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May 23, 2024
Everything Zoomer

“I Don’t Want to Stop”: Bruce Cockburn, 78, on Touring, Family and Why Older People Should Go to Concerts
by Karen Bliss


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Bruce Cockburn has been touring regularly since releasing his 27th studio album, O Sun O Moon, last year, and the legendary 78-year-old Canadian singer, songwriter and guitarist wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“I don’t want to stop. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to,” he notes during a recent phone interview. 

The outspoken political and environmental activist, known for such hits as Wondering Where the Lions Are, Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If a Tree Falls kicks off a run of 10 Canadian dates on May 24 in Lindsay, Ont. In November, he’ll head out on another U.S. leg.

The Ottawa native, who lives in San Francisco with his wife and 12-year-old daughter – he has a grown daughter from his first marriage – has been releasing albums since his 1970 self-titled debut. Along the way, he he has amassed 22 gold and platinum records, including a 1993 holiday album, Christmas, that went 6x platinum, not to mention a myriad of other accolades and recognition.

With that sort of resumé, he’s been inducted into Canada’s top halls: the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canada’s Walk of Fame and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He was invested a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983 and promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003, and presented with Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 1998. He also has 13 Juno Awards, the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He was even featured on a postage stamp.

This summer, he will receive yet another academic award, this time an Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree on June 14 from Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. and, on July 7, will be inducted into the Mariposa Hall of Fame during the fabled folk music festival in Orillia. 

But before that, Bruce Cockburn spoke with Zoomer about life on the road in your 70s, why older people shouldn’t dismiss the live concert experience, what Mick Jagger does on tour that he doesn’t, and why he won’t retire.

KAREN BLISS: Mick Jagger posts photos of himself on his Instagram during tours, where he visits local sites and even the occasional bar. Do you find time to do that when touring?

BRUCE COCKBURN: I was more like that in the 70s, when the pace of the work was much lower. You could do a cross-Canada tour, and it would be 12 shows, especially the early half of the 70s, we just drove ourselves around. So you could play Winnipeg and then take a month to get to Saskatoon. Winnipeg would pay for your life during that month, so back then, there was all kinds of time for exploring and having adventures. But at this point, to make it economically feasible, we have to work pretty steadily. That, combined with age [laughs].  I don’t have the energy to go wandering around now. I have to save it all for the show. But by doing that, I’m able to do the shows the way I think I should.

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KB: In other careers, people often work in order to retire. In the music business, there are so many artists still touring in their 60s, 70s and 80s. It’s a fascinating art form and job because creatively, it’s solitary, but you need to share it to connect. 

BC: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. But, it’s also a factor that the people who are working toward retirement are probably expecting a pension. We ain’t [laughs]. We’re not getting that. Musicians, athletes, anybody remotely connected to entertainment, unless you become rich enough that it doesn’t matter – which some people do, of course – there’s an incentive to keep working because you keep getting paid. 

But you’re right about what you said, though. Nonetheless, I don’t want to stop. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. I guess, technically I could, but my family and I would have to make some different plans. But I just see myself going until I drop, incapacitated, which could happen easily. I mean, at this this point in anyone’s life, you don’t know what body part’s going to give out [laughs]. Then I’m going to be retiring.

KB: Are you meeting fans on this round that tell you stories about what your music has meant to them? 

BC: I haven’t been doing that so much lately, but before COVID I was going out to the merch table and signing stuff. I had a lot of conversations. I did that for years. But COVID put an end to that. When we started having shows again after COVID, after the shutdown, it seemed too risky to be shaking all these hands. And then, I just never got back into it. I do slightly miss that – not enough to start doing it again at the moment – but it was nice to hear some of the stories … Sometimes people had really touching stories of how the music had affected them or sometimes people were just so enthusiastic that it made you feel happy to meet them. 

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KB: I’m sure there are a lot of Zoomer readers who don’t go to concerts anymore. What would you say to them in terms of that connection you get from experiencing live music?

BC: If you like listening to music in the comfort of your living room, that’s fine. And if you have a good sound system, it can be a rich musical experience. But it’s not the same as being in a room full of people, sharing the time and space through the music. There’s a sense of community that develops. It includes me and the audience. It’s one of the things that makes me want to keep doing it, that feeling of everybody coming together, in effect, celebrating our existence. And I think people should give themselves a chance to experience that, if they can. I mean, some of us old folks don’t get out so much and it’s just hard work to do it. So there’s a reason why we don’t go out. But if it sounds appealing at all, it’s worth the effort. 

KB: You have a young daughter. Does she appreciate what you do? 

BC: Yeah, she does. She likes coming to my shows.  She’s 12. She’s been coming to my concerts since she was two months old. So she’s very familiar with what a show is like backstage, front stage – the whole scene. 

KB: When she does come on the road with you, I guess that’s an opportunity for you to do things in cities that you wouldn’t normally do, like find a great ice cream shop or check out a waterpark?

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BC: No, we have a friend named Celia Shacklett, who is a children’s entertainer that lives in St. Louis. Celia and I have been friends since the late ’80s. She’s a free spirit and a freelancer. When we first started to bring [my daughter] on the road when was a baby, we got Celia to come along and help with her. So Iona grew up with our friend Celia. And when Iona comes on the road, one of the attractions is we try to get Celia to come on the road too and they get to hang out. I mean, Iona doesn’t need that kind of looking after now, but they’re such close friends so they go to libraries, they go to museums, they go to the toy stores, whatever’s around. But I don’t get to do that because my days are filled.

KB: You’ve got the soundcheck, press, sleep. 

BC: Exactly.

KB:  In two years, you will be turning 80.  Do you have a plan of how you want to celebrate?

BC: Yeah, my wife’s gonna turn 50 and I’m gonna turn 80 within a couple months of each other. So I don’t know, we’re gonna cook up something.

Photos in order: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - Sean Kilpatrick/The Candian Press - Graham Bezant/Toronto Star via Getty Images - Studio photo by Daniel Keebler


May 17, 2024
Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame

Bruce Cockburn: A Career in Review and the Future Sound of Music
by Karen Bliss


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Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Bruce Cockburn—inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017—has written hundreds of songs spanning 27 studio albums over a 50-plus year career, amassing 22 gold and platinum records, including 6x platinum for his 1993 Christmas album. His self-titled debut album came out in 1970, on the label his long-time manager Bernie Finkelstein’s created, True North Records.

An outspoken political activist and humanitarian with a firm stance against warmongering and environmental decay, the Ottawa native is known for such hits as “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “If a Tree Falls.” Still writing songs that are relevant and true, at 78-years-old he is still a workhorse. Last year, he dropped the stellar album, O Sun O Moon—produced by Colin Linden—and has since been touring extensively in Canada, the U.S. and overseas.

In between show dates, he will pick up another Honorary Doctorate of Music Degree on June 14 from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, and on July 7 will be inducted into Mariposa Hall of Fame during the folk music festival in Orillia.

He has already been inducted into Canada’s top halls: the aforementioned CSHF, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame (aired during the JUNO Awards) and Canada’s Walk of Fame. He was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1983 and promoted to Officer of the Order of Canada in 2003. Later in 1998, he was presented with the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. Bruce has also earned 13 JUNO Awards, the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. He was even featured on a postage stamp in 2011.

Cockburn, who lives in San Francisco, talked with the CSHF during his recent U.S. leg. He starts a run of Canadian dates on May 24.

You have toured everywhere. When you put together a tour these days, do you try to include places you’ve never been or space them out so you can visit a museum or a place you enjoy?

[laughs]. It’s not very romantic. Basically, Bernie calls the booking. Where can we do it that’s practical and that we haven’t been to most recently? That’s the main concern when you’re looking at a geographical area. Sometimes, it comes out of a promoter making an offer somewhere, like if we got a good offer to play a festival in England, then we would try to find other shows in England to put around it. But, for touring around North America, right now we’re booking for next March and putting on a tour on the West Coast.

What do you remember most fondly about the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame induction, the same year as Neil Young, at Massey Hall?

I remember most of it. I think William Prince and Elisapie doing “Stolen Land” was a wonderful thing. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s introduction of me was fantastic. I was so touched by that. She just said great stuff. It was smart and right on the money, as far as I was concerned. So, that’s what I remember most.

And I also remember being slightly shocked by the fact that Neil came with Daryl Hannah, his current partner. I had met Daryl back in the ’80s when she and Jackson Browne were together. I went to an event at their house in L.A. Daryl Hannah, all these years later looked exactly the same as she did when I met her the first time, which was like, “How did you do that?” You know, we know how it gets done by some people [laughs].

She has very good genes, that’s for sure.

Having seen her in the movies, like Kill Bill, where she actually does look older in those movies. But there at Massey Hall, she looked exactly the same as when she answered the door when I went to their house. And, it was kind of like, “What are you, a vampire?” But Neil, of course, I don’t know him well, but we’ve been acquainted for a long, long time and he and I both look our ages. But Daryl didn’t. Those are memorable moments.

You said something at the induction about your long-time manager Bernie: “In a world increasingly defined by its fakery, we together have pulled off the greatest trick ever—we spread truth.” Do you remember writing that in your speech? 

Yeah, vaguely, yeah.

Do you remember what you meant by that? The “we spread truth” part?

Bernie’s a businessman; I’m an artist and the relationship we have is symbiotic. Bernie still manages me because he loves the music. And he’s proud of it. I do it because I love the music. I like getting paid, of course. But I don’t do it for the money. I’d be doing it if I weren’t getting paid.

Okay, it sounds a little grandiose, put it this way: I want my songs to be truthful. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fictional. It’s the same way you can put truth in a novel.

You can put truth in any kind of song, but they need to have an emotional truth. And, when facts are cited, like I said, it can be distorted in a fictionalized way, but, in general, I’m trying to tell some kind of truth. I’m trying to tell my spiritual truth, trying to leave a record of my journey through life that may be of use to someone, or may not, but if I don’t put it out there, it won’t be of use to anybody.

So that’s why I do this. And, to me, it’s all about truth in the biggest sense with a capital “T.” I might exaggerate something or diminish something else, for the benefit of making a song entertaining and interesting, but it has to come from a real place inside me. And that’s what I have to share. Without that, there’d be no point in doing it. Without that, I would be doing it for the money. And so that’s why I called it “truth.”

Working with Bernie this long, that is rare in business. Is there something you can point to that has been the key to how you have been able to work together all these years, through all life’s ups and downs?

Well, I think the point one is it’s always worked. So, why mess was a good thing? But, also, like any relationship, it’s required patience and tolerance and forbearance, on both our parts, and the ability to step back the frustrations that come with dealing with anybody over time. So far, we’ve been able to do that. We’ll probably be able to continue.

Would you consider selling your catalogue the way a lot of your peers have been doing? Gives you cash in the bank and songs are complicated for your estate, your family.

I did do that. When I became a legal resident of the U.S., for tax reasons, it didn’t make sense. The advice I got from my accountant was don’t own a corporation in Canada and live in the United States. So I sold it. That’s going back now at least 12 years.

You were ahead of what’s turned into a trend with legacy songwriters. Neil, Dylan, Springsteen, so many.

Those guys are doing it because they get so much money. And yes, it simplifies their estate dealings, I guess. But, for me, it was a practical decision that I would have preferred not to do, actually, because I like the idea of having control over what happens to the songs. But, at the same time, and it’s not a total picture, because I have a publishing company that owns the songs that I’ve written since a deal was made.

So, there’ll still be those considerations when I croak, family will have to deal with, but you can’t avoid it anyway unless your economic life is so simple. But, for most of us, it isn’t because of the tax department [laughs]. It’s always complicated. There’s always stuff like that to deal with that you have to try to head off. I mean, we think about that stuff and have tried to make plans that won’t be too difficult to deal with.

As an activist and largely a socio-political songwriter, we have seen young people protesting for tighter gun control, women’s rights, and recently setting up pro-Palestinian encampments at universities, and yet popular music, the songs topping the charts, doesn’t reflect that. Do you think young people’s interest in substantive issues might start seeping into music?

I don’t have much of a sense of what college-age people are listening to. But we’ve seen all this before. In the ’60s, when the Vietnam War was on, especially in the States—there were protests in Canada, too, not necessarily against the war, it was just a thing that people did in fashion, in a way, to have these kinds of events. I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness of it by calling it a fashion, but these things kind of seem to go in waves or phases. And back then, people were killed at demonstrations because they called out the troops, and the troops did what troops do. This is that pendulum swinging back that way again, with different kinds of provocation and different circumstances and slightly different cause, although not radically different, but still the result of U.S. involvement in other people’s affairs.

It will be interesting to see if that starts getting reflected in music.

I think it will. I mean, it’s always been there in rap music. Rap music is hugely popular. Not all rappers do it, but lots of them do take on issues in their music in their material.

So, even if it’s passing references, along with the boasting and whatever else, there’s frequently commentary on whatever’s going on around them. That’s basically what we’re talking about with respect to the demonstrations. So, I’ve got a feeling that it will show up, that we’ll probably see more of it before it’s over.

