also in attendance was another Ottawa music icon Sneezy Waters. As part of Bruce’s induction, the Walk of Fame will be making donations to SeedChange and Unison Fund (counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music industry) on Bruce’s behalf.

bruce cockburn 22apr22 massey2

At the ceremony, up and coming First Nations singer-songwriter Mary Bryton Nahwegahbow sang the national anthem in English, French, and Anishinaabemowin. She later sang ‘Lovers In A Dangerous Time’, no easy feat in front of the iconic Bruce Cockburn, who seemed moved by her beautiful rendition.

Canada’s Walk of Fame is in Toronto, but Bruce’s Hometown Star plaque will be mounted at 521 Sussex Drive, where Le Hibou Coffee House once stood, Ottawa’s unofficial headquarters of performing arts in the 1960-70’s where Bruce started his career. A fitting tribute to one of Canada’s greatest troubadours.

More on this event at Bruce's official website.



bruce-cockurn by jean levac

April 25, 2022
Ottawa Citizen

Bruce Cockburn honoured with Walk of Fame star in his hometown
by Blair Crawford

When Bruce Cockburn was asked where he wanted his hometown star from Canada’s Walk of Fame to be placed, he chose the site of Le Hibou coffee house.

“I was asked what places matter the most to me in Ottawa and Le Hibou was what came to mind,” Cockburn said at Monday’s unveiling ceremony at the National Arts Centre.

The NAC is where Cockburn played a sold-out concert Saturday night. It’s also only a few hundred metres from where Le Hibou, the city’s legendary hippie hangout, once stood on Sussex Drive.

“It was such a nexus for all kinds of creative energy in this town,” said Cockburn, 76. “It’s where I learned how to do what I do.”

What he did over the next 52 years was win 13 Juno Awards and the Order of Canada and earn plaudits as one of the world’s virtuoso guitar players. His humanitarian work includes campaigning for Indigenous rights and a ban on land mines, as well as advocacy work with Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders.

The award comes with a $10,000 charitable donation, which Cockburn directed to the Unison Fund, an organization that supports young musicians, and SeedChange, the current incarnation of the Unitarian Service Committee, with which Cockburn has long been associated.

“Ottawa, growing up, seemed like a good place to get out of,” he joked, “but I think everyone thinks that of where they grew up. At some point you have to leave your roots behind.

“But at this point, it just feels really good to be back here.”

Editor’s note: Bruce Cockburn’s star on Canada’s Walk of Fame will be placed at the site of the former Le Hibou coffee house on Sussex Drive. Also, the name of the charity he’s supporting is SeedChange. Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this story.

Photo: Jean Levac


April 25, 2022
CTV News Ottawa

Bruce Cockburn honoured in his hometown
by Dave Charbonneau


bruce-cockburn-by sean kilpatrick

For more than five decades, Ottawa’s Bruce Cockburn has been writing and performing hit songs, and now, he’s been honoured in the capital.

Cockburn was awarded with a Hometown Star following his recent induction into Canada’s Walk of Fame. He says this award is special.

“This was comfortingly informal and casual, and yet substantial too,” says Cockburn. “So I guess, of the two, I prefer this thing, if we had to take one or the other.”

Dozens of friends, family and fans were in attendance at the National Arts Centre to celebrate Cockburn’s achievements.

“We have transformed Canada’s Walk of Fame to mean more, to more people, more often,” says Canada’s Walk of Fame CEO Jeffrey Latimer. “And our hometown visits also include a placement of a permanent plaque displayed in a location of our inductees’ choice. Something that was significant to them.”

Cockburn's songs truly represent the voice of his generation. Songs like Lovers in a Dangerous Time, which was covered by fellow Canadian band, The Barenaked Ladies.

He's won 13 Juno awards and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

“You know, it’s great to see Bruce in his hometown, just getting close again. I like that,” says Cockburn’s manager and long-time friend, Bernie Finkelstein. “Not that it was apart, but just, it’s nice. I just think on a human level it’s nice.”

bruce-cockburn-dave charbonneau

The plaque will most likely be placed on the wall outside what used to be Le Hibou Coffee House on Sussex Drive, where Cockburn, as well as many famous Canadian musicians frequently played in the 1960’s and 70’s.

“One of the things that is great about Canada in my mind, is our willingness to celebrate each other,” says Cockburn. “And it feels really good to be part of that.”

This honour comes with $10,000 charitable donation. Cockburn, the humanitarian, is glad to help. Giving half to SeedChange and the other half to the Unison Fund.

“One of the greatest things about it is the ten thousand dollars that I get to divert to a charity of my choice,” says Cockburn.

The world knows about Bruce Cockburn, his music and his compassion. Now his hometown can recognize his impact forever.

First photo: Dave Charbonneau - Second photo: Sean Kilpatrick


April 22, 2022
Ottawa Citizen

Bruce Cockburn reflects on his Ottawa roots: "I look back with fondness"
by Lynn Saxberg


Bruce Cockburn is back in hometown Ottawa for a few days, primarily to perform a solo concert at the National Arts Centre on Saturday.

While he’s in town, the legendary singer-songwriter-guitarist will be honoured during a ceremony at the NAC on Monday marking his recent inclusion on Canada’s Walk of Fame. Though he says he’s always been ambivalent about fame, the recognition is sweet.

“I do feel like I’ve contributed something to Canadian life over all these years so it feels nice,” the 76-year-old said in a wide-ranging interview that also touched on growing up in Ottawa, his political awakening and the crowd reaction that’s making him increasingly uncomfortable.

Here’s more from the conversation, lightly edited for length: 

Q: You’re on tour after a long stretch of pandemic-related shutdowns. What’s that like? 

A: When we started in December, there was a tentative element around it like nobody was too sure there wasn’t going to be some major interruption. But on the other side of that coin, the audience vibe is fantastic because you’ve got a bunch of people in a room looking at each other going, ‘Holy jeez, we’ve got a bunch of people in a room, and we’re not quaking with fear.’ People are just really glad to be out at an event, I think.

Q: The tour celebrates the 50th anniversary of your first solo album in 1970. Where were you when it came out? 

A: I was living in Toronto. I remember the day the album came out, it got sent to CHUM FM, which was this new freeform FM radio that everybody was listening to. They got hold of the album and played the whole thing from beginning to end, and every time I went into a store in Yorkville, I could hear my friggin’ voice coming at me, and it scared the bejeebers out of me. I thought I’d never have privacy again. It was completely in my own head. No one in the store knew what I looked like, but it was a terrifying feeling. I had this vision of the future that was quite dark. And then, of course, it turned out to be correct in a way, but not at all dark. 

Q: How do you think growing up in Ottawa influenced your musical path? 

