Singer, songwriter, guitarist, activist
Canadian singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn is, according to Maclean’s writer Nicholas Jennings, “a rocker with a mission—a troubadour for the common man.” For more than two decades he has written articulate, insightful songs that point out the political and social injustices and inadequacies of the world. “To his credit,” remarked Darren Ressler in Pulse!, “[Cockburn’s] public visage has remained enigmatic as he eschews trends and flash-in-the-pan pop fashionability.”
Critics have tried to pigeonhole Cockburn with such labels as folksinger, mystic, and environmentalist prophet. But he has defied definition, just as he has resisted the pressure to make his music conform to popular demand. By sticking uncompromisingly to his own inner truth throughout two decades of recording, by refusing to dilute his angry lyrics and—perhaps costlier in today’s pop-rock world—his Christianity, Cockburn has developed an intensely loyal following and great respect within the music industry. But for most of his career he has stood stubbornly on the outskirts of fame.
A dedicated political activist, Cockburn is beginning to reap the rewards that many feel are his due from 20 years of sticking to his convictions. Worldwide sales of his more than 20 records total more than ten million, and his concerts in Australia, South America, and Europe usually draw sell-out crowds. His sudden rise in status, especially in Canada, must seem ironic after years of putting up with comparisons to popular American singers.
Cockburn, divorced, lives modestly in downtown Toronto with his one daughter. Born on May 27, 1945, he was raised in Ottawa, Ontario. After high school he traveled throughout Europe as a street musician, then studied at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Dropping out after a few years, Cockburn returned to Ottawa to play organ in a Top Forty cover band and harmonica in a blues band; he also began writing songs seriously. “About 1969,” the singer recalled to Ressler, “I was in a state where I was so choked up with my songs that I just wanted to record them to forget them. When I hooked up with the means to do that, it didn’t have the effect of allowing me to forget—people wanted to hear the songs that they liked from the album all of the time!”
Cockburn’s writing, tending to the folky and romantic at first, has taken on an increasingly serious, often angry
For the Record…
Born May 27, 1945; raised in Ottawa, Canada; divorced; children: one daughter. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music, Boston, MA.
Solo recording artist, songwriter, and activist. Traveled throughout Europe as a street musician; played organ in a Top Forty cover band and harmonica in a blues band; made recording debut as a solo artist, 1970; has toured in Central America, Nepal, Mozambique, and other Third World countries.
Selected awards: Ten Juno Awards; eleven gold and two platinum records; member of the Order of Canada, 1983.
Addresses: Home —Toronto, Canada. Manager —Bernie Finkelstein, 151 John St., Suite 301, Toronto, Canada MSV 2T2. Record company— Columbia, 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
and militant quality over time. He is not only involved with political issues—frequently visiting Third World countries and speaking out on their behalf—but also with such environmental causes as stopping the destruction of tropical rain forests and cleaning the Exxon oil spill off the Alaskan coast. He has expressed that his activism was heightened after the birth of his daughter. “When my daughter was born, it sort of forced me to step back and look around,” he told Ressler. “I mean, the first headline that you see is bound to threaten this precious life. … At the time, everything seemed very urgent and I started thinking about the world and the future. For me, that was really the beginning to take the need to act politically seriously.”
Cockburn perhaps garnered the most attention for his four trips to Central America in the 1980s. After his first journey, during which he observed a Guatemalan military attack on a refugee camp in Mexico, the musician wrote one of his most popular, politically volatile anthems, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” Subsequent visits to such countries as Nicaragua and Guatemala prompted Cockburn’s “growing disdain for U.S. policy in Central America,” according to Jennings. In addition to meeting with a Canadian foreign affairs minister to discuss that country’s Central American policies, Cockburn, whose Juno Awards—the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys—began accumulating, increasingly addressed political issues on his albums, including Stealing Fire of 1984 and World of Wonders of 1986.
But Cockburn can also show a gentler side in his music. When not outraged, he writes songs about the simple day-to-day experiences common among all people. Scott Alarik of the Boston Globe described this marriage of emotions: “The presence of topicality in his love songs, and of personal love in his political songs gives Cockburn’s work a total vision rare among political songwriters. … Through it all is a raw anger … the real anger of a feeling heart.”
Despite the serious message of Cockburn’s songs, they are written in the easygoing manner of a storyteller. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Himes noted, “Without any overt pleas for sympathy, he simply sets a scene, tells a story and lets listeners draw their own conclusions. … Cockburn’s songs are marked by a powerful sense of place. In a few verses, he draws a vivid picture of a muddy road through the Amazon, a crowded street in Tibet or a bird-laden jungle as he weaves Asian, Latin and Dixieland motifs into his propulsive folk-rock.”