At this point, it’s hard to know how people respond. I’m not in touch with that. If I were to be a songwriter now, starting out, I’d probably be sitting in my bedroom, looking at my computer and figuring out what to do with that and writing songs.


May 9, 2024
Mariposa Folk Festival
Orillia, Ontario
Press Release

Bruce Cockburn To Be Inducted Into Mariposa Hall of Fame


RUMOURS OF GLORY? “Mariposa has been at various points a really important part of me being able to get my songs out to people.”

a-1972 Mariposa by Edwin Gailits

The Mariposa Folk Foundation will enshrine Bruce Cockburn in its Hall of Fame at this year’s festival, July 5 – 7, at Tudhope Park in Orillia.

“Bruce Cockburn is a courageous and inspiring Canadian artist who first played the festival in 1968 and has graced our stage 8 times over the years,” said Festival president Pam Carter. “We’re honoured to induct him to the Mariposa Hall of Fame this July during his 9th appearance,” added Carter.

“It’s of course an honour,” said Cockburn in reaction to the news. “Mariposa has been at various points a really important part of me being able to get my songs out to people.”

He recalls his first unplanned mainstage appearance at Mariposa: “I was supposed to do an afternoon set – which I did. And Neil Young was on the bill and Neil had to cancel because he had an ear issue or some problem and – all of a sudden – I was on the main stage so I got up and played my songs and people liked it and it went on from there.”

Cockburn and the Mariposa vibe seem to have always dovetailed. While his songs of protest, love, and spiritual quest have moved many Mariposa audiences over the years, in typical Bruce Cockburn fashion, he remains humble in the face of his Hall of Fame induction.

“I actually look forward to being at the festival more than I look forward to getting this. At the same time, it is an honour and I’m very pleased about it,” said Cockburn who, like many patrons, has appreciated opportunities to immerse himself and discover new artists while at the festival: “The famous people were less interesting to me than the people I had never heard of,” he said regarding his multiple appearances at Mariposa.

A special live and pre-recorded tribute to Cockburn will be held on the evening of Sunday, July 7 at Mariposa’s Gordon Lightfoot Mainstage to commemorate the Hall of Fame induction. “You don’t want to miss the special tribute we have planned for Bruce,” said Carter. “It will be an evening to remember.”

The three-day Mariposa Folk Festival (July 5-7 2024, at Tudhope Park, Orillia, ON) features more than ten stages of top folk-roots music, along with presentations of story, dance, and craft. All ticket categories are on sale. Kids 12 & under are admitted free. The festival has special pricing for youth and young adults. Onsite camping is sold out.

Photo credit: Bruce Cockburn performing at 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival. Photo by Edwin Gailits


May 2, 2024
The Arts STL

Waiting for That Gift: A conversation on inspiration with singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn
by Courtney Dowdall


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Bruce Cockburn is a Canadian guitar player, songwriter, and activist who has traveled the world as a “musical correspondent” to document tragedies and triumphs of the human spirit. With a list of accolades and awards about a mile long, he is renowned and respected for his “cinematic” style of songwriting. He has released more than 35 albums over the course of his career spanning 50+ years.

The last time Bruce Cockburn came to St. Louis in October 2018, he sold out the joint. In the intervening years, he’s added two more original albums to his catalog, including his most recent work, O Sun O Moon, released in 2023, in which he continues sharing observations of the human experience: relationships, spirituality, politics, and wonder. He returns to Delmar Hall on May 7.

We had the honor of speaking with Bruce Cockburn from his Canadian home as he returned from the European leg of his 2024 international tour.

The Arts STL: Well, I’m so glad to have this opportunity. I was introduced to your music a very long time ago by my then-boyfriend, who’s now my husband. We were like 13 at the time, and he made me a mixtape that included a lot of music he got from his father. Songs like “Hoop Dancer” and “Rose Above the Sky” and “Tokyo” were some of the first songs of yours that I got introduced to, by my husband’s little 13-year-old poetic soul, which just melted my heart and has been with me ever since. So to have this opportunity was something I absolutely could not pass up. Thank you so much for making the time! Thanks for continuing to make all this amazing music over the years! And thanks for coming to St. Louis next month.

Bruce Cockburn: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. And you guys were ahead of the curve in the US. With those particular albums and songs and whatnot. Things were just starting to get rolling in the US at that point.

Can I ask, are those songs that I could ever anticipate hearing on tour?

BC: Actually, “The Rose Above the Sky” I have actually done a little bit lately. Not in every show. It’s one that, for me, I always have the dilemma, when I’m planning a show, knowing that there’s only so many long, slow songs you can put in. You know, you gotta have some energy in the show, too. So, that one kind of just got ignored for a long time, and I didn’t think about it too much. Then, when people started asking for it, and [it] came up in conversation so many times recently, that I started learning to do it again.

How does it feel to revisit those songs you haven’t played or had those words coming out of your mouth in so many years?

BC: It kind of varies. On the one hand, it’s interesting to revisit the songs like, ‘Does it still mean the same thing? What did I mean by that?’ A song like that—all the songs, really, take me back to where I was when I wrote them. Kind of like looking at a photo album of old photographs. So, I have mixed feelings about it generally. Because it’s a song that has pain in it. That’s there. It’s also fun to kind of go back and figure out how to do the damn thing. There’s a lot of guitar parts I don’t think I’d be able to figure out, having forgotten what they were. I guess, given enough time, I might be able to, but some of them were fairly complicated. That one wasn’t too bad, but some of them are quite challenging.

Would you ever consider having a pinch guitar player? We recently saw Elvis Costello and there were a couple of times where he said, “You know what, I want to play this song, we’ve got the full band, so I’m gonna let somebody else take over the guitar work on this, because it’s just not as familiar to me anymore.”

BC: No, I’ve never done that. I have occasionally reworked guitar parts. There were songs, some of the stuff from the mid-‘80s, where the bands were big and the guitar parts were shrunken, to accommodate all the different instruments—to figure out solo versions of those songs. A song like “See How I Miss You” or “World of Wonders,” those I had to invent new guitar parts for, because the original ones were designed to be part of a big band.

In other cases more recently, because I’ve got arthritic hands, I’ve had to rework the guitar parts in some quite familiar songs that I have played a lot, just because it’s become too difficult to play them properly. I mean, I can kind of hack my way through “Pacing the Cage,” for instance. I’ve just now relearned that, or reworked it, rather. Because I hadn’t forgotten the song, but the original way of playing it was not available to me anymore. There’s a few songs like that, that I’ve had to rework. And that’s also fun, actually, because it’s kind of a challenging exercise: how do I get the same feel and keep the same relationship between the guitar and the melody, and do it a different way?

What are the important pieces to keep? What is essential?

BC: Exactly. The guitar parts are essentially, except for some of those ones in the ‘80s, they’re basically compositions that are designed to go with those lyrics and that melody. It’s not quite like writing a whole song to come up with a different guitar part, but it’s a little bit in that direction. Trying to keep the same sense of what the composition is, and play it a different way, can be a little tricky. But that said, it’s been working with a few songs that I’ve had to do that with. Most of the stuff is not a problem because, you know, they do what I want them to do. But with some it has presented that issue.

What has been your response or your reaction to cover songs? Or other versions? Does it feel like they capture the same pieces that are important to you? Or maybe pick up on a different piece that wasn’t your emphasis but was more critical in their interpretation?

BC: Yeah, once in a while, it seems like somebody actually got the song. Most of the time, it doesn’t really seem like that to me. I mean, I respect the fact that everybody is going to do their own take on the songs. That’s what they should do. But sometimes it feels to me like they didn’t really understand what it was that they were doing, what the song was.

Other times, it works great. When Jimmy Buffett died, my wife started playing a whole bunch of Jimmy Buffett stuff, including five songs of mine that he did. And there’s a duet with Nancy Griffith of a song called “Someone I Used to Love,” another slow song, that I do too many of in a show. They did a beautiful version of it that really captures exactly what it should be. And yet, it’s clearly them doing it. Judy Collins did “Pacing the Cage,” and that worked great. Other people… sometimes… you know, it might be an age thing, maybe I’m not sure. I just thought of this, because the two examples I gave are both mature people looking at songs from a perspective of having had a life. And some of the younger artists that record the songs, I’m not sure that they actually know what they’re about. But that’s a sweeping generalization. And it’s probably unfair to a whole lot of people. There are many, many recordings of my songs that I haven’t heard, too. So, nobody should think I’m picking on them in particular.

That must be exciting to hear so many different versions and perspectives reflected back to you.

BC: There was a Toronto guitar player, Michael Occhipinti, [who] recorded a whole album of my stuff, and it was completely deconstructed and made into jazz, and it’s really good. And it was really interesting to hear that take. There’s no lyrics, it’s just the music, but the version of “Where the Lions Are” is pretty amazing. And who would have guessed that you could take it in that direction? Certainly not me. So, there’s that side of it, too. It’s not a question of how much they mess with the song. Unless they don’t mess with it in a respectful way, or, rather, unless they mess with it in a way that isn’t respectful, or it just doesn’t sound like it gets it.  

I’m gonna have to look for that. That sounds amazing. Do you have any role models or any folks that you’ve looked to for the way they’ve advanced their career or approached their music over time? Like, “That’s the way to do it. They did it right. That’s how I want to do it.”

BC: No, I don’t think of it that way. There’s been many people who’ve influenced what I do over the years, dozens at least, but some major ones back when I was getting started and just trying to understand what music was all about… There were guitar players: Wes Montgomery and Gabor Szabó. There were old blues guys: Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Brownie McGhee. There was Bob Dylan and other songwriters in the ‘60s. That was an era when a lot of us got beyond the limitations of pop music in terms of our understanding of what you can do with a song. Dylan in particular, but others too, who were exemplary. Gordon Lightfoot would be another one. People who were writing beautiful songs that were more than ‘baby I want to …’ There’s nothing wrong with that kind of song, but it’s –

It’s a different kind of song.

BC: I mean, I cut my teeth on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, And that’s pretty much all they play, pretty much all they were saying, was, you know, getting or trying to get laid or wishing they were getting laid. That was fine. It was exciting as a 12- and 13-year-old. But the discovery that you can write songs that actually said stuff was eye opening. Some of my friends, when I connected to the folk world, in my latter teens, I hooked up with people who have been aware of this kind of stuff all along, they’ve listened to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and all these people I had never heard. So for me, hearing and discovering those kinds of songs, but then right away, along came Bob Dylan—I didn’t think of myself as a songwriter, I just related to it really well. At the time, I was just a guitar player. And that’s all I aspired to be. I went to music school to learn jazz composition, to write music for big bands. That’s what I thought I was going to be doing. And then I got seduced by songwriting and went that way.

I read this quote of yours somewhere: “My job is to try and trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper.” Is that your transition from just the instrumental piece to capturing the words as well as the music?

BC: Very much so. I didn’t understand what I was doing, at first. I thought, “I’m listening to these people that are writing these great songs, maybe I can do it, too.” And the first song I remember writing was very derivative of early Lightfoot. Fingerpicking, nature imagery, and I don’t even remember any details of it now, but that’s what it was then. And then I was heavily influenced by blues and listened to a lot of blues. Not so much Chicago stuff, but the old country stuff, and jug band music and all that. Those were the roots.

And rock and roll. I was playing in rock and roll bands as I was doing gigs in the folk scene, solo or with friends. With hindsight, the second half of the ‘60s was all about learning how to write songs. And I wrote a lot of songs that I pray no one will ever hear during that period. But by the end of it, I had a body of stuff that I thought was worthwhile. And I liked it better when I played those songs myself than when I played them with any of the bands I’d been in. So, that that’s what went into my first album and half of the second one

So, speaking of the blues, I just stumbled upon this video of you meeting Ali Farka Touré. What an amazing experience that must have been. I know travel is very important to you and your music. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about travel and why it’s so important for, for that job, to track the spirit of things? Or for just being a human in general?

BC: Well, I’m not sure travel is required. But it’s been part of my life just because I like doing it, and because I’ve been given the opportunity for interesting kinds of travel on many occasions now.

The trip to Mali wasn’t about songwriting; it was about desertification and making a TV documentary about that, and how that particular group of people there were dealing with it. But because I play music, and because I have listened to some music from there, we thought it’d be cool in the process of the film, if they tried to put me together with some Mali musicians. Toumani Diabaté, the duet I do with him is better than the thing with Ali Farka Touré. It came out really, really well. But the Ali Farka Touré thing was just happenstance. We went to Timbuktu, and we were planning to stay overnight. We were on our way to our ultimate destination, further southwest of there, but we thought we’d go through Timbuktu and see it because we’re so close. So we had a hotel there, and the hotels are not like staying at a Holiday Inn. There were a whole bunch of Americans there. Two guys had this radio show called Afro Pop—I don’t know how popular it was, but it was syndicated. I don’t know if it was on NPR, but it was that kind of show, where they just looked at music from all over Africa. And they had organized the tour. So, there was like a dozen Americans, also at this hotel, and Ali Farka Touré was going to play for them that night.

