Bruce Cockburn may be one of Canada’s best kept secrets. In 1966, while his career was in its infancy, other Canadian musicians were making the trek across the border to find fame and fortune in United States. Names like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian Tyson and Leonard Cohen have come to rest in the American psyche as though they belong to us. Even the quintessential Americana band, Dylan’s backing musicians, The Band, consisted of four Canadians and one American.
By the time Cockburn’s first release came out in 1971 the quiet Canadian invasion had slowed down. But Bruce carried on. In his native land he has maintained critical and popular success. In the United States his music took hold with the 1979 classic, Wonderin’ Where The Lions Are, and the controversial, If I Had A Rocket Launcher. His music is a Gestalt of the best of art as a singer-songwriter. Upon hearing his work the diverse streams of his work come together in one flowing river: he at once a stunning instrumentalist on electric and acoustic guitar, a writer of reflective folk songs, an impossible to label Christian mystic who has an open disdain for any form of fundamentalism; he is an advocate for international human rights, an environmentalist, a photo journalist, a blues enthusiast and interpreter, a hard rocker, and a constant commentator on world affairs and the human condition. On albums such as Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu, Life Short, Please Call, …., and his latest live solo album, Slice O Life, you will hear reflections of all of these sides of Bruce Cockburn.
Recently I spoke with Bruce on a phone interview. He was especially excited about performing at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party in New York the week before. As we spoke, he came across as a gentle, clear-eyed, and insightful artist who cares deeply about his world and his art.
TERRY: There’s been much ado about the release of Slice O Life,” It’s the fourth live album you’ve released in your career. Can you tell us what the buzz is about?
BRUCE: Well, I don’t know about the buzz. I usually don’t hear that. I think it’s that this is the first solo live album. I’m used to playing solo. I’d say I do about 50% solo. I think with the album, the challenge was to bring something fresh to each song. I always try to bring something to all the songs along especially with the ones most people would be expecting; you know Lions, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Rocket Launcher. But, the best thing about a live album is it’s in the moment. Even though you practice, the feeling comes out in the performance. I’ll get a vibe going with the audience and a song like “Lions” will come alive in a fresh way.
TERRY: Do you consider yourself a performance artist?
BRUCE: I’ve never been associated with that term. I always think of a performance artist as someone who gets on stage and plays piano naked.
TERRY: I think maybe I’m trying to say this in terms of your authenticity. You bring your experience on stage with you. When Dylan wrote Masters of War, it was still conceptual, but when you wrote Rocket Launcher, you were there, a witness to the slaughter of the refugees in Mexico.
BRUCE: Well, yeah. I think Masters of War is a fantastic song and influenced me quite a bit, but it’s different when you’re up close to something. My job is to write about what I’ve seen up close…and songwriting sometimes takes a strong emotional charge to stimulate creativity. But, it’s my job to take a look at the whole of life and tell what I see.
TERRY: In many ways, describing your music and its development over the years is elusive. The word I kept coming up with is Gestalt…There’s wholeness to it…art, politics, introspection, spirituality, activism, environment, relationships. Your body of work is not about any one of these but paradoxically, as a whole, it’s about all of them.
BRUCE: I never really thought of myself that way. But you’re right. I don’t expect anyone to go out and listen to everything though. I’ve been known as a political songwriter because I got the reputation back in the 80s. But, I have always written about what I know and what I see in the world.
TERRY: In 1994 you went to Baghdad, resulting in the song This is Baghdad. What were your impressions?
BRUCE: Well, it’s kind of old news, but yes, I went over there. It was about two years after Bush had declared the war over. It was clear it wasn’t over. The Americans had dismantled the infrastructure, the police, military. There was unemployment, nearly everyone was out of work and there were guns everywhere. And the next year it would get worse. I remember a huge pile of munitions fell off the truck some American soldiers were driving. They never came back to get them. I mean these were major weapons.
TERRY: How did you see the children? I sometimes worry about the plight of kids there living with the trauma of war.
BRUCE: Everyone was living in fear of being victims of crimes. The children were being to watch for kidnappers. So, everyday they leave their home not knowing if they’ll come back home. You can just be standing on the sidewalk and hear a bomb go off or machine gun fire. Many of the kids have lost their family and friends. At that time their fear was that all of this would result in civil war. And it did.