Cockburn feels that songs can be a catalyst for social change. “What’s important to remember,” he expressed to Andrew Watt of Australia’s In Press, “is that [as a singer/song-writer] you’re either doing something to change the status quo, or you’re reinforcing the status quo and as a human being it’s your choice to make.” Cockburn, who indicated to Ressler that “change is the theme that runs through all of my albums,” has worked tirelessly to promote reform through his music.
Two years after touring to promote his 1989 album Big Circumstance— a work filled with songs contemplating such topics as rain forest depletion, Central American violence, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union—Cockburn released the acclaimed Nothing But a Burning Light. The singer had been wanting to record an album somewhere other than his hometown of Toronto and headed for Los Angeles, hooking up with producer T-Bone Burnett and organist Booker T. Jones. Cockburn commented on the content of the LP in Pulse!: “In some ways it’s a return to a rootsier, more direct style of songwriting that’s folksier than my last few albums. … The songs are much more concrete than ones I’d written back in the old days.”
Richard C. Walls of Musician, pointing out Cockburn’s tendency toward political and social preachiness, found Nothing Buta Burning Light to be “still dripping slightly, from the slough of moral goopiness.” Nevertheless the reviewer declared, “Cockburn demonstrates once again that he’s an excellent guitarist.” Labeling the musician “one of the undersung heroes in the fading art of the well-tuned song,” Down Beat’s Josef Woodard found the album Cockburn’s “most satisfying collection to date.”
Although in the early 1990s Cockburn was concentrating more on songwriting than his political involvements, there is no doubt that the Canadian rock star will continue to play an activist role, giving voice to the hearts and consciences of those who care about the fate of their planet and fellow human beings. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of his activism and his music career, Cockburn told Ressler, “To me, all of my songs spring from the same place—they’re the product of some kind of life experience.”
Bruce Cockburn, Epic, 1970.
High Winds White Sky, 1971, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
Sunwheel Dance, Epic, 1972.
Night Vision, True North, 1973.
Salt, Sun and Time, 1974.
Joy Will Find a Way, 1975, reissued, 1988.
In the Falling Dark, Island, 1976, reissued, 1988.
Circles in the Stream, 1977.
Further Adventures Of, 1978.
Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, Millenium, 1979, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
Humans, 1980, reissued, 1988.
Mummy Dust, 1981.
Inner City Front, 1981, reissued, 1988.
The Trouble With Normal, 1983, reissued, Gold Castle, 1989.
Stealing Fire, 1984, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
World of Wonders, 1986.
Waiting for a Miracle, 1987, reissued, Gold Castle, 1989.
Big Circumstance, 1989, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
Bruce Cockburn Live, Gold Castle, 1990.
Nothing But a Burning Light, Columbia, 1991.
Atlantic Journal, April 22, 1989.
Boston Globe, March 4, 1989.
Down Beat, February 1992.
In Press, June 14, 1989.
Kingston Whig Standard, May 26, 1990.
Maclean’s, February 27, 1989.
Metropolis, January 26, 1989.
Musician, December 1991; February 1992.
Pulse!, December 1991.
Sun-Times (Chicago), March 17, 1989.
Washington Post, April 6, 1989.
Born: Ottawa, Ontario, 27 May 1945
Best-selling album since 1990: The Charity of Night (1997)
Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn is a many-textured musical journeyman whose iconic popularity in Canada began with his first album in 1970 and has grown in the United States and the rest of the world with his twenty-five subsequent album releases. His music has encompassed many genres at various junctures in his career and his lyrics often reflect a passion for political and environmental issues. Cockburn has taken his music all over the world and has a keen interest in the music and cultures of Third World nations. He is credited with being a brilliant guitarist.
Cockburn (pronounced Coe'-Bern) grew up on a farm near Ottawa, and took an early interest in the guitar. He played in high school groups and later sojourned to Europe where he performed as a street musician in Paris. He returned from Europe and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1964 to pursue a formal musical education. He stayed there nearly three years but grew impatient and left before graduating. (In 1997 Berklee College awarded Cockburn with an honorary degree.)
After his first release, Bruce Cockburn (1970), Cockburn gained immediate attention in his home country after being named Folk Singer of the Year at the 1971 Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent to the Grammy Awards). However, due to a marketing mix-up, the album was barely released elsewhere. He continued through the 1970s gaining a reputation as an earnest and outspoken folksinger. Cockburn's persona was difficult to nail down—a trait that would continue throughout his career—as he mixed progressive social views with his newfound Christianity. Most of his albums in the later 1970s reflect his Christian beliefs. In the 1980s he changed to a more electric sound, adding varieties of rock to his music, which was growing increasingly political and angry. He was particularly concerned with matters in Central America.
Although Cockburn remains an unwavering voice on issues regarding land mines, animal rights, and environmental concerns, the 1990s marked a return to music that was more reflective. His first album of the decade, Nothing but a Burning Light (1991), is tinged with blues and serves as a reminder of Cockburn's tremendous guitar skills. Additionally, his glass-clear chameleon voice adjusts to any style that he plays and expressively highlights his vivid lyrics. His other releases within the decade, Dart to the Heart (1994), The Charity of the Night (1997), and Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (1999), continue in a similar vein.