I had met him at a festival in Canada, some years before, which he reminded me of, actually. I knew about him, but I didn’t remember that I’d actually met anybody. “Oh, Bruce!” and he shows up wearing a purple three-piece suit and a purple Fedora, which is like—you don’t dress like that Timbuktu. You could, you can, and of course he does. But everybody else is looking pretty poor and traditional with turbans and robes and whatever, so there he is doing this. And he invited me to sit in with him. That’s what you saw. It was fun. That whole trip was super interesting. But also, if you’re gonna look for the video of that, the film was called, River of Sand, I think you can get to it from my website. It’s got that in it, and the duet with Toumani Diabaté, and an older guy whose name escapes me at the moment, an older guy that played an instrument called an ngoni, a precursor to the banjo. That’s pretty cool, too. So there’s that music and then the film itself is—if you’re interested in the topic, it’s interesting.

Absolutely. So, it was the issue that drove the trip, and this was kind of serendipitous.

BC: That’s been the case with most of the more exotic travels that I’ve taken. It’s never been about going looking for songs. It’s always been about what people are doing in certain kinds of situations. In Nepal, the two trips in Nepal were under the auspices of a Canadian NGO that does development work there. And the two trips in Mozambique—one was about feeding people displaced by the civil war that was going on, and the other was about the landmine issue after the war was over. People can’t go back to farming because there’s landmines all over the place.

I’ve done lots of traveling just for my own amusement, too, but that’s more like being a tourist and less likely to produce the interesting song content than some of these other trips.

Do you feel like those travels influence your sound as well as your ideas and your activism?

BC: I think the Mali trip did. There’s a couple of songs that relate to that on Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. In some of the songs on that you can hear a little bit of that West African influence in the guitar playing. Maybe, or I imagine it’s there, it is certainly there in the lyrics to the song. Central America didn’t really influence me much musically. They have great music there, and the same with Mozambique. That had less effect on me than the stuff I was seeing apart from music.

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No marimba solos after your Guatemala visits?

No, I mean, I like marimba. There’s no video of it, but I did jam with a band of some Guatemalan refugees, in the same setting in which “Rocket Launcher” came from. These refugees had carried the marimba from their village when they fled what they fled from, which was horrendous stuff. Everybody carried a piece of it, and they put it back together when they could settle in this makeshift refugee camp. And because we showed up with guitars, they pulled out the marimba. These guys put on their good shirts.

And, the way they play, two to three people play the same instrument. One guy plays bass parts. One guy plays chords. And the other guy plays the melody. It’s like having a giant piano with three people playing it. It was really interesting. And little kids all danced around. It was very poignant actually, because the situation they were in was horrible. But they were partying when they had a chance.

That says so much, that that was a priority in that horrible journey. That was a priority, to bring that instrument.

BC: I was amazed by that. It says something really good about those people, the degree to which they had their crap together. They were organized. They had absolutely no food, they had no prospects, but they were keeping their organization together and keeping the families together and maintaining their dignity. It was kind of heartbreaking.

I imagine you’ve probably seen a lot of heartbreaking things in the places you’ve been and the issues you’ve dug into and tried to be supportive of, or tried to be part of bringing light to those issues. Do you consider yourself an optimist? An idealist? How do you do that?

BC: [laughs] I don’t think in very optimistic terms, but I can’t shake the feeling that things are alright. I’m not in Ukraine right now. I’ve never been a victim of those things myself. I’ve been up close with some victims, and I certainly heard terrible stories from those people. And of course, you don’t have to look hard to find terrible stories in the news. But I just can’t shake the feeling that something’s going to be alright. But it doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny because when you look around, it just feels like everything’s going straight down the tubes. 

You know there are some bittersweet comments on your new album as well. I’m going to read you another quote I found—“Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread the light, at whatever level you can do it.” You still seem to be effective at spreading that light despite it all.

BC: Well, that’s not my light. It’s the light that I receive. I think the point of being alive is to spread it, so I’m grateful when a song is given to me that does that. In a way, it’s an ongoing theme for me. It didn’t start out as a conscious thing, but it’s what seemed like it was worth writing songs about. Even when the songs are expressions of my own or someone else’s pain, it’s all in the context. The worst example of that would be “You’ve Never Seen Everything,” where the whole song is a catalog of completely horrible things, and the chorus is going, ‘Even though if you’re looking at all this stuff, you haven’t seen everything. There’s good stuff, too. The light is there too.’ I probably won’t write too many songs that go that far in that direction. But it’s there. It’s what life is all about, so it should be in the song.

Did you say ‘when the song is ‘given to me’?

BC: Yeah. I don’t go looking for them. I try to maintain an attitude of receptivity, but the ideas come when they come, and I feel like they’re gifts. Intention goes into it once there’s an idea, once something starts to feel like it’s going to be a song, then I work on it consciously. But otherwise, it’s a matter of waiting for that gift.

Do you feel like you need to train yourself to come from a place of positivity with all these things that you’ve seen and experienced?

BC: Well when I went to Iraq, for instance, I went hoping I would get a song. I didn’t. I did end up with a song, but it’s a little forced. It wasn’t as much of a gift as it was me pushing the issue, too, because I really wanted to have a song about being in Baghdad. There’s been a few other occasions where I’ve done that. It never works as well as when I just wait for it and let it happen. I’m not sure I would have got a song if I hadn’t pushed it, and so, whatever, it all comes out in the wash.

But with the trip to Afghanistan, I didn’t expect to get the song out of that, but I did. “Each One Lost” came out of that trip, and that was a gift, totally. It was a painful one, because the occasion that inspired it was a sad occasion. But the gift was there, regardless of that. And it isn’t always fun. I mean, “Rocket Launcher” was not fun. It wasn’t fun to write, it wasn’t fun to hear the stories or be in the situation that set it up. It’s never fun to sing it. But it seems necessary. If you’re a journalist, you’re someplace close to report on a situation, and you’re not going to just report on the things that feel good. You’re going to report on what you see. And for me that’s the same thing.

Does it take effort to find that place of love to anchor those things in? It seems like that would be a challenge in those situations.

BC: Sometimes it is. I think as time has gone on, it’s become less difficult. Central America was the first time I’d been in a war zone, and it was… it was pretty shocking. I didn’t see action or anything like that. I didn’t stumble over dead bodies or whatever, but I was among people who did do that. In an atmosphere where violence could unfold anytime, the feelings run pretty intensely in situations like that. All kinds of feelings—the good ones, too. Because love really comes to the surface in a situation where all the people you’re sitting with may or may not be alive tomorrow. I mean, that could be true anytime, anywhere. We don’t know who’s gonna die when. But in a war zone, that’s really front and center.

There’s this sense of kind of … camaraderie is not quite the right word, but it’s something like that. That’s too light a word. But there’s a sense of shared experience people are willing to extend to each other. In those situations, of course, those aren’t the people that are about to shoot anybody. That can be negative, too, because that same sense of us as a group can be directed in a hostile way towards someone else. Sitting in Managua, the war wasn’t right there—the war was off in the countryside—but there was just this warmth that was readily available, because the big concerns were the appropriate ones: life and death, and how we get along. People were thinking less about their—this is supposition, I didn’t ask anybody what they were thinking about—but it seemed as if people were thinking less about their immediate concerns and more about the fact that we’re all alive in the same place at the same time. At the time, I remember thinking, ‘This is how journalists get to be war junkies.’ Because it’s exciting. This warmth, this ease of forming—not deep friendships, because you don’t know these people. But the sense of being chummy with people and everybody accepts whatever—it’s an attractive feeling that it could be addictive if you did enough of it.

Sure. Well, and that fragility is really apparent in those situations. Aside from being a war junkie, how do you keep that feeling with you, when you’re not in those situations of imminent danger?

BC: That’s a good question. For clarity, I don’t think I’m a war junkie, although I certainly had those experiences.

But I’m sure they’re out there.

BC: There’s an attraction to that stuff, but it’s also tempered by fear. Am I going to go into a situation where I’m actually gonna get shot at? I prefer not to do that. It was always a possibility, but a fairly remote one, in the circumstances in which I’ve done that kind of travel. Maybe not remote, but lower on the scale of probability. I wouldn’t seek out that situation particularly, unless there was some real compelling reason. But something just inherently risky and that’s all it is? I’m not that kind of person. I’m not an adrenaline junkie like that.

But how do I maintain that? Over time? Again, if you experience that enough, and you live through enough stuff … I guess it matters that I’ve held that in front of me as a desirable part of life like that. If you don’t think about it, maybe it doesn’t work the same way. I don’t feel like I have goals, but I recognize that there’s a way to live and a way not to live. Practicing that over time eventually gets you to a place where you can be more open to that kind of stuff. That doesn’t rule out the ability to get angry at things that make us angry. But the anger is less inclined to take over than it might have been when I was younger.

That is one of the gifts of time and perspective, isn’t it? So along those lines, thinking of one of the more recent songs “To Keep the World We Know,” I was curious: what about the world we know do we want to keep and what do we want to let go? What do we have to let go? Do we want to keep the world we know?

BC: [laughs] The point of phrasing it that way is that, we’re confronted with more than a possibility of finding ourselves in a world we don’t recognize. And what are you gonna do with that? And not in a good way. It’s not like we’re suddenly going to find ourselves going through the pearly gates and walking on the streets of gold. What do we do with that? It’s going to be that life has become extremely difficult for most of us. And then what? So? That’s what I’m thinking in that song. There’s lots about the status quo that is not worth keeping, but it’s hard to know how to get rid of that without getting rid of the good stuff, too. So, with the complicated prey-slash-predator creatures that we are, it’s hard to step away from that.

Sometimes this is a good thing and maybe sometimes it’s not—separating the art from the artist, trying to separate the musician from their life or their politics. Sometimes that’s a goal. Sometimes we want to be able to appreciate someone’s art or music without thinking too much about the person and their feelings and their political views and perspectives. But I think in your case, that’s probably not the goal. Do you find that it’s hard for some folks in your audience to separate those two? Or maybe they try to and it’s not really comfortable for you?

BC: I don’t think about it much one way or the other. I think there’s a tendency for people who are at a certain distance to conflate the art with the artists. It happens with anybody that stands up in front of the public—they become larger than life and people read more into what they say that might actually be there. Or the image they project—sometimes the image is intentional, sometimes it’s just what people put on you.

That happens to me, to some extent, but in general the songs come out of my brain, my life and experience and feelings. And I try to have them be truthful. That said, there’s a lot about me that doesn’t go into songs, certain truths that I don’t think I really want to share with people. So you’ve got to allow for that.

If you think about Bach, nobody cares what his politics were. He just wrote all this beautiful music. I don’t know anything about his political views, if he had any. I think in the era in which he lived, if you were too loud in expressing political views that were not compatible with the authority around you, there’d be a terrible price for that. That would be true in Putin’s Russia. It appears to be, anyway. So you step away from politics. In the Stalinist period, in Russia, there was great music composed, too, where you really, really couldn’t take any chances. If you listened to Bertolt Brecht, you know, because of the content of what he wrote, what his political attitude was. But there it’s explicitly part of his art. That happens with people too, but I don’t know. I think if you live long enough, and work for over a long enough period, you’re gonna go through phases of understanding and phases of interest, and just be drawn into different areas: I’ve done a whole bunch of that, and now I want to do something else. That is going to affect how people perceive you and may not be directly related to what’s going on in your physical life at any one moment.

Yeah, and I’m thinking specifically of the spirituality aspect of your music and the political aspect that maybe for some people don’t line up in the same way that they do for you. I think that’s a challenge for folks sometimes. I know they’re part and parcel in your view, and in the music that you write and the messages you share, which I think is wonderful, but I think that probably is challenging for folks sometimes, who think, “I’m absolutely on board with this piece, and I just can’t quite reconcile with my own worldview.”

BC: The people who only associate me with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” are divided into camps, basically. There’s the ones who think that’s cool, and the ones who hate it. I hear from both, and I’m aware of both, but that’s one song out of 300-odd songs that I’ve written. It came from a specific time and place in my life and in the lives of the people that I was with at the time. If I went to Central America now, I might write a song that had as much of a sense of outrage as that song does. But it wouldn’t be the same song, and it wouldn’t say the same thing.

The same would be true if you’re listening to “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” It’s a cute song, it may even be a good song, unless you actually listen to the verses. It’s as much about death as all the rest of my songs. It’s light. And it would be too bad if people thought that was the only kind of song I wrote. The same thing is true with “Rocket Launcher.’” There’s a whole lot of other stuff there, if you’re interested enough to pursue it. Don’t judge me by that one song. But I don’t take it back, either. I was there. That’s what I felt. It was the ease with which I felt that outrage that I wanted to share with my peers, who don’t experience stuff like that, or had not at the time. ‘Don’t judge people for taking up arms, if you don’t know what they’re faced with,’ was the undertone of that. I’m not suggesting that taking up arms is a desirable move to make. I think there are times when you can’t avoid it. That was what I wanted to share with people. I’m not a pacifist, because I think there are those occasions. But I think that peace is better than war, and love is better than hate. Most of what I have sung, and maybe will continue [to sing], tries to say that.