A: It’s hard to pin down a specific element, but where it starts to matter is the middle of high school when I was playing enough guitar that I could actually do it in front of people and not be embarrassed. In Grade 11, I was in a class with Peter Hodgson (later known as Sneezy Waters) and he was another guy who played folk guitar. Peter and I got chummy right away with guitars and he introduced me to Sandy Crawley and the three of us spent a lot of time playing and listening to music. Then he introduced me to the scene around Le Hibou, and it took off from there. 

Q: What was that scene like? 

A: It was really seminal for me. I wasn’t writing songs yet, or I hadn’t tried to really, but we were appreciating songwriting in the folk world, as well as the pop world, like the Beatles and Stones. We were excited by that stuff, and still thought of ourselves as folkies. Then I went away to Boston to go to school and came back and joined The Children, and it went on from there. I think the Ottawa scene benefitted from a very fertile atmosphere and it was less competitive than Toronto or Montreal. It was a good place to learn your craft. I look back with fondness on that.

Q: People say that growing up in the nation’s capital gives one a political awareness, too. Was that the case for you? 

A: I was aware of what was going on in the world around me, but I think it had more to do with my parents. We didn’t listen to the news religiously or have discussions of world affairs around the dining table, although we did sometimes. I kind of grew up with a degree of concern for people’s wellbeing but I was not very politically engaged in that era. 

Q: When did that change? 

A: It wasn’t until I started traveling west in Canada in the ’70s. That’s when I started meeting Indigenous people, and it was a real eye opener for me. I was a new Christian in those days and there was all these abuses that had been committed in the name of Jesus and the church. I was horrified by that, and it shows up in some of the songs from that era, and it went on from there, expanded to other countries and other situations. 

Q: One of your most hard-hitting songs is If I Had A Rocket Launcher. Are you playing it these days? 

A: I have been playing it in the shows but I’m wrestling with it a little bit right now actually. I stand by the song, and it fits to some extent what’s going on in Ukraine, although I certainly wasn’t thinking of Ukraine when I wrote it. What bothers me is when people cheer. They cheer the chorus, and especially the last line of the song. It’s never a whole audience that does that, it’s always one or two voices. It gives me the creeps every time because it’s somebody celebrating the horror. They don’t mean it that way but that’s what they’re doing. So I don’t know if I’ll keep singing it or not.


April 18, 2022
The Record (Kitchener, ON)

For Bruce Cockburn, 50 years of songwriting and performing ‘is an incredible gift’
by Terry Pender


Bruce Cockburn is writing new songs, touring and making plans to record his 38th album. For Canadian folk-rock legend Bruce Cockburn the songwriting gets harder but he’s still finding the words and music after more than 50 years.

Twice delayed because of the COVID pandemic, Cockburn plays Centre in the Square April 21 as part of a 50th anniversary tour. “It feels really good to be back out working after a couple of years of not,” said Cockburn. “It does feel kind of noteworthy. It is half a century, it is fun to be out and be able to celebrate that.”

Soft-spoken and humble, the 76-year-old could not stop writing and performing even if he wanted to.

He certainly doesn’t have to keep at it, after winning 13 Juno Awards, an induction into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and being made an Officer of the Order of Canada

“The motivation is the same as it was in the beginning: there is an urge to put feelings and thoughts on paper and make them into songs. And an ongoing urge to play the guitar,” said Cockburn.

His first album was released in 1970, and he was shocked to hear a new station called CHUM FM play the whole thing. These days he’s shocked at how little Spotify and others streaming services pay musicians, but that’s another conversation.

“It’s still what I do,” said Cockburn. “The ideas are harder to come by. How many ideas do you have in your life that are worth sharing with people? It becomes harder to avoid repetition as time goes on, but the motivation is just as strong.”

A few months ago he released “Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits, 1970-2020.” “Most of the songs were not really hits, we wish they were hits,” he said, laughing. He personally selected the tracks for the double CD, including fan favourites from live shows, the ones he likes most and the hits from his 37 albums.

“If you are around long enough, you become an icon,” said Cockburn, chuckling. “It is not something I ever aspired to, it is just as result of doing what I love and having people interested in it for long enough.”

Raised in Ottawa, Cockburn started playing guitar in high school and performing at a coffee house called Le Hibou during the 1960s. It was part of a folk circuit that brought a young Cockburn to Toronto and London, Ont., where he played SmalesPace in the 1970s.

“The first time I played that club I slept on the table overnight,” said Cockburn of SmalesPace.

A routine day for Cockburn is focused on his 10-year-old daughter Iona and his wife MJ. They live in San Francisco, where he has lived for the past 13 years. Cockburn rises at 6:30 a.m., prepares breakfast and drives his daughter to school for 8:30 a.m.. He also picks her up at the end of classes every day.

In between, he plays and practises the guitar and works on new material. He is playing some new songs on this tour. He reads a lot, including science fiction and poetry. For him, authors provide more inspiration than other songwriters.

He always starts a song by writing the words first. The music comes later. He listens to jazz, classical and world music for inspiration. “Something like a lyric of a song develops and when there are enough words to see the shape of it, I start looking for music for it,” said Cockburn. “It is basically hunting around on the guitar to find the right style of music for the lyrics.” he said.

He’s written about 300 songs in his career. The fastest one came together was in an hour or two. The longest one took 37 years. “ ‘Celestial Horses’ is the name of that song and I wrote the lyrics in the mid-’70s,” said Cockburn. “It never quite jelled. I really liked the verses, but I could never quite make it work.” Then one morning when he was living in Montreal the idea for a chorus “came out of nowhere.” “And the song got finished,” said Cockburn, and it was released in 2003 on his album “You’ve Never Seen Everything.”

Cockburn and his family spent most of July 2021 on vacation in Hawaii. He wrote many new songs there.

“The first one of those just kind of popped out. I was up, it was early in the morning and nobody else was up, and I am looking at the landscape. And the idea for the song came, and it was done by the time everybody was having breakfast,” said Cockburn.

“Once in a while that happens. It is a gift I feel when that happens,” he added.

The song is called “Into the Now,” and he performs it on this tour. “Into the Now” will be on his next CD. There are tentative plans to record this fall.

In the 1980s Cockburn had a place in Toronto near College and Clinton streets, then he lived on nearby farms before moving back to the city. His last Toronto home was near St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street.

“I woke up one day and it was 2000 and I had lived in Toronto for 20 years, and it was time to move, so I moved to Montreal,” said Cockburn.

After a few years, he moved to the Kingston area where he met MJ. They lived in Brooklyn for a brief period of time, and then moved to San Francisco. They rented a place for years in the Cole Valley neighbourhood, and recently bought a home in the Bernal Heights neighbourhood.

“We are here because my wife got a job here, and she was living here when we first started going out,” said Cockburn.