Cockburn has won several Juno Awards, including Best Album for Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. In 2000 he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He released a new studio album, You've Never Seen Everything (2003), and Cockburn continues exchanging and exploring musical ideas with musicians in third world regions such as Nepal, Mozambique, and Central America.
Many critics have wondered why Cockburn, an agile songwriter and a monumentally talented performer, has not become more successful commercially. Some reason that his left-wing politics in combination with his devout Christianity confuse listeners; others feel that he has been too wide-ranging in his musical styles. In the meantime, Cockburn is well respected within the industry and he continues to provide his loyal fan base with progressive, thought-provoking material.
Bruce Cockburn (Epic, 1970); High Winds, White Sky (True North, 1971); Night Vision (True North, 1973); Salt, Sun & Time (True North, 1974); Joy Will Find a Way (True North, 1975); Circles in the Stream (True North, 1977); Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws (Millennium, 1979); Humans (Millennium, 1980); Mummy Dust (True North, 1981); Inner City Front (Millennium, 1981); The Trouble with Normal (Gold Castle, 1983); Stealing Fire (Gold Mountain, 1984); Waiting for a Miracle (Gold Mountain, 1987); Nothing but a Burning Light (Sony, 1991); Dart to the Heart (Sony, 1994); The Charity of Night (Rykodisc, 1997); Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (Rykodisc, 1999); You've Never Seen Everything (Rounder, 2003).
Cockburn, Bruce, a superstar north of the 45th parallel, with one hit record south of Canada; b. Ottawa, Canada, May 27, 1945. Although Cockburn is a quarter-of-a-century veteran of the rock wars, in the U.S. that tenure has garnered him but one hit single, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions are,” which reached #21. There have been several more underground hitlets, like the college-radio fueled “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” but Cockburn’s reputation for political correctness, in some circles, overshadows his musical achievements. In his native Canada, however, Cockburn has 13 gold albums, three platinum albums, ten Juno awards, and was named to the Order of Canada.
Cockburn always risked an outspoken stand in his work, taking on issues and morality to the detriment of his popular appeal. No artist since Phil Ochs has taken such strong political stands. His first ten albums strongly reflected his Christian humanism. During this period, which roughly encompassed the 1970s, he rarely left Canada to perform. With the release of his 1981 album, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, Cockburn downplayed his devotion in favor of the politics of human relations and expanded his folky handle with elements of non- western music. The result was his only hit in the U.S., “Wondering Where the Lions Are.”
Cockburn was unable to follow this up with another hit, and his American record company went out of business as his next album came out. He remained popular in Canada and a cult performer in the U.S. Sony Music decided to take a chance on Cockburn in 1991, releasing Nothing but a Burning Light. An extremely musical album, it featured players like Jim Keltner, Mark O’Conner, T-Bone Burnett (who also produced), Booker T. Jones, and Jackson Browne. Despite their best efforts, including an aggressive reissue program making all his work available in the U.S., some for the first time, Cockburn continued to sell indifferently in the U.S. His second Sony release, Dart Through the Heart, produced the hitlet “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” but failed to raise his profile appreciably.
Cockburn’s 1997 release, The Charity of the Night, featured heavyweight players such as jazz vibes player Gary Burton, bassist Rob Wasserman, and the slide guitar of Bonnie Raitt, as well as appearances by Annie DiFranco, Bob Weir, Maria Muldaur, and others. Nonetheless, it too made little impact beyond Cockburn’s circle of devoted listeners. His high-energy show is neatly captured on 1998’s You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance. His 25th album, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu prominently featured an array of female singers, including Lucinda Williams and fellow Canadian Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies. It also delved into a renewed interest in non-western sounds spurred by a trip to Mali (captured in the film River of Sand—Exploring Life on the Desert’s Edge), prominently using a traditional African harp called a kora.
Perhaps someday Cockburn will manage to shed some of the labels that hinder him—folk artist, Christian artist, leftist artist—and music fans will assess him merely as an artist. Until then, he seems content to play for his fans in Canada and his cult audience elsewhere.
Circles in the Stream (1997); Bruce Cockburn (1971); High Winds White Sky (1971); Sunwheel Dance (1972); Night Vision (1973); Salt Sun & Time (1974); Joy Will Find a Way (1975); In the Falling Dark (1976); Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979); Humans (1980); Inner City Front (1981); Trouble with Normal (1983); Stealing Fire (1984); World of Wonders (1986); Big Circumstance (1989); Nothing but a Burning Light (1991); Christmas (1993); Dart to the Heart (1994); Charity of Night (1997); You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance (1998); Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (1999).