I’m thinking also of songs like “Call It Democracy,” which is one of my husband’s favorites. It came to him pretty early in life and was pretty influential in the way that he thought about and viewed things on a global scale. I don’t know if you would take any of that back, either, but it still seems to me a very powerful and still very pertinent commentary.

BC: I wouldn’t take it back. I think there’s more to the world than what that song says, but I think what it talks about is real. And it hasn’t gotten any better. Specific details change from time to time, but clearly it’s the economics of The Forever War, more or less. We didn’t think of it in that language when I wrote it, but it was the beginning of globalization, and I was seeing and hearing about the effects of it from the people who are being directly affected by it. I put that in the song, because you go to any place that was—whether it was Nicaragua, or Jamaica, or anywhere in Africa, or, you know, in a whole lot of other places—you can see the dark side of all that stuff, of the way we live. People who live there see it, too. They know exactly what the cause and effect is. Some of them have something to gain from it. Their leaders often have a vested interest in making deals with the developed world. But the benefit of those deals doesn’t go to the people. It goes to the actual signatories to the deal. That is a situation that is to the benefit of the corporate world. That hasn’t changed. So no, I don’t take it back or anything. I sing it once in a while, and people like it.

You can certainly disagree with any of these statements. I mean, people have different points of view. People who are among the ones that gain from the stuff… I mean, part of the point of “Call It Democracy,” of airing that kind of thought is, in North America and Europe, we’re all beneficiaries of this unfair system. And we should know that. You don’t have to go out and change anything. We might like it. But you should know where your stuff comes from. I still feel that way. But I don’t feel like I have to keep writing that song, though. There’s other things that jump up—some joyful and some not—that also need to be written about.

And that’s all part of being that witness, right? Of being that correspondent, sharing that experience and documenting and putting it out for better or worse? It’s still an experience that was very real for the folks that you were with.

BC: Yes. And for me, yes.

I have one more question for you: I’m looking at a very long, incredibly long list of awards you have received: Juno Awards, certified platinum records, Hall of Fame entries. What recognition has meant the most to you?

BC: Certainly not the music business awards. They’re all very nice, and the way I was appreciated by a number of people—that’s very gratifying. But it doesn’t go very deep. The Order of Canada, I think it’s probably the most meaningful way to be recognized. The honorary degrees are—I have a bunch of those now, and I’m about to get another one—those occasions are sometimes kind of fake. You know, you have a convocation, you gotta get somebody to speak at it. Sometimes there’s a deeper sense that the honor being bestowed is heartfelt. I got an honorary law degree in the same year, the same spring that my wife was graduating from law school. That was, that was pretty cute.

Awkward!

BC: Because she had slaved for three years to get this piece of paper, and I got one handed to me. But I got a doctorate in theology, that actually really meant something. Coming from Queen’s University in Ontario. That’s a couple of examples of probably the two things that actually did mean the most, of all those awards.

The Order of Canada Award—that’s a lifetime achievement award?

BC: It’s not exactly that. It comes from the government. There’s a committee that decides this year who should be included. They can induct a certain fixed number of people each year. They look around the Canadian scene for who’s contributed to the benefit of Canada. To be included that way—there are now several hundred people in the Order of Canada, maybe even 1000. It’s not business related—it has nothing to do with how many records I sold and stuff like that. I mean, indirectly, it does, because if I hadn’t, if nobody ever paid attention to me, I probably wouldn’t have been on the radar.

But to have it be seen as a contribution to the country is meaningful to me in a way that being feted for being a star of some kind is not. When I started, I thought being a star would be the worst possible outcome. A star quote, unquote. Just that term was offensive to me, because it seemed to me that anybody who’s seen as a star is not seen as a person. And I didn’t want to go there. I tried so hard not to have the kind of star image for the first few years I was doing this. But you can’t escape it. People are going to invest you with this larger-than-life thing, no matter what, if they pay attention to you. So, I gave up on that notion. But it’s so much more meaningful to be recognized for something beyond that.

Sure. Well, for someone who’s so focused on storytelling and sharing and contributing and giving back, I can see how that would be an outstanding moment of recognition.

BC: Yeah, it was cool.

Photos: Daniel Keebler


April 22, 2024
Las Vegas Weekly

Singer-Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Lands At Myron’s This Week
by Brock Radke


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Local music lovers who follow the wonderfully distinct programming at Myron’s at the Smith Center are in for a rare treat this week when Canadian Songwriters Hall of Famer Bruce Cockburn makes a tour stop Downtown. The award-winning folk, jazz and rock artist—and remarkable guitar player—is making the rounds behind last year’s acclaimed O Sun O Moon, his 27th album which was recorded in Nashville with longtime producer Colin Linden.

It’s been long enough since Cockburn played Vegas that doesn’t remember where he played here last, but the 78-year-old legend remains a road warrior, recently finishing a series of shows in Italy. He’s toured Europe frequently during his long career, “and some aspects of those shows have been pretty politically charged,” he tells the Weekly. “When I started in Europe in the ’80s … it was very volatile in terms of street politics in those days, fascist terrorists blowing up train stations. It was kind of a wild scene.”

Cockburn is often categorized as a folk artist and his songwriting has frequently addressed human rights and environmental issues. But whether audiences are connecting to the meaningful lyrics or the articulate music, they are always connecting.

“It’s a whole different experience playing to an audience not fluent in English,” he says. “Some years ago a guy in Italy was telling me after the show, ‘I don’t understand anything you say, but I love your music because it makes me feel so calm.’ And that show included [songs] ‘Call it Democracy’ and ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher,’ some fairly inflammatory stuff.”

The concert at Myron’s will be a solo show, just Cockburn and his guitar, “so if you don’t like a show that doesn’t have drums, don’t come,” he jokes. It may sound minimalist, but the uninformed should check out a live clip on YouTube to learn how Cockburn creates undulating layers of music all by himself, and hones in on his award-winning lyrics at the right moments.

“I’ve always felt free to write about any subject that came up … but people noticed the political songs early on and I was sort of defined that way in the minds of those people,” Cockburn says. “I don’t see that as being put in a box, but maybe what could be called a box is that I offer people songs where the lyrics matter. That approach … isolates me from a certain category of artist and a certain demographic, but lots of people want to be entertained by something that asks a little bit of them. That’s my crowd.”

Photo: Daniel Keebler


April 16, 2024

Grateful Web Interview With Bruce Cockburn
by Sam A. Marshall


In May 2023, Bruce Cockburn – the highly prolific Canadian singer-songwriter active as a performing and recording artist since the 1960s – released his 38th studio album, O Sun O Moon. Then, not long after that, he began an extensive tour in support of the album that – extending to nearly 50 dates so far – has continued into the present year.

Between late April and early July this year, Cockburn will be logging nearly 25 new shows of his soul-stirring live performances in the U.S. and Canada. And since those dates only cover a clutch of cities in the Southwest U.S. and in Ontario, it’s reassuring for those of us most mindful of the passage of time that the now-78-year-old artist is charting out another run of North American shows for late fall.

Practically on the eve of this next run of dates that begins on April 24, in San Luis Obispo, CA, Grateful Web was most fortunate to have a personal conversation with Dr. Cockburn about the record and upcoming tour. (This took place on April 9, coincidentally the day after the great 2024 North American total eclipse.) This highly-awarded songwriter and performer – and, in fact, a holder of three honorary doctoral degrees in music – touched upon some his personal creative processes, his way of looking at the world and even a bit of the mysteries of existence – all ingredients in the making of O Sun O Moon.

When I attended one of Cockburn’s shows last year in Cincinnati, Ohio, still early on the 2023 tour, O Sun O Moon was certainly the main entree of songs on the menu that night. Yet, there was a good number of recognizable, fan-favorite songs and a few surprises on offer. Over the year since the album’s release and beginning of the tour, faithful fans of the master musical storyteller and guitarist have had a chance to become more deeply familiar with the new album. And – to my ears and mind at least – it may very well become as cherished as any of his most classic collections.

Although I was introduced to Cockburn’s music in the later 1970s, not long after his first few albums had been released, I’ve admittedly drifted in and out through different stages of his career. While I was off following other genres and more rock-oriented artists, I’d keep my ear cocked for what ‘progressive’ folk artists such as he and British folk-rock pioneer Richard Thompson would be up to next, even if l didn’t always listen to every album in depth. Initially more of an solo acoustic folk songwriter, he pursued a more obvious electric route with backing bands in the ‘80s, and in the MTV era even reached beyond his core audience with videos for such electrified rock activism songs as “Call It Democracy” and “If a Tree Falls”. Of course, some of that period drew me back. Yet, I’ve surely missed a good many things, so even now I feel as if I’m still catching up with Cockburn.

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With my incomplete knowledge of Cockburn’s entire body of work, I’ve tended to gravitate toward his more rock-oriented releases, and a personal favorite is his 2002, You’ve Never Seen Everything. This album deftly balances ballads against some modern-rock grooves such as the rap-spiel opener “Tried and Tested”. And while there are moments of sweetness and light in the folk-style songs, there are more experimental moments, too, like the album’s title track – a chilling, nine-minute, film-noir-soundscape with spoken-word narration that takes the listener on a journey through a dark night of the soul. I also tend to listen more for his instrumentals and expressive, jazz-flavored guitar performances than for his lyrical songs, so I’ve also been highly impressed with his all-instrumental albums, 2005’s Speechless and 2019’s Crowing Ignites, which are both journeys of their own.

Recorded in Nashville with Cockburn’s go-to producer Colin Linden, O Sun O Moon seemingly reshuffles the deck on listener expectations – and mine. It’s an album of sublimely crafted acoustic songs, rich in musical textures, air, and light that never once leave one wishing for more electrical current. Through alternating modes of quandary, gravity, celebration, sardonic humor and emotional resolve, his poetic and minimalist lyrics explore questions of life and mortality, love and forgiveness, and our place in the world.

So, yes, personal themes abound on the album, such as making the best of the time one has left in life (“On a Roll”), the spirituality in everyday life (“Into the Now”) and looking ahead to the next adventure (“When You Arrive” – a joyous New Orleans’ waltz that not only serves as the album’s grand finale but is also a rousing live sing-along.)

In any case, the longtime social and political activist also hasn’t shied away from contemporary issues but allows them a space of their own on the album. One such song is the percolating, roots-y, climate-change tune, “To Keep the World We Know”, which he co-wrote with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Susan Aglukark. And in the probing song about coming to terms with our fellow man and woman titled “Orders”, the perennial humanitarian seemingly answers the biggest question of all – “Why are we here?” – with unflinching directness.

Front and center, of course, is Cockburn’s warm and knowing but not-always-sweet voice, swathed in musical textures that range from soothing and inspirational to ones with more spit and grit. In fact, you might think that his song “King of Bolero” is a fair impression of Tom Waits. His guitar playing is also exemplary, although it never draws undue attention to itself. And both his vocals and instrumentation are kept good company with a fine ensemble of guest vocalists and musicians. Among these are Gary Craig, Sarah Jarosz, Jenny Scheinman, Buddy Miller, Susan Aglukark, Shawn Colvin and Jim Hoke.

O Sun O Moon is a satisfying emotional experience, from start to finish, and if you’re a longtime fan of this veteran songwriter, then you have very likely already moved it upward – if not all the way to the top – on your personal list of favorite Cockburn albums. If you happen to be still largely uninitiated to his musical universe, then this album – with its Zen-like sense of presence, sage wisdom and timelessness – is an excellent place to start your journey.

“One more time,” Cockburn urges his backing singers onward with a glimmer in his voice on the final, life-affirming refrain of “When You Arrive.” And when he plays it live, the whole audience joins in, shedding even more light into all the dark corners. Now isn’t that what friends are for?

GW: Glad you could make time to talk to us, Bruce. Our phone call seems very timely, since your recent album is called O Sun O Moon, and yesterday we had the total eclipse in the eastern U.S. A nice coincidence! I’m guessing that maybe if you’re near the East Coast right now, you were able to see the eclipse. If you did, I’m curious what your personal reaction to the that was.

Cockburn: Yes, in fact, I’m in Ontario at the moment. It was pretty amazing, actually.

GW: We enjoyed it in our area, too, and we could travel to where totality was without too much effort. Coincidentally, you often deal with imagery of stars and the cosmos in your lyrics, so one of the things I wanted to ask you about is the struggle between darkness and light in your songs. The album title and lyrics of O Sun O Moon seems to allude to that, but then you have a song like “On a Roll”, which seems to imply that maybe the light is winning this time. Would you say that’s true, or is it still always shifting for you?

Cockburn: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t exactly thought about things from that angle. My songs come from a pretty personal place, so, in my mind, they don’t automatically equate with larger philosophical observations. But, to phrase that question another way: “Do I feel myself to be an optimist or a pessimist?” In those terms, then I do tend to go back and forth.