But he likes it, calling San Francisco quirky, interesting and beautiful. “I am really enjoying the experience of living on the West Coast. I never imagined I would be a West Coaster,” he said. “It is pretty great.”

These days, profound gratitude is his dominant emotion.

“To still be alive at 76 and still functioning and to have been able to do all this stuff for so long, it is an incredible gift and one for which I am very thankful,” said Cockburn.


April 17, 2022
Peterborough Examiner

Bruce Cockburn reflects on career ahead of Peterborough show
by Brendan Burke


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.

Immersing himself in his early musical influences — from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry — Cockburn went on to join a string of bands in Ottawa and later Toronto before releasing his debut self-titled album in 1970 — marking the beginning of his illustrious, genre-bending career.

He went on to release a slew of albums that decade — continuing to explore themes of spirituality while shifting to politically-charged songwriting and a fuller sound with tracks like “It’s Going Down Slow” on his third album, Sunwheel Dance — culminating in the watershed 1979 album “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.” The album featured Cockburn’s breakthrough song “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which saw his popularity surge south of the border.

“I never thought of what I do as a career and I’ve never made plans around it. So when something like that comes along, I’m grateful for it, but it’s not like ‘finally, I’ve got to where I needed to go.’” I just never think about it.”

With the release of “Stealing Fire” in 1984, Cockburn put out two of his most beloved and well-known songs, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and the politically driven “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Cockburn recalls having second thoughts about releasing Rocket Launcher, a track he penned after being shaken by the turmoil faced by Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico.

“I thought it would be misunderstood. I thought people would hear it as something that was an incitement to violence and I didn’t want to put that out.”

But Cockburn understands the lasting impact of the song — despite “never being that interested in protest songs” — and how music is interpreted with the passing of time.

“When I sing it now, I know people are hearing it in light of what’s going on in Ukraine. I don’t want to promote that kind of feeling particularly although I feel it too,” Cockburn said.

“What’s going on there is horrible and it should never have happened and the people responsible for it should be held to account. But we’ve got to get over the knee-jerk response that goes with violence and we have to get off that train somehow.”

Looking back, Cockburn says his exploration and progression as an artist has allowed him to avoid being placed in a genre-specific box.

“People would say, ‘oh yeah, he’s a Christian singer, oh yeah, he’s a political singer, and then after a while I think most people have given up now because they don’t know what to call me because it’s all over the place.”

Peterborough concertgoers attending Cockburn’s 50th anniversary tour can expect a mix of fan-favourite staples and newer material, including tracks from his 2019 instrumental album, “Crowing Ignites.”

As for what’s next for Cockburn, he already has close to an album’s worth of new songs that he hopes to record soon.

“I don’t take it for granted. I don’t assume that the ideas are going to keep coming. But as long as they do, I hope I can keep on making use of them.”


April 14, 2022
Belleville Intelligencer

Bruce Cockburn on his long career, spiritual songs, and new tour
by Luke Hendry


bruce-cockburn-photo by daniel keebler-frcr

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn is feeling reflective.

That may not be surprising, given his more than 50 years in music and the recent release of a greatest-hits album.

He still has plenty of music in him, and, in an Intelligencer telephone interview, said he’s eager to share it with audiences.

On April 26, Cockburn will be back on Belleville’s Empire Theatre stage for a solo show, part of a pandemic-delayed “Second Attempt” 50th-anniversary tour of Canada and the United States.

Speaking from San Francisco, where he’s lived for years, the Ottawa native said tour audiences will hear one or two of his new songs.

In choosing older tracks for his Greatest Hits 1970-2020 album, he said, “we made it easy on ourselves” and simply compiled his singles.

“Not all of them were hits,” he said.

Cockburn said the album would not be “that commercially-viable” if he’d chosen his favourite tracks. But he’d already done that, in a way, with the box-set released in 2014 with his autobiography; both are named Rumours of Glory.

Spiritual leaning

His songs with “some sort of spiritual relevance” are his current favourites.

“That idea I like very much.

“The general thrust of the new songs is kind of more spiritual.”

Cockburn said that is a generalization, but the new work does “lean that way.” Sales of his “Four New Songs” collection benefit his church, San Francisco Lighthouse, and Lighthouse Kathmandu, a Nepali organization targeting human trafficking and rescuing victims.

“It’s sort of a cliché of the adult life: that you start off exploring and you go through all these various stages … and you end up attempting to be a sage or something.

“My life’s kind of finding an arc like that.

“There’s room for political opinions and stuff like that but … a more reflective angle is where I find myself seeing things from.”

The writer of “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “Lovers in Dangerous Time” and many more has used his music to express his views, as he did with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and other songs.

“I don’t know what I would write about war at this point,” said Cockburn, explaining he’s already done that several times.

In the case of “Rocket Launcher,” “I wrote it because I had to because I had a feeling in my gut and my heart.”

In talking about political events, Cockburn said, “I’m not hopeful, particularly. I have hope in me, personally … but I think we’re in trouble, for many reasons.”

“Climate change will cause further tension and disruptions beyond those of the pandemic," he said.

Cockburn said two of his four newest songs – “Orders” and “Us All” – speak to the need to and deal with disagreements “in a civil way, instead of what’s tended to be happening” in the world.

“The message that we need to love everybody … People might get tired of hearing it, but I think we need to hear it over and over again right now.”

Music “explosion”

Cockburn had booked about 100 shows prior to the pandemic and cancelling them was disappointing, he said.

About six months into the pandemic, he and his family rented an RV and went on a different kind of tour, parking at friends’ homes and having safe visits on the lawns. The trip included a jam with violinist and former collaborator, Jenny Scheinman.

“Neither Jenny nor I had played with anyone for months.

“This kind of explosion happened. It felt like a kind of emotional explosion because we were able to do this.

“Some of the live shows have kind of that feel.

“The sense of novelty and the sort of rediscovery to sit in a room with people and feel good, instead of scared or whatever, is pretty great.”

Practises regularly

Pandemic or otherwise, Cockburn does not, however, neglect his playing and writing when he isn’t touring.

“I practise all the time, and if I don’t, I pay a price for that,” he said. A break feels good, he said, but playing the guitar is “like any other physical exercise” and a few days away from it may mean he needs a week to get back into form.

At age 76, he said, regular practice keeps his muscles from stiffening.

Cockburn said the pandemic didn’t change his writing or the frequency of his practising.

“The pace of my writing is about the same,” he said. “It’s always been just a wait for the good idea.”

He said some of his new songs arose from the “atmosphere” of the pandemic and current events.

“One song (“When You Arrive”) actually mentions COVID, but it’s not a song about COVID.”

Taking notes

Cockburn isn’t the only one ensuring he stays sharp. Iona, who’s 10 and the youngest of his two daughters, may enjoy today’s pop hits but she also knows her dad’s catalogue. She’s studying guitar and piano and learns songs rapidly despite little practising, he said.

