Bruce Cockburn: A life in seven songs
Prior to his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Ottawa-born musician and activist speaks with Brad Wheeler about the significant songs of his career
'I don't think of what I do as a career," Bruce Cockburn says. "But the word has come up at points over the years."
This weekend is one of those points – when the singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist is inducted (along with Stéphane Venne, Neil Young and Beau Dommage) into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. The gala event takes place at Massey Hall, a venue he first headlined in 1972.
Now, at the age of 72, the Ottawa-born musician and activist has just released Bone on Bone, his 33rd album and first in six years. Sitting in a hotel room across the street from Massey Hall, the eloquent protester, clear-voiced seeker and six-string dazzler spoke to The Globe and Mail about the significant songs of his career. Not necessarily the hits, but the signposts along the way that mark a career – a hall of fame one at that.
Going to the Country, 1970
"I dropped out of the Berklee School of Music in Boston at the end of 1965. It wasn't where I was meant to be. By the end of the sixties, I had written maybe 20 songs. They sounded better to me when I did them alone, rather than with any of the bands I was in. Going to the Country was one of the songs that people noticed on my first album. I wrote it as a passenger in a car going to Montreal. I took notes as I looked out the window. The song became a template for one of the strains of songwriting that I've done. The folky guitar and observational lyrics, that perhaps were very early manifestation of the reportage approach to lyric writing that has shown up a lot in my work."
Sunwheel Dance, 1972
"It was the first instrumental piece that I recorded. I'd learned a lot about finger-picking from various sources and people I'd encountered. There was an American named Fox Watson, who was transcribing fiddle tunes for guitar. You'd have these beautiful melodies, with a really nice harmonic approach to them. I absorbed a fair amount from that. Sunwheel Dance led to Foxglove, on my next album, which got more attention. It's named after Fox Watson."
All the Diamonds in the World, 1974
"My first overtly Christian song. It was when I started calling myself a Christian. I'd become that, in everything but the commitment. And having made the commitment, it was necessary to use the term. This song commemorates that commitment. Because of the lyrical content, the musical style was self-consciously hymn-like. The chord changes were quite churchy, which was quite different for me then, and remains so."
Wondering Where the Lions Are, 1979
"The success of Wondering Where the Lions Are was a big surprise. It was both very welcome and very fraught. All of a sudden, I'm in the PR machine of an American record company. All of a sudden, we're touring in way more places. We played it on Saturday Night Live. It was so terrifying. It was American national TV, and I didn't feel ready for it all."
If I Had a Rocket Launcher, 1984
"After Wondering Where the Lions Are, there wasn't anything on the radar in the States. Years went by and then If I Had a Rocket Launcher came out. It took things up another notch. It shocked me that anybody played it on the radio at all. I almost didn't record it. I was afraid it would be misconstrued. There were other songs about Central America on the album, Stealing Fire. I didn't want people to think that I just wrote the song because I thought they should go down and kill Guatemalan soldiers. But there were enough people who understood it that I felt okay to having done it."
Get Up Jonah, 1996
"I was in St. Louis, looking out of a hotel room window at the sun coming up on the other side of the Mississippi. I'd been up all night, worrying about the things going on in my life. The song relates to the Jonah story in the Bible. It's addressed to me. I'm Jonah, telling myself to get off my ass and do whatever I was supposed to be doing. Something about the track I was on was wrong. I was satisfied with the status quo. Get Up Jonah is about accepting an invitation, from the cosmos, to take the next step. I really like that song, though I haven't done it for a long time."
40 Years in the Wilderness, 2017
"This song is Get Up Jonah, part two, in a way. You're still being invited to follow the road where it leads, but you're older. Maybe not wiser, but less angsty. After I wrote my memoir [2014's Rumours of Glory], I hadn't written a song in four years. I started going to church again, after not having gone for decades. There was a sermon about Jesus being baptized, which is when he really figures out who he is. He's shocked, and he runs out into the desert to figure it out. That struck me with considerable force. I felt like I'd been struggling with that issue for 40 years. I'd started to identify myself as a Christian in the 1970s, and here I was, 40 years later, back in church. And I'm living in San Francisco now, with my wife and child. I never would have imagined myself living on the West Coast. But it was an answer. I went with it. I went west in another one of those cosmic moments. This song is about accepting those invitations."