In certain areas, in terms of individual spirituality, I’d say I’m an optimist. But in regard to the future of the planet, I’m more inclined to pessimism. The pessimism isn’t [giving in] and saying, “Ahh, what the hell! It’s all going down. . . .” It’s because I have grandchildren and also a young child, and I worry about the future for them.

The pessimism comes in where I don’t see as much being done to offset the threats that we’re faced with. Spiritually speaking, I do think there’s a kind of contest between dark and light, and I think that “On a Roll” is a celebration of the fact I feel like – at least while I was writing that song –  that light will triumph. Also, that when I cross that boundary to whatever comes next, I’m gonna find myself in a good place. That’s what the hope really is.

GW: That’s good. An interesting thing about the new album is your sense of resolve in the lyrics. Thinking back to your [2011] album, Small Source of Comfort, I sensed that you were in a period of doubt and transition as a songwriter. After that you did one more lyrical album, Bone on Bone, and then next was the all-instrumental album, Crowing Ignites. So did the instrumental album serve as a kind of ‘palate cleanser’ for you, to give you a break from writing lyrics?

Cockburn: I suppose it could have had some of that effect. I had wanted to do a Speechless II, and the original Speechless was a compilation of previously recorded instrumental pieces from my various albums. So my intention was to write a few new instrumentals to go with the same concept, because I had recorded a lot of other instrumentals since the first Speechless came out. And we might still do that someday. But what happened is that once I started writing the pieces, they kept coming and I ended up with a whole album of new stuff that became Crowing Ignites.

So, yes, it was cleansing, and, perhaps, I also didn’t have so many pressing lyrical ideas at the time. It was fun to make an instrumental album and to think only in those terms. When it comes to writing lyrics, I can’t really force the issue very well. I’ve done it occasionally, and I haven’t liked the results very much. But with instrumental music, I can just pick up my guitar, start fooling around and look for things more actively than I can with lyrics. So it was fun to work on Crowing from that perspective.

GW: I do think there’s often a quality in your albums of forward motion, kind of a restless search. In a certain sense, some might consider that ‘progressive’. One of the things I get from O Sun is more of a contented feeling, maybe even a nostalgic flavor. Obviously, you reference your own sound. But it also seems as if you might be giving some stylistic nods to some of your formative influences, such as the Gypsy Jazz of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. With the accordion, vibes and violin, there are also hints of Astor Piazzolla and New Orleans blues and jazz. Would you say that this new album came to you more freely than some of your recent projects?

Cockburn: I guess I’d have to think back to what some of the other albums were like to work on, but this one worked out very smoothly. As I said, when writing lyrics, I wait around for ideas and for the ‘flash’ and little ‘gooses’ of energy that get it going. And when that happens, I’m very grateful.

Several of the new songs were written in Maui when some of my family, friends and I were there [a couple of summers ago]. We rented a house, and it was so calm with tranquil, beautiful surroundings, and good company. That was, of course, before the tragic fires in Lahaina. The effect of that atmosphere was like it popped the cork and out came all of these songs!

For example, two songs that were like that were “King of Bolero” and “Into the Now”. Another song, “Colin Went Down to the Water”, came about a little differently but also in that setting. There was – as I like to think of it – a certain amount of grace that went into the writing of the songs, very little conscious tugging at things to get them to happen.

The oldest song of this set of songs was “When You Arrive”, and the idea for that had sat around in my notebook a long time. Then, one day, it suddenly clicked, and I thought, “Oh, yeah!” And that’s how it works. I’ve had that experience with songs, from time to time. It’s not like I went back to them every day and said, “What I can do with this?” They’re just there, and then something would invite me back to revisit them, and then there it was. Whether all of this was easier than other albums, I’m not sure. I’d have to think back hard about how those songs came to be.

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Even the recording [of O Sun]went pretty well, and that can sometimes be more difficult than the songwriting. One thing on this session is that I suffer from Meniere’s Disease, and my vertigo acts up at times. I’d have attacks of vertigo every day during the recording, and yet it came out all relaxed and cool. And – heh-heh – you won’t hear that on the record. We got lucky with that. It could have been worse! But, it was a very pleasant atmosphere at the studio where we recorded in Nashville. I stayed in a house where you walk across the yard, and then you’re in the studio. It made it all very workable and fun.

The way we approached it was that Gary Craig –my drummer and percussionist – and I recorded everything together. So he acted like a kind of human beatbox or human click-tracking, and he kept me in the right place rhythmically. So we had vocals and guitar, and some form of drums or percussion, and then we added people to that. And the great thing about it for me, in particular, is that I didn’t hang people up [during the sessions] waiting for me to get my shit together. And everybody contributed the most beautiful things.

Jim Hoke, the horn [and clarinet] player, walked in, really prepared, and he did the most amazing and beautiful horn parts. He started laying stuff down, and it was really magical, even though I was feeling like garbage.

GW: I’m glad you mentioned that. I wanted to ask you specifically about the horn, vibes and violin arrangements and how much of that you pre-composed. From what you say, it definitely sounds like you gave the musicians a blank page.

Cockburn: Yes, I’ve always taken the approach that you hire somebody based on the fact that you like what they do. So I just see what they’re going to do. And if something isn’t working, then I’ll intervene and say, “OK, how about more of this, or less of that?” But, generally, with the calibre of people we’ve had coming in, that hasn’t been much of an issue.

Sarah Jarosz came in and sang and played great. And (violinist/vocalist and previous Cockburn collaborator) Jenny Scheinmann – we got lucky with her, because she just happened to be in Nashville at the same time. We had no budget to fly people around. We had to use people we had access to, and Jenny was someone I’ve worked with a lot in the past.

GW: Yes, I saw her warm up and perform with you in Michigan in 2011, so I know just how good she is.

Cockburn: There was a lot of magic like that around the making of the album, and  a lot of really good feelings.

GW: Briefly, I’d like to have you touch upon your own musical training and education. For example, I know you studied jazz guitar at Berklee School of Music early in your career (mid-1960s). Just curious whether you always approach your songwriting from a theoretical perspective, or, for example, if you like to experiment and create new harmonies using altered tunings?

Cockburn: I do use some different tunings, although for a long time I didn’t. Way back near the beginning, I did use ‘open C’ and that’s the tuning I use on “Soul of a Man” (Note: This is a song that Cockburn has been performing on his recent tours). I learned that song in the ‘70s from the Blind Willie Johnson record. But I had observed the tuning from watching the Reverend Gary Davis. But other than that, I steered away from using open tunings back in the early days because I was hearing a whole lot of people who really couldn’t play guitar using those tunings to make the songs sound different from each other. And – heh – that didn’t work very well as that kind of function.

So I didn’t want to get stuck in that. For me later on, that ceased to be an issue and I just started exploring other tunings. That’s especially evident on Crowing Ignites. And there’s a song on this new album that’ s in what I call “E-GAD”. It’s DADGAD (six-string) tuning with the low string left in E instead tuned down to D. That gives you a nice combination of fourths and modal harmonies that you can move with, kind of like [jazz pianist] McCoy Tyner. Y’know, I’m not comparing what I do with what he did. . 

GW: Right. I understand, though, that you’re augmenting your harmony by changing the chord voicings. . .

Cockburn: Yeah, and it applies on some other songs, like the “King of the Bolero”, “When Push Comes to Shove” and maybe another one. Sometimes, all you have to do is change [the tuning of] one string, and then that suggests some new kind of riff that you hadn’t stumbled on before. And that can become the basis for a new song.

GW: As I’ve seen from setlist.fm – if that website is at all reliable, your sets over the last year have remained fairly fixed since the start, with a focus on O Sun O Moon and a pretty consistent selection of your other historical songs. I’m curious whether you’ve been writing any new songs in this period and trying any of them out live, and whether you feel like another album is possibly taking shape.

Cockburn: Not really. . .I'm not ruling out the possibility of doing another album. I’ve just been busy doing what I’m doing, and the energy that might have gone into songwriting – some of that’s gone into figuring out new ways of doing songs that my arthritic hands won’t do very well now.

Songs that I’m doing are the ones that people would want to hear. I had to come up with a new way of playing “All the Diamonds in the World”, for instance, and “Pacing the Cage” and a couple of other things that people are always asking for. For a long time, I’d have to say, “No, sorry, can’t do it because my hand won’t make those chord shapes. And that’s one area where using alt tunings can be very helpful.

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So, I’ve been doing some of that [re-arranging] and that’s been taking up some of the songwriting energy. But it’s worked, and I’m able to play those songs now. Whether people approve of the change in my guitar [parts], I don’t know. There are a lot of guitar players who’ll come to the shows, and they’ll see that those aren’t the same shapes they’ve seen me do before. But I think the music works now, and hopefully they’ll think so too!

GW: As you were writing O Sun O Moon, life was obviously going on all around us. Global warming, for example, is obviously a big modern problem that you call out in the album, and you alluded to other things such as the Covid period of 2020-2021. So do you like to be more indirect now in your observations or do you still like to be blunt, as you were with “All Our Dark Tomorrows” or “Trickle Down” (Two overly political songs from You’ve Never Seen Everything.)?

Cockburn: I think it depends on the circumstances and what kinds of ideas come to me. I don’t have any specific ‘policies’ about that. It’s just what comes up. Susan  Aglukark approached me about co-writing a song. And her idea about “To Keep the World We Know” was about global warming, and that song was much more intentional than I usually am. It’s because another person was involved, and it was her idea. Not the title, but she had some phrases and the concept. She wanted us to write a song about wildfires. I kind of took the ball and ran with it, and then we tossed its back and forth – over the phone, by email, etc. – and we came up with that song. I think it worked out well, but that’s quite specific and pointed.

In terms of what the song’s talking about, it doesn’t name people. But the problem [of global warming], of course, is bigger than just calling out people’s names. To single out certain decision makers for a song like that would be pointless, because they’re all screwing it up. Who’s your ‘bad guy’ today? The ‘bad guy’ is the money interests that are financing our politicians and financing their policies. That’s hinted at in the song, but that’s the enemy and it’s how we handled it.

GW: Touching on your repertoire in more detail, I wanted to ask you a bit more about your fans’ expectations. You mentioned before that fans ask for songs, but you’re not always able to play them now, even if you want to. Which songs from your history do you enjoy playing the most, and which ones, if any, would you like to ‘retire’?

Cockburn: Ohhhh, there’s  – heh-heh – um, I don’t think I’d necessarily want to name specific songs. But, really, not because I don’t like the songs, but when I’m thinking of putting a show together, there’s always a short list of songs that have to be in the show. And sometimes I find that kind of confining. So it would be nice to just not do them. For a while, anyway, and have them come back later.

In a way, that happened with “All the Diamonds”, “Pacing the Cage” and “Lord of the Starfields”. They’re all songs that because of the [chord] fingering of the original versions, I could sort of play them, but they didn’t come out well. They were all sort of messy sounding. So I had to come up with new ways of playing, and that made them fresh again.

Having to not be able to play them for a couple of years, at least — it’s been about that long that I’ve had this problem. So people would call out especially for “Pacing the Cage” and I’d really [regret] not being able to do it. I’d say, “I’m really sorry, but I’m working on it.” So that was one that got a rest and then it feels to play it again – feels good. With “All the Diamonds”, I did go through a phase where I hated that song – not as a song, just having to play it. But that was years ago, and I got over it.

Some [older] songs are lighter and they don’t require quite as much from me to perform them. I don’t have to go quite as deep to perform them as I do with “Pacing the Cage”, y’know, to make them meaningful in performance. I’m happy I got a rest with “Pacing” because it’s not a happy song, and I have to go back to where I was emotionally when I wrote the song.

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GW: You’re being kind of a ‘method actor’ then?

Cockburn: Yeah, I’m in the emotional state of when I wrote those songs in order to make them mean anything. It’s not by choice, either. It’s just what happens. It is how I feel I have to do it to make the songs real for people who are listening. Some of the songs are less pleasant to do that with than others. It was helpful to have that break.

GW: Looking ahead, could you share what your plans are for more tour dates beyond this next tour, which I know ends in early July?

Cockburn: My wife and family are probably going to want me to take some time and go somewhere, because she’s the one who needs the break. So I’m sure we’ll get away somewhere, and that might involve going back to Hawai'i. We’re looking at possibly adding some dates in the Southeastern U.S., in the November timeframe. Not confirmed yet, but that’s the general plan.

GW: Wrapping up then, Bruce, with one last philosophical question, coming back to the question of darkness and light. Obviously, with your faith, you have often expressed a fascination with the nature of existence, cosmic questions and starlight as a symbol. So time and again, you’ve shared your own spiritual outlook that seems certain but still allows room for the listener’s interpretation. Do you think we go to a good or a bad place when we die, or do you think we all become stars?

Cockburn: No, I don’t think we become stars. But I do think it’s very possible that we become [another form of] energy. And one point of view is that the energy we experience as living creatures dissipates and goes somewhere after our bodies die, right? Because, as we know, energy is not created or destroyed. The body goes to bits but the energy goes somewhere else. Whether it retains a consciousness or sense of its own identity is a different question altogether.