“She’s toured with me since she was two months old and loves being on the tour bus.”

“Iona’s got all these notes” she makes at his sound checks, but he’s not sure of her plans for them.

He laughed when asked if Iona has critiqued his performances.

“I’m waiting for that.”

Cockburn said he is able to keep a relatively low profile in San Francisco. A couple of parents of Iona’s schoolmates may have attended his performances, he said, but he doesn’t receive – or seek – much in the way of recognition.

The road ahead

Asked about bucket-list projects, Cockburn said he’d like to spend more time in nature and one day record an album of others’ songs.

Elvis Presley’s cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” “was huge for me in my beginning consciousness of music.” Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr.’s “God Bless the Child” is another possibility, as is French poet Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves.” A Bob Dylan track or two may also make the cut.

In the meantime, Cockburn is booked for shows in Canada and the United States through this summer.

Cockburn is playing both small venues and midsize ones, such as Toronto’s Massey Hall, but said concert halls of that size are “not that different” from smaller venues. The shows and his preparation for them is the same.

“They pay the same money in Belleville or Ottawa or Toronto … They deserve the same show.”

Despite playing solo most of the time, he’s capable of producing a full and layered sound with his deft and intricate finger-picking.

Unlike many performers, Cockburn doesn’t use a looping pedal to broaden his sound.

“I just never really learned how to use them.”

But for the guitarists out there, Cockburn explained he does use tremolo, chorus and repeating-echo effects.

He’s said he is now considering not only some European festival performances for later this year but also some recording sessions for the fall.

“I like doing what I do, and I like all the aspects of it – at least all the creative aspects.

“I feel like I’ve got something to share, and as long I feel like my presence in front of people is a positive one, then it feels like it’s worth doing, keeping it going.”


March 20, 2022
Forbes

Deserts, Oceans And Sky Inspire Songwriter Bruce Cockburn
by Gary Stoller


Business travel from state to state or country to country is a way of life for many popular musicians. Consider veteran Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn. At age 76, he just completed 27 concerts in 13 states on his 50th Anniversary Concert Tour 2nd Attempt and is scheduled to resume the tour with 19 concerts in the next two months in various western states and Canada.

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It's a second 50th anniversary attempt for Cockburn, who recently released a 34th album, Greatest Hits (1970-2020), because his first tour attempt in late 2020 was derailed by the pandemic. Touring often went smoother pre-COVID-19.

Cockburn, who now lives in San Francisco, says he has traveled to and performed in 30 countries. Besides Canada and the USA, he lists all the countries where he has performed: Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Kosovo, Austria, Germany (including the former East Germany), the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Dubai, Afghanistan, Mali, Mozambique, Cambodia, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Chile and Jamaica.

“I’ve been inspired most by immensity: deserts, oceans and the northern sky,” says the songwriter whose most popular song, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” reached No. 21 on the Billboard charts in 1980. “I’ve written songs in or about many of the places where I’ve traveled.”

Few American musicians have performed in some places where Cockburn has taken the stage. In 1983, he toured Central America, Australia and New Zealand and gave concert performances in Santiago, Chile. In 2018, he performed in Japan.

Besides performing, Cockburn has traveled extensively for various social and humanitarian causes, including initiatives to champion human rights and improve the environment. He visited Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico in 1983, Nepal in 1987 and 2007 and Mozambique in 1988 and 1995. He also took fact-finding trips to Cambodia and Vietnam in 1999 and Baghdad in 2004.

In his native Canada, Cockburn recommends travelers experience the Canadian Arctic — a region with boundaries difficult to define, according to the Arctic Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

“Maps published by the Canadian government show a boundary that follows the 60th parallel north, dives abruptly south along the banks of the Hudson Bay and then cuts back onto land as it crosses northern Quebec and Labrador,” the Arctic Institute says. “This massive swath of land represents over 40% of Canada’s landmass and 25% of the global Arctic.”

Everyone “should experience the Arctic before they die,” Cockburn says. “Although for the health of the landscape, I hope they don’t. It’s the closest thing I’ve experienced to the world the way God made it. Banff is pretty great, too.”

It’s been a great 50-year-plus recording, performing and traveling career for Cockburn who has recorded about 300 songs through the years and written songs for a new album. Have there been any prevailing messages he has tried to convey during his long career?

“Love, love, love and love,” he responds. “And respect for ourselves, each other and the planet that gives us life. Don’t lose hope, and don’t give up.”

Sun's up, mm-hmm, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I'm thinking 'bout eternity
Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me

—Bruce Cockburn, “Wondering Where the Lions Are”


March 10, 2022
The Gazette

Bruce Cockburn brings folk vibe to Englert in Iowa City
by Ed Condran

Canada native gives voice to unsung people, causes


bruce-cockburn-photo-by daniel-keebler

Bruce Cockburn doesn't have to look far for inspiration. The veteran singer/songwriter's muse for much of the time is his 10-year-old daughter, Iona.

Cockburn, 76, chuckles when speaking about the daughter who arrived a year after he became a senior citizen.

"She's lovely and I enjoy the fresh outlook she has on the world," Cockburn said while calling from his San Francisco home. "She's very bright. We talk about books and movies. Her taste in music doesn't jibe with mine. She likes the pop stuff."

But Iona Cockburn does provide a creative spark for her dad, who continues to pen songs as he approaches octogenarian status.

"I love what I do," Cockburn said. "I have fans out there that come out to see me and want to hear what I come up with."

But the clever Cockburn always has been underrated in his adopted country.

Much like the terribly under-appreciated Tragically Hip rock band originating in Ontario, Cockburn is a star in his native Canada, but not in America. During a career which has spanned more than 40 years and 34 albums, Cockburn has sold millions of records in the Great White North, but for some reason, something is lost in translation at the border.

Cockburn, who will perform Sunday at the Englert Theatre, fares well enough in the United States, but it's a mystery why the well-respected singer/songwriter isn't a more popular attraction.

"I just focus on what I can control," Cockburn said. "I have no complaints."

The Canadian Music Hall of Famer consistently crafts compelling, cerebral folk. He has a way with political and protest tunes. In 1984, he crafted a clever hit, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher.“ The accompanying video, which scored considerable MTV play, depicted life in desperate and war-ravaged Central America.

Cockburn has spoken out on a wide range of issues, including the inhumane treatment of others, corporate wrongdoing, environmental issues and native rights.

"Someone has to speak on the behalf of the others," he said. "If I have a platform, why not use it? I didn't know any native people when I was growing up in Ontario. When I traveled, I met the aboriginal people in Western Canada and saw that they had a very different life experience than mine. How some people have lived their lives touched me deeply."

The Berklee College of Music dropout is an altruist who has enjoyed a healthy career, thanks to the support of fans enamored of his songwriting and guitar work.