TERRY: Let’s get back to the music. Nothing But A Shining Light………What led you song, What is the Soul of A Man? by Blind Willie Johnson?
BRUCE: There was a Folkways record from back in the 60s, a compilation of blues and old spiritual songs. I heard Blind Willie and it was chillingly beautiful. I mean, his voice, and he played slide guitar. I fell in love with him and Soul of a Man, the dramatic way he performed it.
TERRY: Did you know his story?
BRUCE: No, I don’t.
TERRY: He was a Baptist minister. His house burned down and he didn’t have anywhere to go and no one offered him a place to stay, so he slept in the ashes. He caught a lung disease from breathing the ashes and died.
BRUCE: I’m not a fan of biographies and don’t often go into the lives of the people. I’m totally focused on the music. He stands out from the rest. There’s also Robert Johnson and Son House, but Blind Willie was unique. It’s like you can hear other musicians from the time and hear their influences. But, Blind Willie sounded like no one else. He was original.
TERRY: In the past you’ve been described as a ‘Christian.’ In America, there is an almost assumed position that if you label yourself a Christian, you are by definition a political conservative.
BRUCE: I’ve talked to people who believe we really should stop using the term, ‘Christian.’ It’s been co-opted. It’s fundamentalism really. It’s a problem in the human character. Fundamentalism of all kinds, be it Islamic, Christian or any other ideology that says everyone who doesn’t believe like me is wrong. They say the answers are simple, but the world isn’t simplistic. They try to cut the edges off everything that doesn’t fit. As soon as you’ve decided you have something no one else has and the rest of the world has to have it, you’ve crossed the line into something evil. Fundamentalism of all kinds is evil.
You know, I always knew the Bible was embellished here and there, but there’s a book called, The Pagan Christ by a Canadian author, Tom Harpur, who shows that the stories in the gospels, the virgin birth, the savior who dies for sins and resurrects, was a part of Pagan culture 3000 years before Christ.
I don’t know why that is. Maybe in every three thousand years we need new dreamers.
TERRY: I was reading an interview from several years ago and you said it’s important to separate ego from your anger. What did you mean? Do you remember saying that?
BRUCE: No I don’t. But, it sounds like something I’d say. I do this all of the time. You really have to deal with the anger. Some people are pro-choice, some are on the opposite side, then, frequently people on the other side of an issue are totally likable. It makes it hard. Where do I put my anger? It’s important to deal with it creatively.
TERRY: Who has influenced your guitar playing?
BRUCE: Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGee, even after he broke up with Sonny Terry. Also jazz artists like Wes Montgomery.
TERRY: I keep remembering singer-songwriters like you and Dylan whose careers I’ve followed and I start thinking, “I’ve been listening to these guys for 40 years.” That’s a long time.
BRUCE: Even longer. I date my career as beginning in 1966, so it’s over 40 years. It’s the same for Dylan. Look at Pete Seeger. He’s still going strong at 90. I was at his birthday bash last week at Madison Square Garden. Do you know he used to chop wood on stage to the rhythm of his songs? He had to started using a sledgehammer because people were getting hit by the wood chips from the ax. He still does it. At his birthday there were 70 performers. Everyone was there. Tao was there, of course. John Mellencamp, and Tom Paxton. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t met Tom before. It seemed like everyone who owed something to Pete was there. Except Leonard Cohen and Dylan. Leonard never really drew from Pete and Dylan was on tour in Europe, I think. There were so many performers we doubled up. I did Which Side Are You On? with Ani DeFranco and Fare Thee Well with Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
TERRY: When I met Pete at a Carnegie Hall concert back in the 90s, he seemed to have no sense of his own celebrity.
BRUCE: I noticed that. He is conspicuously absent of that. It’s who he is.
TERRY: Well, that’s folk music
Terry Roland is an English teacher, freelance writer, occasional poet, songwriter and folk and country enthusiast. The music has been in his blood since being raised in Texas. He came to California where he was taught to say ‘dude’ at an early age.
Brings His Slice O Life To L.A. Acoustic Music Festival