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Some people think that it doesn’t, but I think it does. I do think there is darkness in the universe and you don’t have to look far to find it. I can buy into the Christian viewpoint, but I don’t think there are literally Pearly Gates or streets paved with gold. I think that’s a metaphor for something beautiful. And I kind of see it as involving a connection with the Divine and the ruling principle of the cosmos, which is a beautiful and loving presence.

I think when you look at a starry sky and you are moved emotionally by that, what’s moving you is your sense of connection with the bigness of everything. I think bodies get in the way of that, so if you get the body out of the way, then your relationship with that will become more direct, pure and accessible.

GW: Thanks, Bruce, for sharing some of your perspectives on what goes into your songwriting. Your imagery of stars is one of the things that stands out for me in your songs, and I appreciate hearing more of your thoughts about that.

Cockburn: There’s an incredible amount of beauty and energy out there. And who knows? We may all get swallowed up in a black hole!

PHOTOS 1 & 6 by Shannon Stevens
PHOTOS 2 - 5 by Daniel Keebler


March 27, 2024
Wilfrid Laurier University

Bruce Cockburn, Shelley Niro, Louise Penny and Mike Richter to receive honorary degrees at Laurier spring convocation laurier-honorary-doctorate


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WATERLOO — Music icon Bruce Cockburn, celebrated Indigenous artist Shelley Niro, mystery author Louise Penny, and former NHL star Mike Richter will receive honorary degrees as part of Wilfrid Laurier University’s 2024 spring convocation ceremonies. Brantford campus ceremonies will be held at the Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts on June 4. Waterloo campus ceremonies take place at Lazaridis Hall from June 10 to 14.

Bruce Cockburn
Doctor of Music | June 14, 9:30 a.m., Waterloo

Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn has enjoyed an illustrious five-decade career shaped by politics, spirituality and musical diversity. His remarkable journey has seen him embrace folk, jazz, rock, and worldbeat styles of music while travelling to countries including Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique and Nepal to find musical inspiration. Cockburn’s many memorable songs include Wondering Where the Lions Are (1979), Lovers in a Dangerous Time (1984), and If a Tree Falls (1989), in addition to many others.

Deeply respected for his activism on issues from Indigenous rights and land mines to the environment and Third World debt, Cockburn has undertaken work with organizations including Oxfam, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, and Friends of the Earth. An officer of the Order of Canada, the Ottawa-born artist has been honoured with 13 JUNO Awards, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, as well as the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award.

Shelley Niro
Doctor of Letters | June 4, 10 a.m., Brantford

A multidisciplinary artist celebrated for her photography, painting, sculpting, beadwork and filmmaking, Shelley Niro is a member of Six Nations of the Grand River, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk. Through her work, Niro challenges stereotypical images of Indigenous peoples. Among her recent projects is the 2023 film Café Daughter, which tells the story of a nine-year-old girl of Cree and Chinese ancestry struggling to find her place in a small Saskatchewan community.

Recently, works by Niro were featured as part of the exhibit “Shelley Niro: 500 Year Itch” at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York. Her education includes a diploma in the performing arts from Cambrian College (1972), an honours fine arts degree in painting and sculpture from the Ontario College of Art and Design (1990), and a master of fine arts from Western University (1997). Niro also studied film at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Louise Penny
Doctor of Letters | June 13, 9:30 a.m., Waterloo

A number one New York Times bestselling author, Louise Penny is creator of the celebrated series of crime novels set in Quebec featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Since publishing the first book, Still Life, in 2005, Penny has won international accolades including nine Agatha Awards, named for Agatha Christie, as well as a Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award. Her books have been translated into 31 languages and sold more than 10 million copies.

A member of the Order of Canada for contributions to Canadian culture, as well as the Order National du Quebec, Penny studied radio and television arts at Toronto Metropolitan University (then Ryerson Polytechnic Institute). She later joined the CBC as a radio host and journalist before writing her first novel. In addition to the Inspector Gamache series, Penny worked with former U.S. first lady and secretary of state Hillary Clinton to write the geopolitical thriller State of Terror (2021).

Mike Richter
Doctor of Laws | June 10, 9:30 a.m., Waterloo

Among the most celebrated goaltenders in NHL history, Mike Richter played 14 seasons in net with the New York Rangers. During that time, he recorded 301 wins, made appearances at three NHL All-Star Games, and helped the Rangers to a Stanley Cup victory in 1994, the team’s first championship in 54 years. In addition to his play with the Rangers, Richter was a key member of the U.S. Olympic hockey team, competing in Olympic Games in 1988, 1998 and 2002.

Following his retirement from the NHL in 2003, Richter studied ethics, politics and economics at Yale University, graduating in 2008. Today, he serves as president of Brightcore Energy, a U.S.-based business working to accelerate the transition to clean energy by helping clients reduce reliance on fossil fuels through a comprehensive approach to energy efficiency and clean energy resources.

Tickets are required for all Laurier convocation ceremonies. Members of the media are asked to RSVP to attend.


March 23, 2020

Mariposa Folk Festival Announces 2024 Lineup
by Eric Alper


The Mariposa Folk Festival returns July 5 to 7 to Tudhope Park in Orillia with a lineup that includes Old Crow Medicine Show, Bahamas, Band of Horses, Noah Cyrus, William Prince, Amigo The Devil, Donovan Woods, Dwayne Gretzky, Jesse Cook, Joseph, Maestro Fresh Wes, Modern Biology, The Secret Sisters, a special performance by Bruce Cockburn, and more.

The lineup was revealed today for the 2024 edition of the iconic music festival. The Mariposa Folk Festival was founded in Orillia, Ontario in 1961. Through the years, it has grown to become Canada’s most legendary musical gathering. Tickets for Mariposa are on sale via the festival website.

“The festival consistently sells out well ahead of time, and with such a well-crafted lineup, don’t wait much longer before purchasing your Mariposa 2024 tickets,” said Mariposa Folk Foundation President, Pam Carter. “We’re thrilled that families and groups of friends have chosen our event as their essential annual gathering. For 64 years, Mariposa has evolved while staying true to our roots for generations to come.”

In crafting his first Mariposa lineup, Artistic Director, Spencer Shewen, looked to present an engaging roster of talent that recognizes the Festival’s storied history while creating the opportunity to showcase new and exciting artists. “With the lineup we are presenting at Mariposa this year, our attendees are going to be able to see fan-favourites who they know and love as well as many great new and emerging acts that are starting to make waves on the world stage. I have no doubt that our guests are going to come to the Festival to see someone they’ve been listening to forever and, at the same time, leave the weekend with their new favourite band! I’ve always found that the most powerful thing about music festivals is the discovery piece – the opportunity to find something amazing that you didn’t know before attending, that could be the next big thing.”

The 2024 lineup will include: Old Crow Medicine Show, Bahamas, Band Of Horses, Noah Cyrus, William Prince, Bruce Cockburn, Amigo The Devil, Donovan Woods, Dwayne Gretzky, Jesse Cook, Joseph,Maestro Fresh Wes, Modern Biology, The Secret Sisters, Alex Nicol, Amanda Rheaume, B.A. Johnston, Balaklava Blues, Ben Caplan, Benjamin Doerksen, Billianne, Blue Moon Marquee, Bry Webb, Carleigh Aikins, Cassandra Lewis, Cat Clyde, CJ Wiley, Colin Linden, Crystal Shawanda, Doghouse Orchestra, Ellen Froese, Fellow Camper, Field Guide, The Fuddles, Good Lovelies, Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, Hussy Hicks, Irish Mythen, James Gray, Jeremie Albino, Jessica Charlie, Jiggity James, Jon Muq, Ken Whiteley, Kim Churchill, Lawrence Maxwell, Leeroy Stagger, Mattmac, Mia Kelly, Nancy Kopman, Okkervil River, Old Man Luedecke, Onion Honey, The Paddling Puppeteers, Rick Fines, Rose Cousins, Royal Castles, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers, Shad, Shaina Hayes, Shawnee Kish, Shebad, Splash’N Boots, Union Duke, The Vaudevillian, Willows, Wyatt C Louis, Young Maestro, and Special Guest Tom Power.

Shewen is particularly pleased with the number of exceptional songwriters in the lineup: “With such gifted composers and lyricists as Donovan Woods, Cat Clyde, CJ Wiley, and many others, I look forward to magical Mariposa moments in workshops, on side stages, and on the Lightfoot Main Stage.”

The three-day Mariposa Folk Festival features 11 stages of top folk-roots music, along with presentations of story, dance, and craft. All ticket categories are on sale. Children 12 & under are admitted free. The festival has special pricing for youth and young adults. Onsite camping is available.


February 28, 2024
Billboard

TikTok Thinks Beyoncé’s ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ Sounds Like This Classic Canadian Children’s Show Theme Song
And the singer of that tune, Bruce Cockburn, has no problem with it.
by Gil Kaufman


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Beyoncé is already making history with her swerve into the country lane. But after scoring a surprise No. 1 hit with “Texas Hold ‘Em,” some of Queen Bey’s Canadian fans think her new two-step has a familiar ring to it.

A week after TikTok videos pointed out that the tune’s bouncy finger-picked intro bears a striking resemblance to the theme song from the late 1990s/early 2000s children’s cartoon Franklin, the musician behind that show’s iconic opening track, “Hey, It’s Franklin,” says he’s just fine with the comparisons.

According to TMZ, veteran Canadian rocker Bruce Cockburn, 78 — best known for his 1984 hit “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” — told the outlet that he is honored by the many side-by-side videos. “I think Beyoncé’s ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ is a good record. Unfortunately, I can’t claim to have any part in writing it,” he said.

“The rhythmic feel is similar to my theme song for the Franklin TV series, but to my ears, that’s where the similarity stops. ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ is her song, and I wish her success with it!” Cockburn added.

It appears the resemblance was first pointed out by TikTok user Ashleigh Aedan on Feb. 18, when she played a bit of the Bey song and captioned her video, “Now go listen to the Franklin theme song and tell me these are the same”; that clip has since racked up more than 3.5 million views. The post began making news in Canada soon after, with a radio DJ doing a mash-up that boosted the notion that the songs share a similar git-up.

A music expert told CBC News that the comparisons make sense since both use fingerstyle plucking, instead of strumming, with Beyoncé’s opening with a banjo played in the Clawhammer style. Musicologist Claire McLeish said the Franklin theme opens with a style called Travis picking, with a “strong Clawhammer influence.” McLeish also pointed out that both are played in the key of D, with the instruments tuned in a similar style, which is what McLeish said people are picking up on.

And while they sound similar, McLeish said “they don’t sound alike in a way that would cause any legal problems” because you cannot copyright an “idea,” and the Travis picking style is a common idea used in country and folk music all the time. In fact, McLeish compiled a playlist of songs in a similar style, including ones by Johnny Cash, Led Zeppelin and Cockburn, noting that since Beyoncé isn’t using the same melody or lyrics that are close to the Franklin theme it’s probably safe from any legal issues.

Last week, Bey became the first Black woman to top the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, followed by the track topping the Billboard Hot 100, giving the singer her ninth leader on the list.


February 25, 2024

The Bruce Vortex 
by Frances Figart

 

There are times in our lives when something new approaches, and we somehow recognize it is for us. A form appears and intuition tells us to move toward it, though we may not fully understand why until later.

In February of 1985, I drove from Kansas, where I was in college, to central Kentucky to visit my parents. As soon as I got in range of WKQQ, the radio station I grew up on, I set the stereo to 98.1 FM. As all the familiar sights of the Bluegrass came into view—tobacco barns, fields of thoroughbreds, dry-stone fences—an unfamiliar song wafted out onto the airwaves.

Its opening bars conjured up the rich brown, green, pink, and orange hues of a tropical jungle. As the melody took shape, it elicited both excitement and sadness. Then a sensitive, vulnerable voice I’d never heard before started singing about helicopters and murdered kids and God as drums kicked in to emphasize a refrain I couldn’t believe I was hearing: “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay!”

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Wow. I pulled the car over along the side of the state road, put it in park, and closed my eyes. I thought about another, older song that began with those same four words expressing desire, hope, a wish: “If I had a…” Pete Seeger had sung them in “If I Had a Hammer,” and I’d listened countless times to Peter Paul and Mary’s rendition as a child. That song—which calls for justice, freedom, and “love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land”—went on to become a protest anthem for the civil rights movement.

But this? This was something other.

This singer was so upset by guarded borders, hate, generals, torture, and “things too sickening to relate” that he was ready to take up arms against the perpetrators and retaliate! Yet this plaintive, intelligent voice could only belong to someone who was, under normal circumstances, a rational, level-headed guy. A nonviolent person. Someone I would be friends with. Someone like me.