"I'm fortunate that I've had those who have been incredibly loyal," Cockburn said. "They inspire me."

But not as much as his daughter, who always moves his creative needle.

"It's exhausting being the father of such a young child, but it's true that it keeps you young," he said. "The great thing is that I'm much more available now than I was years ago with my older daughter, Jenny. It's all working out. It's wonderful being a father and it's great to still be doing what I love, which is perform."

Cockburn appreciates his longevity and finds it hard to believe more than a half-century has passed since his debut album was released.

"It feels like some sort of fairy tale," he said. "My career has been magical. I have such gratitude that I've been able to have such a long career."

After having recorded 34 albums and written more than 350 songs, it's not easy for Cockburn to write a set list.

"There are certain songs that are crowd favorites that I have to play," he said. "If I don't play those dozen or so songs, people feel like they didn't get their money's worth. Once I get the so-called hits out of the way, I like to play a cross section of newer songs that I'm excited about, and older songs I haven't played in a while.

“I'm just excited that I still have the drive to continue as a recording artist and there are still fans that are excited about what I do."



March 6, 2022
WORT FM Radio

Bruce Cockburn: Musician-Philosopher


Hejira host Jeff Spitzer-Resnick had a chance to catch up with Bruce Cockburn, who is coming to Madison on March 12th, while he was on tour. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, revealing a lot of this talented singer-songwriter’s philosophy.

JSR: I’m here with Bruce Cockburn who is on the road, I believe in Maine.

Bruce Cockburn: Yes, Waterville, Maine.

JSR: And you’re coming to Madison soon on the 12th. I look forward to going to your show, Bruce, and I have a unique opportunity to interview you. I’ve certainly been following your music for, I don’t think quite 50 years, but maybe 40 plus.

I was actually a little surprised that you’ve got a greatest hits album that goes back longer than 50 years. So, first of all, tell me a little bit about the tour where you’re in Maine now. What’s it looking like?

Bruce Cockburn: Well, Maine is full of snow and ice, and it’s overcast. I mean, I’m seeing it from the inside of a tour bus right now.

But the tour’s been going well, actually, we did a leg on the west coast in December just before Christmas and that worked out well. We’re maybe four or five shows into this run and it’s working out well to see people are really happy with being out and being able to sit in a room together.

I think it probably almost doesn’t matter who’s on stage. It’s like everybody feels good.

JSR: I think it matters a little bit. I certainly am somewhat choosy about who I go see, especially during the pandemic. One of the things that I’ve noticed in your music, in addition to just musically enjoying it, is that you tend to have a lot of political commentary.

What do you see as your role as a musician when it comes to the political world, if you will?

Bruce Cockburn: It is one aspect of the human world, and that’s what artists do: distill what it is to be a person in the world as it comes to that artist, to the individual. And then try and share it with people. I mean, I think that’s the job. So that includes the political very much because the minute you start doing any aspect of people getting along with each other, you’re involved in politics or our relationship to the planet. If you try to address environmental issues, it becomes political immediately because everyone has different kinds of vested interests, and everyone has different opinions about these things.

So, it’s just part of the gig.

JSR: That explains why you speak to politics a lot in your music, but you certainly have your own personal bent on politics. It’s just not politics in general. I don’t know if you have a label for it. I don’t like to label people at all, but certainly there is an emphasis on human rights, and I would say the underdog, but I’d love to hear your political philosophy that you imbue into your music.

Bruce Cockburn: Most of what shows up in my songs is a result of trying to understand what I experienced in spiritual terms with respect to stuff like human rights or any kind of moral perspective for me, because I’m told my faith tells me I’m supposed to love my neighbor.

My neighbor is suffering, and I do nothing about it? That’s hardly an expression of love. There’s a lot of things that are happening in the world that none of us as individuals can do very much about, but I think we’ve got to do what we can. And so, I have feelings about these things and the feelings trigger songs, and then I get invited to talk about this stuff.

It’s really something that I kind of fall into without really intending to. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything particular, other than maybe playing the guitar, but I pay attention, you know, I do pay attention to what’s going on and I do care. So, you know, that reflects itself in the content of my music.

JSR: You mentioned spirituality and I’ve also noticed how more than a lot of musicians, especially if they’re not labeled Christian music, that you do imbue some religion into your music. Is that part of the spirituality you were just mentioning?

Bruce Cockburn: Absolutely. It’s a world view. I mean, I can articulate this stuff the way I do now at the age I’m at. I didn’t always understand this starting out, for sure. I didn’t understand anything starting out. I just did what I did, but over the years, I’ve come to kind of understand that more, and I feel that my prime directive as a human is to have a relationship with the divine and that relationship should express itself in every aspect of life. It doesn’t always, because I get in the way or other things get in the way, but that’s the ideal. So, if I’m looking at a beautiful scene in nature, I’m grateful for that.

Or if I’m looking at, or am a witness to some beautiful thing that people do, I’m grateful for that. You know that springs from the gratitude part of it, it has to do with that relationship with God. So, you can call it lots of things. People have different takes on this stuff.

My framework happens to be a Christian one, but I don’t think that’s the only possible way of having that relationship.

JSR: You’ve probably been asked this before, but I’ve been wondering about it, frankly, ever since the song came out. So here you are a man who speaks a lot about love, a lot about justice in the world or identifying when there’s injustice. And then there’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.” Maybe things have changed as you’ve grown older, and they certainly have for me. How do you kind of blend that love and spirituality with what could arguably be interpreted as you know, I’m going to blow them all away?

Bruce Cockburn: Well, that would be a misinterpretation, although it’s an understandable one. What I was trying to get at with the song was a couple of things. I was writing straight from the heart when I wrote that, and the heart had been severely impacted by the experience of spending a short period of time with these refugees in the south of Mexico who were recounting to us the kinds of the things they had fled from and as a backdrop to those stories, which were horrendous, was the sound of the helicopter, the military, patrolling the border, which was just a hundred yards away. So, the combination of things is what produced the song, but the poignancy of these very desperate straits, no food, no shelter, or they had some shelter because they managed to build themselves shelter, but they had no food and no medicine. I met about 8,000 people – not personally, obviously, I was there with them – and I was very much disturbed by all of this and I felt that this is very relevant-a sense of outrage, and that sense of outrage is what I wanted to express.

I almost didn’t record the song. I wrote it and then I knew if I put this on the record, people are gonna misunderstand it. And of course, that happened, but at the same time you can’t self-censor. Self-censorship is not a worthy past-time. So I thought, well, I’m going to put it out there and we’ll see what happens.

But I used to go to great lengths to explain where the song came from when I was performing it to the point where people would complain about the talking I was doing, but I wanted people to understand that point and it goes back and forth. There are people who only hear the outrage, or the rage as it translates to them. We all carry bags of rage around with us from birth. So I think the song got a big audience because it tapped into that feeling. The people were actually listening to the lyrics and heard what was being said.

One of the first conversations I had about the song outside of my immediate circle of friends was with a guy named Charlie Clements, who was a Quaker who had spent time with the guerrilla movement in El Salvador. (He was) a doctor, and a buddy, but as a Quaker, he was committed to a peaceful approach to things. And I expressed uncertainty about that song with him. And he said “you just said what we all feel, who’ve seen this stuff.”

JSR: I really appreciate that helping me to better understand, and hopefully our listeners as well. Just one more topic. I noticed in your tour list that you’re spending a lot of time in a variety of towns, often smaller theaters and clubs, and looking forward to you being here at the Barrymore, but here we are on community radio. How do you see, in your long career, the role of community radio in getting out music such as yours?

Bruce Cockburn: Well, anybody who’s not readily defined as pop has a hard time getting on the radio. So, any radio that plays us is a wonderful thing in my view. It’s true, whether you’re talking about jazz artists or singer songwriters or, you know, people who have things to say through their words, that there’s community radio forum for that kind of stuff, that isn’t out there in most other contexts or formats.

So, God bless you guys.

JSR: Thank you very much for that!



February 25, 2002
WAMC Northeast Public Radio

Bruce Cockburn on getting busted in Paris, opening for Hendrix, and having his lyrics mangled by Jerry Garcia
by Josh Landes


Legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn performs at The Egg in Albany tonight and at the Academy of Music in Northampton Saturday. WAMC caught up with him before the show to talk about some of the unforgettable moments from his five decade career.

Born in Ottawa in May 1945, one of Cockburn’s defining musical experiences came when he traveled to Europe to busk on the streets of Paris in the mid-60s – which he describes as both fantastic and a bit fraught.

“I fell in with two guys, two other musicians, one of whom was a French guy who lived in Paris, a trumpet player, and a clarinet player who was an American on leave on leave from teaching English in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps," said Cockburn. "Those two guys had been doing it, been playing around and they, when we met up, it was like, Oh, we could use a guitar player. My guitar wasn't loud enough to compete with clarinet and trumpet, but somebody around had a six-string banjo that I was allowed to borrow and which was loud. We played kind of blues tunes, old Elvis songs, and trad jazz and whatever. And at that time, it was illegal to play on the street in Paris unless you had a license. And the only people who could get licenses were the basically the bums of Paris, the homeless folks, or very poor, native Parisians. So we were illegal doing this, and we got busted. They'd already been kicked out of every district in Paris except for Montmartre.”

When he returned to Canada, Cockburn fell in with the emergent psychedelic rock scene. His Toronto-based outfit Olivus shared the stage with some of the biggest names to tour North America in 1968.

“We opened for Cream and we opened for Jimi Hendrix," Cockburn told WAMC. "And we also opened for Wilson Pickett at one point. But the Jimi Hendrix one was the most memorable. That was in Montreal in an arena. What I mostly remember was this haze of smoke- Not coming from the smoke machines, although there were those as well. The whole place was kind of alive with pot smoke and Hendrix was amazing.”

At an after party, Cockburn and his friends had the chance to see a more intimate side of the late star.

“Hendrix walks in," he explained. "The whole place just stopped. There was a little stage setup with bands to play in so that the local hot musicians could kind of get up and jam with Hendrix or whatever. And so, you know, in walks Hendrix. He's standing there with us and everybody's staring at him and he looks around the room. He goes, 'I don't know what everybody is looking at, man. I just want to play some music.' He was totally, just like a total normal person. He went and played some music and it was great. And after a while I left. That was my adventure with Jimi Hendrix.”

In 1987, Cockburn released one of his most enduring anthems — the single “Waiting For A Miracle.”

“I wrote that song in Nicaragua. This was maybe my second or third time there. And had I met all these people that were working hard to- You have to kind of be thinking about what was going on in the era, because Nicaragua in those days was a hopeful place if you were not of a conservative mindset. If you were conservative politically, you didn't approve. And the US administration, the Reagan administration, really severely disapproved of what was going on in Nicaragua, because they'd overthrown a fascist dictator that was the friend of the United States. And he'd been replaced by a bunch of young lefties who were friendly with Cuba. So the official America didn't approve. Lots of Americans did approve, lots of Americans empathized with what was going on, because it really was a positive movement at that time. It stopped being that after a while, as will happen in history. But back then, you know, it was a lot of young people, mostly young people, really trying to make their country into a better place. And to some extent, succeeding at it, except that they were being made war upon by the US the whole time. So eventually, that wore them out.”

The song quickly worked its way into the repertoire of another North American musical legend – the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. “Waiting For A Miracle” became one of the few contemporary pieces in the Jerry Garcia Band songbook.

“Well, Jerry didn't sing my lyrics very much," chuckled Cockburn. "I mean, he did, sort of. But I thought the musical treatment of the song was really good, actually. I was really pleased with that. And I was a bit shocked when I heard him changing all my words. But then I realized that on the on that record that it's on, there's a Dylan song that follows, and he did the same thing with the Bob Dylan song. Then I realized he was just kind of spinning off everybody's lyrics in kind of his own way.”

They met just once before Garcia died in 1995.

“It was the the afternoon before they started a weeklong run of shows at Madison Square Garden in New York," said Cockburn. "And I happened to be in New York, and somebody said, 'Oh, you've got to come and meet Jerry,' because the song was out. I was taken backstage at Madison Square Garden, and we had to wait for a while because Jerry was meditating. He was in a tent at the back of the stage. And after a while, he came out, and he was really nice. He shook my hands, he said, 'Oh man, yeah, nice to meet you, it's a beautiful song, I hope I didn't screw lyrics up too much,' he says. I said, 'Well, actually, I was going to wait until the second time I met you before I brought that up.'”

With this tour branded as a half-centennial celebration of Cockburn’s career, he says that even going back to the first time he headlined one of Canada’s iconic music festivals in 1969, it’s been a miracle all along.

“Getting thrust into that headline spotlight at that Mariposa Folk Festival- I mean, I wasn't supposed to be the headliner," said Cockburn. "Neil Young was supposed to be the headliner. But Neil Young got sick and didn't show up. And so they had to put somebody in that slot, and there was me. And, you know, that's just fate. You could say fate with a big fat capital F. So, I didn't have anything to do with it. All I did was happen to be there. And, you know, most of what's happened to me has been like that.”