Who was he singing about? Where was this problem? He mentioned an exotic sounding place I didn’t recognize where “one hundred thousand wait to fall down from starvation—or some ‘less humane’ fate.” Then I heard a place name I did know: Guatemala! One of my English Lit professors had been spending summer breaks writing about conflicts in Latin America, dividing his time between the Contras in the Nicaraguan revolution and a group of people helping some displaced Guatemalan farmers in Mexico who were being attacked by their own government—with financial backing from ours in the US. He would come back to the university every fall charged up about the issues, which I didn’t begin to understand. This guy must be talking about that same situation.

It hit me that what was coming through my JBLs was a far cry from Tom Petty wailing, “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” This strange new troubadour was invoking despair and outrage in me for a situation he had actually witnessed involving real refugees! Then I heard that peaceable voice invoke the guttural punch of a crusty old jazz singer. Did he really just say that if he had a rocket launcher “some son of a bitch would die”?

In five minutes, my whole world changed. I was reminded of the protagonist Beth Harmon in the book I was reading by Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit, which was set in Kentucky, not far from where I was now parked. When orphaned Beth first saw a chess board, she knew this strange new landscape was “for her” and she couldn’t get it out of her mind. I had a feeling that I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg, that this song was just one small part of what had to be a much larger body of work. If this one piece of the jigsaw could do what it just did to me, then there was a lot more to learn from this artist.

I could discern this songwriter was on literary par with the poetess Joni Mitchell, through whose musical eyes I had been synthesizing the realm of relationships since I was eleven. Now I was 21. I could also tell this guy had an astute sensibility beyond the typical Top 40 fare and suspected this song had only made it onto my hometown rock-n-roll radio station because of the shock factor of its last line. And now listeners who might have no clue about the political situation referenced would perk up their ears and wonder, like I did, what the hell was going on—all because of this bad ass singer . . . what was his name?

“That was the Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn,” said the DJ, pronouncing the “ck” in “cock” like he wasn’t supposed to, which I would soon find out because I was now on my way to Bear’s Wax Records to see if I could find the album. Stealing Fire was there alright, and the enthusiastic store owner had a world of information for me, including how to pronounce Bruce’s last name, and the fact that the album had been released in 1984, “Rocket Launcher” got pegged as a single, and had just now broken through to the US Billboard charts. He considered Bruce the Canadian Bob Dylan and told me he’d been recording for more than a decade already.

~~~

Within an hour’s time, I had entered an unexpected vortex that has now lasted 39 years. Bruce joined my personal Top Five favorite singer–songwriters at that time—the aforementioned Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Pete Townsend, Neil Young, and Todd Rundgren—making it the Top Six. Over the years, the lineup has shifted, but no matter who I’ve been listening to, Bruce has continually held the pinnacle ranking. In that age-old imagined scenario of going to a desert island and having to choose only one artist’s work to take with you, mine would always be his.

Stealing Fire was where I entered the whirlpool, but I rapidly went back in time to acquire and listen to all the albums Bruce had crafted up until that point. Then, I followed along with him into the future, swiftly purchasing each new offering as it became available and turning on all who would listen. Thirty years ago, in February of 1994, Daniel Keebler started the print version of Gavin’s Woodpile, and I began to receive it a short time thereafter. When Bruce wasn’t touring in the areas where I was living, I traveled to see him whenever possible. For years his songs were on my mix tapes; when CDs became popular in the late the ’80s, I began to duplicate the entire discography that I already had on vinyl. During the times of greatest emotion, whether it be deep sadness or expansive joy, only Bruce’s music and lyrics could match the complexity, reflect what I perceived as the dignity of my feelings. 

Bruce was coming from a Christian viewpoint, yet he had an inclusive world view that treated all cultures and religious beliefs with equal respect. This offered me a huge and needed comfort zone. Being raised Southern Baptist, but never having had my parents’ religious convictions, I rejected God in my late teens because I only had one framework for viewing the concept—and it just wasn’t working for me. I couldn’t accept that a creator had a gender and would choose only one group of people to participate in eternity. I considered myself an atheist when I found Bruce in 1985, yet I still identified closely with most of the viewpoints expressed in his songs because foundationally my language, culture, and social milieu were based in Christianity. My alignment with him came not from religion, but from the fact that, like me, he (or at least his persona in his songs) struggled with his faith just as he struggled with the atrocities humans perpetrated on other humans and on the planet. His was not the haughty fundamentalist Christianity of someone who pretended to have all the answers and doled them out blindly without question or thought. He grappled with the ramifications of all the horrors and all the ecstasies, whipping into the storm.

In the early ’90s I was so inspired by seeing him play in Cincinnati that I came out of the concert, “A Dream Like Mine” ringing in my mind and heart, and said to my companions, “I’m going to go to another country and save an endangered species.” What I ended up doing with that energy was looking in my own backyard and finding someone who needed help closer to home. I started a nonprofit to give low-income women in Eastern Kentucky a better chance at economic stability.

Later that decade I would send Bruce a note to ask if I might talk to him at a show in Chattanooga on The Charity of Night tour. I wanted to see if he might entertain the idea of doing a fundraiser for my nonprofit. He sent me a postcard from a New York hotel and told me to come backstage after the show. I drove from Lexington to Chattanooga, the concert was fantastic, and after the lights came on, I went up to someone breaking down the equipment and said, “Bruce told me to come and see him after the show.” I was sure I would be cursorily dismissed. “What’s your name?” asked the roadie. “Frances.” “Oh yeah, he’s expecting you.”

I was taken down a tiny hallway that led to an even more diminutive dressing room where I spent an unforgettable half an hour with Bruce. We talked about everything from hands and feet to rock climbing and horseback riding to languages, writing, and poetry, to family and relationships to the books we were reading. I felt wholly inadequate to express myself—not because of any distance Bruce created; he was quite relaxed, encouraging, and friendly. I was simply overcome with the cumulative admiration I had been nurturing for so many years that revolved around this person and all that he had been willing to share, that I was rendered woefully inarticulate.

Recently, I was delighted to find that M. D. Dunn gave this phenomenon a name on page 6 of his new tribute to Bruce, You Get Bigger as You Go. He calls it “The Bruce Effect” and laments in reference to an interview he conducted with Bruce, “I am embarrassed by how nervous I was: voice stammering, quavering.” He goes on to describe exactly what happened to me: “There can be moments in a conversation with Bruce when one’s mind goes to mush, the circuits overload, and everything shuts down. It’s nothing that Cockburn does; and for people with an appreciation of his music, it has nothing to do with fame or celebrity. Anyone who understands the significance of the man’s music and activism cannot help but be occasionally overwhelmed.”

Considering my own bumbling attempts at communication with Bruce that night in Chattanooga, I am glad to know others have had similar experiences. Bruce ultimately told me I could try to get Bernie Finkelstein to let him do a fundraising gig, but it would be a hard sell. We never did it. But I still consider that meeting to be one of the most important events of my life on earth.

~~~

As anyone who follows Bruce understands, there is no way to pick even a set of favorite songs; it just doesn’t work like that. We all love the entire body of work and how it constantly unfolds as a whole. Yet I can point to a few personal highlights.

Both “Coldest Night of the Year” and “Last Night of the World” share details of a very specific moment in time that yet reflects our own lives back to us in the generalities. “I drove all the people home; I was the one with the car”—who can’t relate to that? “I've seen the flame of hope among the hopeless, and that was truly the biggest heartbreak of all.” This line circles me back to the refugees who inspired Bruce to write the song that helped me and many others in the US to find him. These nostalgic yet hopeful songs about what might have been or could yet be help us to feel more connected to the people on the periphery of our lives who always made us wonder about the quantum possibilities.

If it’s love songs you seek, they don’t come any better than “Don’t Have to Tell You Why,” “See How I Miss You,” “All the Ways I Want You,” “Bone in My Ear,” “Live on My Mind,” “The Coming Rains,” “Wait No More,” and “See You Tomorrow.” Bruce has an uncanny talent for infusing songs about romantic love, sexual desire, and domestic bliss with the more expansive sensual connection to the divine that is our true love story.

Tunes like “Creation Dream,” “How I Spent My Fall Vacation,” “Understanding Nothing,” “Open,” “Put it in Your Heart,” “Tried and Tested” and “Burden of the Angel Beast” act as fuel providing the energy, endurance, and determination necessary to persevere in the quest for greater creativity and deeper connection. I have come to think of “Get Up Jonah” as one of the best spiritual poems ever written—and when you add the musical composition, the whole concoction blasts out into the stratosphere, taking the listener with it.

For years I have used “Love Loves You Too” as a closing exercise in Myers Briggs Type Indicator trainings to help various groups understand and appreciate personality differences and our multitudinous human roles. “Joy Will Find a Way,” “Hoop Dancer,” “Going Up Against Chaos,” “Strange Waters,” “Use Me While You Can” and “To Fit in My Heart” have each contributed profoundly to my ever-widening spiritual perspective—over and over again.

“Child of the Wind,” an epic piece which ironically ended a rare dry spell in Bruce’s creativity and is one of his finest compositions ever, taught me to step outside the view of God I didn’t like and see the much bigger picture:

Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see

Works like “Call it Democracy,” “If a Tree Falls,” “Stolen Land,” and “The Trouble with Normal” continually vindicate my views of world (and especially American) policy. As Bruce posits in his dazzling memoir, Rumours of Glory, politics actually demand art. “If an artist’s job is to distill the human experience into something that can be shared, then the political, as much a part of that experience as God or sex or alienation, deserve[s] to be seen as raw material. The arts contribute significantly to social movements and cultural cohesion.”

Dunn wisely points out that we “grow into the music we love. Sometimes we are not ready for it, but the music waits. It works quiet magic in the background of our lives, each note leading us to the next discovery.” This was the case for me with Joni Mitchell as a child morphing into a young woman, and the same has been true for me with Bruce as an adult on a circuitous path of learning that is finally getting a little less curvy.

When my mother died in 2012, I’d been her caregiver for over a year. She transitioned just after midnight. A close friend and I stayed up the rest of that night cleaning and rearranging the house. Bruce’s was of course the only music that was possible to hear during this stunning, elongated moment of dire grief. I had Humans on and “The Rose Above the Sky” came around—I had heard it hundreds of times and never understood what it meant until that instant:

Something jeweled slips away
'Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash 

~~~

Since I first encountered the music and got sucked into “The Bruce Vortex,” a week hasn’t gone by that I haven’t listened to him. Some of my deepest friendships and even a few of my professional relationships revolve around a connection to Bruce’s art.

I have seen Bruce loping onto the stage in his humble yet confident way and felt I could detect a kind of burden being carried, a yoke that tethers him to his role as a performer of these truths for which he has been such a powerful and translucent conduit. Sometimes I have sensed that, more than anything else, he’s bound and driven by an unshakable brand of spiritual stewardship.

Largely because of Bruce’s influence, I transitioned from nonbeliever to untroubled agnostic—the stance of “I don’t know all the answers about whether or not there is a God and that’s okay—I’m not designed to know.” But over time, I came to see in a different way. I now understand that nothing’s too big to fit in my heart. God doesn’t look the way I was raised to believe it would. I understand spirit differently than I ever thought possible. Through the combination of several spiritual practices and listening to Bruce, I can say, like him, that “in my soul, I’m on a roll.”

According to some wisdom traditions, when a student is ready, their guru shows up. They get an overwhelming feeling of love and adoration from being in the presence of the sadhu or holy one. But it is not the guru that is the object of adulation or worship. It is the divine manifesting through another human that causes the feeling of overwhelming joy. In his seminal bible of the counterculture, Be Here Now, Ram Dass explains that spiritual guidance appears when we need it and can be “in the form of a teacher or a lover or an enemy or a pet or a rock or a chemical or a book or a feeling of great despair or a physical illness or the eyes of a person you pass on the street.” Some people are put off by the notion that a human being can radiate the power of the divine. But I understand the concept of the guru through the alchemic effect that Bruce’s work has had on my life.

Last summer, I was privileged to be able to see Bruce play in Atlanta. Everyone I encountered there was smiling, and many were crying from the joy of being in his presence again. I had brief but deep conversations with several people I had never met, exchanging embraces when we parted ways. Like Zen meditation or shamanic ceremony, the path of Bruce Cockburn’s music is not for everyone. But for those who take up the mantle, the benefits are immense.

frances-figert

In Rumours of Glory, Bruce explains how he “wasn’t sure the listening public would accept ‘Rocket Launcher.’ I was afraid that if it did, I would be promoting a violent response to the violence the song deplores.” I’m so thankful today that, as he says, “common sense won out,” and Bruce decided it was worth the risk to tell the story of what was going on beside the Río Lacantún.

 

Frances Figart (rhymes with “tiger”) is a writer, editor, and creative director living in East Tennessee. Today is her 60th birthday. She has tickets to see Bruce on May 2 in Austin. You can reach her at ffigart@gmail.com.



February 16, 2024
Cashbox Canada

You Get Bigger as You Go – A Personal Interview with Author M.D. Dunn
by Lisa Hartt


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I have just finished reading “You Get Bigger as you Go”, Bruce Cockburn’s Influence and Evolution by author M.D. Dunn.

What a wonderful rabbit hole to fall into! I As the reader, I was immersed for weeks in Bruce’s music, playing the tracks from all the albums that Dunn delves into, as I read the book. I followed the timeline along with Mark Dunn’s research and exploration of all Cockburn’s albums. This book explores the profound influence and remarkable evolution of Cockburn’s music. A renowned Canadian singer songwriter and guitarist, Cockburn has entertained and educated listeners for over five decades.

Speaking with Mark recently about the book, we discussed the fact that Bruce is like a war correspondent, a journalist observing through his lens of music the times we live in, complimented by the poetry of his complex guitar phrasing. Cockburn digs deep into the pathos of the song.

Mark reflected that: “Bruce is almost always the narrator in these songs, and they are not always about him, but they are always a reflection of his point of view.”

Author M.D. Dunn takes us on an obsessive and humorous quest to track Cockburn’s cultural footprint and reflects on his own early introduction to Bruce’s music and how writing the book became a 7-year quest of immersing himself in the complete catalogue and as Mark says, “There is not a bad album in the catalogue”. The book is interspersed with interviews with Bruce, and meetings and interviews with many of the key players, like the legendary Bernie Finkelstein, close friends, and colleagues of Bruce’s, to get a clear picture of his generosity of spirit, his spiritual journey, his activism, and his love of nature. Black and white photographs from the archivist Daniel Keebler help to illustrate the different life passages of Bruce at home, in the studio, and on the road.

We talked at length about the passage in the book where Mark describes that we all come to Bruce’s music at different times in our lives. For him it was a cassette tape that was unlabeled with no liner notes in a thrift shop when he was fourteen “Joy Will Find a Way” which affected him so profoundly. For me it was “Goin’ To the Country” released in 1970. And so, wherever you come to Cockburn’s music, that is THE album for them. As a Montrealer, I believed we always had the ‘cool’ music first in Canada. Bruce always included French Lyrics on his albums and in his songs, so he was played extensively in Montreal on CHOM FM, the station of global inclusivity and diversity at the time as well as CJFM, the softer rock station of the City.

During our lively conversation, the author and I delved into the place of Bruce’s activism and how much great courage and self-discipline it takes to walk that path and be committed. How in one passage in the book, Bruce wrestles with the thought that the last line of “If I had a Rocket Launcher”, could be seen as a call to violence. He had been in such rage and grief writing that song after witnessing the refugee camps that had been decimated, killing women and children in South America. Cockburn worried that the rage was palpable in that song. Bruce says in the book: “It is still painful to sing that song. I put myself where the song is. It is painful. I don’t like singing it.” The book really delves into the trajectory and platform of his activism and there are interviews with people who accompanied him to Guatemala and Nicaragua that illuminate his integrity and shyness around acclaim for his participation. What Cockburn writes is thoughtful and researched and chosen out of a deep expression of belief in the group he is representing and not for opportunistic reasons.

Following the journey of Bruce Cockburn’s spirituality is also a revelation in the book and now makes so much more sense to me considering the descriptions of the albums created the maturity developmental period in this book’s timeline. The music gives us clues as where Cockburn is on his faith journey. It is wonderful that M.D. Dunn extrapolates the world news as we explore Bruce’s discography. It makes so much sense to me through reading this book, how mature he was as a thinker and an artist for change.

Mark and I spoke about the journeys we must all be on and that our choice of music is our companion, our guide, our Gandalf. This book is like that, it opens every moment for discussion and very beautifully speaks to the poetry of Cockburn’s lyrics, as we search our own journey on the timeline for similarities.

M.D. Dunn photo

I especially like how the author timelines Cockburn’s quest for spirituality. We the reader have the opportunity through descriptions of different albums and interviews to immerse ourselves in Cockburn’s journey. Asked in 2021 his concept of God Bruce says “It’s tricky, I got into a sense of God, the cosmic-ness of God that I think about most often. it’s a little like pantheism. God is in everything. Nothing exists without god’s permission, would be a Christian way of saying it. Having set the universe in motion. It doesn’t mean that “he takes an interest in every single detail. If you can imagine a person. While there is this cosmic thing, there is also a presence in the heart (brings both hands to his chest) that’s inescapable for me. And I want to know more about it. I never feel I know enough about it, that I have a clear enough channel to it. I like the Kabbalist notion of “Ein Sof” which is “The Boundless. In other words, you can say anything you want about God, but you’re never going to cover it. And so, all the images in a way are suitable, but limited. And you must be aware of the limitations of that imagery.”

Dunn writes: Cockburn’s spirituality is often described as ‘bordering on the mystical’. He has read widely and with an open mind, drawing from Christian studies, the Kabbalah, the occult, and Buddhism, among other traditions, to form a faith system that seems fluid and ever evolving but still Christian. Suffice it to say that Cockburn believes in a personal savior that transcends all physical limitation. It’s The Boundless, as he says, Boundless without end.

In conclusion: I highly recommend this book for anyone who loves and lives for the back stories in Bruce Cockburn’s music, and for those who embrace our Canadian perspective. The book is so well written and researched that it was very hard not quote or wish to discourse on every topic. There was so much meaning and integrity of language throughout the whole tome.

M.D. Dunn (you can call him Mark) has written and performed music for more than thirty years and released nine albums as of 2023. A teacher and a poet, Dunn’s writing has been published in the Globe and Mail, the Literary Review of Canada. The Rumpus, Public works Magazine, Contemporary verse 2, and many other outlets. He lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, where he teaches writing at Sault College. Find him online at www.mddunn.com.

As the author says: “The book is not perfect, and there is much more work to be done with Bruce Cockburn’s music and its cultural presence. I hope that this small offering might continue and advance the discussion.”

Fermata Press is a micro press for quirky books about music, who are dedicated to giving readers insightful, engaging, and strange books. Contact at FermataPress.com.


February 3, 2024
American Songwriter

The Insurgent Anger Behind “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” by Bruce Cockburn
by Bryan Reesman


Even peace-loving types can get fed up. And that is the anger and angst that Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn tapped into for his folk-rock classic “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”

Cockburn, whose 38th studio album O Sun O Moon came out in May 2023, has always been known for his artistic passion and social and political consciousness. His music has spanned a wide range of influences as well. On his 1984 album Stealing Fire he recorded many intense political songs, including “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and “Nicaragua.” The former song had a lyric (got to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight) that U2 later referenced in the song “God Part II.” The Irish band reportedly considered covering “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” but never did.

Intense Inspiration

When it came out, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” actually received a good amount of radio airplay and was shown on MTV. The incendiary song was inspired by Cockburn’s first trip to Central America that was coordinated through Oxfam in 1983. After visiting a Guatemalan refugee camp in southern Mexico that had been attacked by Guatemalan army helicopters—who untruthfully claimed it was a haven for guerrillas fighting the country’s American-backed dictatorship—he was inspired to write the song. It chronicled what he had seen in Central America and expressed the anger and outrage he felt or what he had experienced and witnessed.

Here comes the helicopter—second time today
Everybody scatters and hopes it goes away
How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say
If I had a rocket launcher … I’d make somebody pay”

While like their predecessors, the folk singer/songwriters of the ’80s certainly espoused peaceful solutions to political and military problems. But Coburn takes a darker turn here and as he does, each of the song’s four choruses grows more intense.

If I had a rocket launcher …
(Chorus No. 1): I’d make somebody pay.
(Chorus No. 2): I would retaliate.
(Chorus No. 3): I would not hesitate.
(Chorus No. 4): Some son of a bitch would die.

In the mid-1980s, some Canadian radio stations were reportedly uncomfortable playing that last chorus so the song was faded out in an edited version. The single was not a big hit at the time, having reached No. 49 on the Canadian charts and No. 88 on the Billboard Hot 100. It is one of only two Cockburn songs to ever chart in America.

But don’t let the chart numbers fool you. This song was actually a rallying call to metaphorical arms and its impact and popularity grew over time. (“Lovers in a Dangerous Time” from the album has also been influential and covered by Frazey Ford, Oysterband, Dan Fogelberg, and Barenaked Ladies, the latter scoring their first Top 20 hit in Canada with it in 1991.)

Mixed Messages

About “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” Cockburn told the Vancouver Sun in 2017, “A lot of people relate to it currently, in terms of Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria, any number of places. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be running out of war and pain.”

But audience reactions can vary. Cockburn recalled that at one of his own concerts he was scared by witnessing 2,000 Christians at a British music festival in the 1980s enthusiastically singing to the last chorus. “There’s nothing joyful or celebratory about it,” he told the Sun. “It’s truthful, but that’s not a pleasant truth to me. I don’t like reliving it.”

Conversely, when he played Santiago, Chile to support banned artists during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a Chilean singer translated each line Cockburn sang into Spanish. “When we got to the end, the audience was on its feet,” Cockburn recalled. “That was also quite chilling. These people had a different perspective on it.”

Twist Ending

In August 2009, Cockburn visited his brother Capt. John Cockburn, a doctor who was serving with the Canadian Forces at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. He performed this song for the troops to great applause. On a lark, the commander of Task Force Kandahar, Gen. Jonathan Vance, presented the singer/songwriter with a rocket launcher.

“I was kind of hoping he would let me keep it,” Cockburn quipped to the CBC. “Can you see Canada Customs? I don’t think so.”


February 3, 2024

James Toth Presents… ‘Imaginational Anthem Vol. XIII – Songs of Bruce Cockburn’

 songs of bruce cockburn

Bruce Cockburn is one of the most celebrated Canadian artists of all time. Unlike fellow Canadians Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young, Cockburn has not been fully embraced by a younger generation of indie musicians and younger fans. Tompkins Square recruited well-respected indie artist James Toth, known for his work with Wooden Wand, to curate the 13th volume of its guitar series, Imaginational Anthem, out April 5, 2024. Although there is a focus on Bruce as a guitarist, there are also vocal tracks on the album. Indie stalwarts Bill Callahan, Matt Valentine, Luke Schneider and Jerry David DeCicca all step up and pay tribute to this musical hero, proving that Cockburn is not only influential, but also the keeper of a deep catalog of songs ripe for discovery by a younger generation. PURCHASE HERE.

Foxglove – Eli Winter

40 Years In The Wilderness – Jerry David DeCicca (featuring Bill Callahan)

Up On The Hillside – Matthew “Doc” Dunn

Fall – Powers Rolin Duo

Pacing The Cage – Lou Turner

Waiting For A Miracle – Wet Tuna

One Day I Walk – Armory Schafer

You Don’t Have To Play The Horses – Jody Nelson

All The Diamonds – Kyle Hamlett Duo (featuring Luke Schneider)


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January 17, 2024
SooToday.com

Meet Bruce Cockburn (virtually) at the Sault Museum

Canadian music giant's life captured in a new book by local author Mark Dunn; free event on Feb. 11 will include a reading, door prizes and Cockburn answering questions


Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn will be in Sault Ste. Marie virtually next month promoting a new book that celebrates his long and remarkable career.

You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn's Influence and Evolution was released in December and has topped Amazon bestseller lists in multiple categories, reaching No. 1 in folk and country biographies. 

The Sault Ste. Marie Museum will host a launch for the book by local author and musician Mark Dunn. There will be door prizes, book sales, a reading from the book, and music. Cockburn will take questions. The event is free, but space is limited. Reserve a spot through the museum's website, or drop in to the gift shop.

The book is available for purchase in SSM at The Rad Zone and the SSM Museum Gift Shop, through bookstores, and online through Amazon, Chapters, and elsewhere.

Book launch:  You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn's Influence and Evolution

Sunday, Feb. 11
2:30-4:30 p.m.
Admission is free, but space is limited 
Reserved seating


January 17, 2024
Sault Ste. Marie Museum

You Get Bigger As You Go
Bruce Cockburn Book Event

The event will be held on February 11, 2024, from 2:30pm - 4pm in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn's Influence and Evolution made #1 on Amazon.ca, Folk and Country Musician Biographies in just over a week.

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We will be hosting an event with Mark Dunn (local author and musician) who just completed a book on Bruce Cockburn. This event will feature music, some reading from the book, light refreshments, and a special guest joining us virtually… Mr. Bruce Cockburn himself. Tickets for this event are limited.

Bruce Cockburn has enthralled audiences with his insightful lyrics and innovative guitar playing for over half a century. Hit songs like “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” are just part of the story. In You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn’s Influence and Evolution, musician and writer M.D. Dunn takes the reader on a humorous and obsessive quest to track Cockburn’s significant cultural footprint. Interviews with producers, musicians, activists, fans, as well as Bruce’s career-long manager, the legendary Bernie Finkelstein, and with the enigmatic Mr. Cockburn himself form the core of this critical assessment and appreciation. In these conversations, Cockburn and friends celebrate a life of music and social engagement.

You Get Bigger as You Go: Bruce Cockburn’s Influence and Evolution is the perfect beginner’s guide to the music and the artist, and a fun addition to any fan's library. Photographs from archivist Daniel Keebler span decades and show Cockburn in his natural habitat, on stage and in the studio.


© Daniel Keebler 1993-2024