February 23, 2022
Central Maine

Folk singer Bruce Cockburn talks career, Waterville concert
by Lucky Clark


When it comes to Canadian singer-songwriters there are two names that stand out: Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn. The latter of the two has over five decades of excellence to his credit and recently released his 35th album which just happens to be a double CD titled “Greatest Hits” back in 2021. I’ve had the pleasure and honor to chat with the award-winning folk singer several times over his career — the first chat coincided with his appearances at the Maine Center for the Arts and Merrill Auditorium on the “Stealing Fire” tour in 1984 and the most recent was an interview in 2019 — and when I discovered that he was returning to Maine for a show at the Waterville Opera House, it seemed only right and proper to see if he’d be willing to talk with me once more, thankfully, he was, and on Feb. 1st Cockburn called me from San Francisco and we conversed for 24 minutes. I observed that he was coming back to my fair state once again...

Cockburn: Yeah, looking forward to it, too, I hope! Fingers crossed that it all unfolds as it’s supposed to.

Q: You have performed at the Waterville Opera House before, correct?

Cockburn: It sounds familiar to me, I don’t specifically remember the venue, but I’m pretty sure I have, the name is familiar, yeah.

Q: Well, considering how long you’ve been doing this, it’s completely understandable if there are gaps in your memory.

Cockburn: (Chuckle) I never remember the venues very well unless I’ve been there dozens of times, but the crew guys all remember everything. I can remember coming in the back door, I hardly ever see the front of the venue, then it’s the dressing room and then I go onstage and see a big black pit with people in it, so I don’t tend to remember the places too well (laughter).

Q: Now will this be a solo performance or will you have a backing band?

Cockburn: This will be solo, my pattern is that when we have a new album out, this doesn’t apply to the most recent album which is an instrumental thing, “Crowing Ignites,” there will be a band tour because we want to be able to present the music the way it appears on the album, as much as possible. But in between, I do mostly solo work, it’s simpler and more reflective, and in COVID worlds there’s less at stake for everybody.

Q: Very true, and just being the single performer you have the flexibility to go where the audience and your muse take you, no set list required, so one less thing to worry about.

Cockburn: Yeah, I mean, I can do that and have done that but I tend to make up a set list and kind of stick to it. Once I know a group of songs works well together, what works with one audience usually works with another as well, and it makes it simpler for the tech people to know what’s coming next.

Q: I never thought of that aspect of solo performing before, it makes sense. I recently interviewed Livingston Taylor who is also performing solo up here, he’s got 50 years in as do you, and I’ve been at music journalism that long, too.

Cockburn: We’re all aging wonderfully, are we not (chuckle)!

Q: Why, yes, yes, we are! (Laughter) Now, are you working on something new? You spoke about an instrumental album so is a song-based one a possibility?

Cockburn: Yup (pause), well, working on it in the sense that we haven’t recorded anything yet. I’ve got nine new songs, and actually I think I may have a 10th as of yesterday, so we’re almost there, ready to get in the studio and have another go at it. I’m looking forward to that, actually, a lot, I want to get these songs out there. We did release a little video demo of the first four of the new songs last spring, it’s just called “Four New Songs” and it’s around on YouTube, I think. But the others were written since then and there’s one or two of them in the show.

Q: Oh, good!

Cockburn: Well, all my shows have been kind of structured in a similar way in that there’s always a few new songs and old songs mixed, sometimes the new songs are songs that just came out on an album, but I’ve always included a cross section of older material. And this tour, 50th anniversary and all, obviously that aspect of it is emphasized, but really it’s the same as all my shows. I’ve got a couple of new songs I want to sing for people and I’ve sort of picked a different collection of older songs that I haven’t been doing for quite a while, some of them for a really long time.

Q: Does songwriting come easy to you?

Cockburn: It depends on the song. This newest one seems to be going quite easily. There are certain songs that just pop out fully fledged, sort of like Athena out of the head of Zeus, other songs require a lot of work over time, and those are less satisfying to write and less fun. But sometimes that’s what needs to be written, too. The songs that come out almost spontaneously are probably the ones that people relate to best, too.

Q: Now, just out of curiosity, and I probably know the answer to this, what can folks expect from your Waterville Opera House show?

Cockburn: Well, a couple of new songs, a lot of guitar, a bunch of words and guitar (chuckle), basically that’s what comes out of me during the show. There’s, like I said, some older ones that people won’t have heard me do for quite a while, and there’s some certain songs that I feel like have to be in a show. People pay money for tickets and they want to hear at least some of the songs that they want to hear, so I want to give them some of those songs. But I don’t want to make a whole show of nothing but that because that gets boring for everybody.

Q: The songs that you’ve been doing for a long time, do they ever change over that time, I don’t mean lyrically, of course, but rhythmically, for example?

Cockburn: Once in a while, but not often. I mean, when I write a song the approach is kind of written into it, but once in a while circumstances require something different.

Q: Is there anything, Bruce, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?

Cockburn: Just come on out in droves and we’ll all have a good time (chuckle). What I’m looking forward to most about all of this, which I’ve been missing for a couple of years, really, is the sense of a shared experience that comes with just being in a concert setting. You know, I can play the music for myself anytime but it doesn’t come alive until it’s a vehicle for us all to sort of sit there and feel like we’re doing something together, that’s one of the things I hope the people will get out of the experience of being there.


February 23, 2022
What’s Up Newp

What’s Up Interview: Iconic rocker Bruce Cockburn, coming to Narrows Center March 2
by Ken Abrams


One of rock and roll’s most interesting artists is coming to the Narrows Center in Fall River on Wednesday, March 2.

Bruce Cockburn is not an easy musician to classify, with a range of songwriting credits from the folksy “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” to the forceful peace anthem, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” He was a staple of FM radio in the 1980s, behind those hits, and more mainstream tunes like “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”

I spoke to the veteran Canadian musician recently and learned he’s looking forward to being out on the road after spending much of the pandemic at his home in Northern California. He’s a socially conscious songwriter and a busy father.

“I have a 10-year-old daughter,” he explained, “so when I’m not away, which has been the case for the last two years, I have a routine that would be the same with or without Covid … getting her to school in the morning and picking her up in the afternoon.”

“I’ve been really anxious to get back on the road,” said Cockburn who will be playing solo at the Narrows Center. “We had a nice little run on the West Coast right before Christmas which actually went pretty well. I’ve got a bunch of new songs, not quite enough for an album yet. We’re looking at hopefully recording before this year is out.”

Over the course of a 50+ year career, Cockburn has amassed 13 Juno Awards and was inducted into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s a legend on par with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot.

While developing his sound in the 1960s, Coburn was influenced by a variety of songwriters and artists. He shared some thoughts on his fellow Canadian chart-toppers.

“Joni Mitchell and Gordon were certainly a model for what you could do. They were both doing high-quality, interesting songs, and being successful at it as Canadians. Lightfoot made a point of it. He made sure everybody knew he was Canadian. Joni didn’t do that so much. I had an argument in Ottawa back the day with a guy who was wondering whether or not Joni Mitchell was in fact Canadian. This guy said ‘oh, she can’t be Canadian cause she’s good,’” joked Cockburn. “That was the prevailing attitude in Canada at the time.”

“When he was starting out, most people didn’t know Neil Young, apart from Buffalo Springfield,” he continued. “After Buffalo Springfield, when he was kind of establishing himself (as a solo artist), he came through and played the same club in Ottawa that I was playing. He did a week there just like everybody else, he was kind of warming up his solo thing, and he was great then, as he continued to be now.”

Before he began his career in earnest, Cockburn attended the Berklee Music School in Boston in the mid-60s studying jazz composition.

“Music school in Boston made a big difference to me, more than anything else,” he noted.

“I was in school to study composition, I imagined myself being a composer for jazz ensembles. That’s where I was headed. But I was also captivated by songwriting and folk music that was around at that time too, especially the old acoustic blues stuff. All of those things were big influences. In addition to the songwriters we mentioned, I’d have to add Bob Dylan and the Lennon-McCartney stuff from that era; collectively they were all an influence. I found out there’s this whole thing you can do with songs that I wasn’t aware of before that. There was a whole world of songwriting that kind of opened up in the early to mid-60s.”

Jazz and Blues have always influenced his songwriting, “I don’t feel like I’m obliged to limit myself to any particular genre or musical approach. I see myself as a kind of eclectic artist,” Cockburn explained.

Through the vehicle of his songs, Cockburn has been a longtime political activist, although he downplays his role in directly influencing social change.

“My so-called activism consists of mouthing off about stuff because I have the ear of a certain amount of the public and I feel that’s a good thing to do. The mouthing off has been on behalf of the people who are doing the real work, (who are) out there helping developing countries, people who are trying to make a difference in the world, who are trying to affect environmental choices in a positive way,” said Cockburn.

Looking back at a successful career, what is he most proud of?

“Surviving,” he laughed, “being able to do it. I feel like I’ve done my best to put out quality stuff. I haven’t given in to anyone’s demands, except what the Muse has demanded of me. Not everybody gets to do that. It’s not only something to be proud of. But it’s also been a gift.”

You can experience some of Cockburn’s magic on Wednesday, March 2 at 8PM at the Narrows Center.


February 21, 2022
Nippertown

BRUCE COCKBURN CELEBRATES 50 YEARS (PLUS TWO…) AT THE EGG
by Michael Hochanadel


bruce-cockburn-by-daniel-keebler-1

“This tour is the second attempt as a 50th-anniversary tour; it was supposed to happen in 2020,” said singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn – looking forward to singing solo at The Egg Friday, February 25.

Since his 1970 self-named debut, Cockburn has released 34 albums and a new greatest hits package. He explained by phone from his San Francisco home last week how the pandemic postponed his planned 50th-anniversary swing after he’d wrapped a tour following the release of his “Crowing Ignites” instrumental album.

Thereafter, he found himself “out of work.” He said, “When there was nobody doing shows, there was nothing I could do.” 

Well, nothing except what he’s always done: Write and record songs.

“Four New Songs” went straight to YouTube as a benefit for the San Francisco Lighthouse Church. “I wanted to get the songs out because a couple of them seemed kind of timely,” said Cockburn in his low-key modest way. Asked if they relate to the pandemic, Cockburn said they describe “the atmosphere it created; well, the combination of the pandemic and Trump’s America,” specifically “about how people treat each other.” The new songs, he said, are “about how our lives are now; it’s more about being alive in the world now.” Then he reflected, “That’s kind of what they all are,” describing all his songs.

They follow the spiritual thread that unites the episodes and incidents of his autobiography “Rumours of Glory.” Cockburn said of his spiritual quest, “It’s a result of looking at how to translate the idea of loving my neighbor into practice.” And he added, “You can’t see people starving to death and say you love then; you’ve got to do something.”

The spirituality of Cockburn’s life and songs turns outward, to work in the world, while Leonard Cohen’s music arguably turns more inward – to compare two much-honored Canadian-born singer-songwriters, though both arguably stand in Joni Mitchell’s shadow, or Neil Young’s.

Even some vintage tunes on “Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits” (a tongue-in-cheek title) seem almost frighteningly prescient. We are all “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Pacing the Cage.”

Two of his “Four New Songs” have elbowed their way into his live show. “Those few songs, in particular, relate to how a lot of us are feeling,” he said, singling out “Orders” as garnering audiences’ attention.

It concludes this way:

The one who lets his demons win
The one we think we’re better than
A challenge great – but as I recall
Our orders are to love them all

Also in the live show, his new “Us All” sounds a similar note of tolerance and equality:

Here we are, faced with choice
Secrets and walls or open embrace
Like it or not, the human race
Is us all

Cockburn isn’t singing the new “On A Roll” live, although it fits his portrait of troubled times. It raises the alarm of crumbling societal norms under the twin assault of the pandemic and what Cockburn calls simply “Trump’s America.”

Howl of anger – howl of grief
Here comes the heat – there’s no relief
Social behavior beyond belief

Cockburn folds “Orders” and “Us All” into a live show that the pandemic delayed by two years but is now refreshed with these clear-eyed assessments of 21st-century humanity in timeless moral terms.

In these – in fact in all his lyrics – Cockburn is realistic but not righteous. And his low-pressure conversational singing style carries his messages with engaging power.

Preparing to tour, Cockburn said, “I practice to try to learn the songs so I don’t screw them up.”

He explained, “There are certain songs that I feel people will be unhappy if they don’t get to hear, you know, some kind of obvious crowd favorites…around those I pack in whatever else fits and whatever I feel like playing.” Cockburn added, “In this case, we’re doing some older songs that people haven’t heard me do for a long time – if ever; I mean some of the people weren’t born when they were new!”

When he’s on stage, Cockburn said, “I still hear people call out, ‘Hey, tell us a story.’ Sometimes I have a story to tell them, sometimes I don’t…I’ve had nights where I didn’t say anything, just sing songs and smile with the people. More often, I talk about whatever I think.”

Looking forward, he said a bit fatalistically, “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what we thought was normal. But it’d be nice if we could just get all the gears going, you know, and all the wheels rolling, in a way that we recognize.”

Cockburn began the tour that brings him to The Egg on Feb. 25 with a few west coast dates in December, hitting the road “in spite of the suspense around it.” He said, “Nobody knew until minutes before if any of the gigs would have to be canceled.” Nonetheless, “They all went well,” he said. He enjoys playing The Egg, even when his dressing room adjoined that of a rock band playing in the larger Hart Theatre while he prepared to play the Swyer.

Of his west coast shows in December, Cockburn said, “With the people who came, the vibe was wonderful because everybody was so happy to just be out doing something.”

“Me, too!”

Bruce Cockburn sings at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) on Friday, Feb. 25. 7:30 p.m. $49.50, $39.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org


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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