A Conversation With .. Bruce Cockburn
We lived in what was stamped a “hippie haven” in the early seventies – Gothic Avenue, which borders Quebec Avenue – in High Park, Toronto. The brown rice/alternative lifestyle sanctuary was a haven for writers, musicians – in fact the late Billy Bryans lived only a few steps away and was playing in a band called Horn. Music was big fun and discovery. You could start in the early morning after a hit of a hash/tobacco joint and walk in on neighbours. Music played day and night, in fact it was all about checking out the person next door’s album collection.
The progressives blasted Emerson, Lake and Palmer – the countrified – Pure Prairie League – and the folkies loved their Tea for the Tillerman/Cat Stevens and a newcomer rising on the Canadian scene, Bruce Cockburn.
Even if you didn’t pay much attention you learned who the artists were were through peripheral listening. I had Bruce’s voice memorized as well as his fluent guitar playing. Cockburn stuck with you like he belonged in your life. Right time, right place!
The debut – Bruce Cockburn, produced by Eugene Martynec, came with a single that seemed to follow Canadians everywhere – “Going to the Country.” I know the inhabitants of Gothic Avenue were served a new side each year we survived the developers wrecking ball – High Winds, White Sky – Sunwheel Dance, Night Vision, Joy Will Find a Way and In the Falling Dark.
Come September, Cockburn is inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (CSHF)and releases his thirty-third recording, Bone to Bone. I connected with Bruce from his San Francisco home and collected his thoughts on a number of issues, episodes and events.
You have a couple of big events in September – induction into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and your 33rd recording – Bone to Bone. Your thoughts?
Any particular order? The exciting thing for me of course is the album – it’s been awhile since I’ve had an album out. I’m happy with the songs and how it came out. I’m anxious to get it out and get people to hear it. The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame thing is nice. There’s a lot of ‘halls of fame’ in the world. In one way, it’s delightful to be recognized by the scene – people who enjoy what I do and people who are close enough to it to appreciate what I do. That means a lot. I can also remember thinking, getting inducted into some kind of hall of fame means you should already be dead or about to be. I don’t feel like that now. It feels pretty good. I also remember being somewhere and there was the towing and removal hall of fame – every industry has one. This is a national one and a big deal – it’s nice and I’m very appreciative.
It’s about songwriting too – something very special.
It’s nice to be recognized by the people who understand what you do.
You have a healthy attitude about your career. It’s spanned decades and there is no reason to retire - just keep making music..
Yes – as long as I can keep doing it, that’s what I want to do. I don’t take it for granted or assume my feelings would ever change – it could, but hasn’t so far. I like what I do and I like performing the songs I write for people. It’s the way they get to hear them best and the way I get to share them in the presence of actual human feedback. As long as I’m physically able to do it, I expect I will.
Do you still enjoy your time on stage?
I’ve always been terrified on stage and that hasn’t really changed that much. Terrified would be overstating now but back in the beginning it was terrifying, now it’s just kind of stressful. When you perform your songs to actual human beings in a live situation, that’s where the song really lives and becomes meaningful. If nothing else, the experience of being there focused on the same thing with a whole bunch of people is a pleasant sensation. Then afterwards, it feels good for a few minutes and then you start thinking about all of the things you did wrong and then it takes a day or two before you start feeling good about it again. Along with the precarious situation is the idea of making a living without having a boss. Being able to travel - some people would find it as having an adventurous lifestyle. It’s a great thing – a gift and not everybody gets to do it.
You were there at a time when the “protest song” made a difference in people’s lives. It was impactful. The war in Vietnam came to a halt through song and action. Are there songs out there today having the same force or influence?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s down to the songs in this generation, but means and distribution. You can write the best song in the world and it’s not going to change things itself. It has to fall on fertile ground. In the sixties and up to relatively recently, the way a song fell on fertile ground was when it got sung at a protest – when it was sung to an audience who understood what it was protesting about and sympathized with the message. Then it becomes an emotional rallying point for all of that popular feeling that’s out there. If you don’t have that, I don’t think the song is going to have that much of an effect. People relate to music in a different way from most of the time I’ve been around. I’m not sure what that adds up to. In the state that I’m living there’s more popular feeling than you kind of want – it’s so polarized. There’s a lot of angry people on one side and lot of bewildered and worried people on the other. Can somebody write a song that would establish common ground with those opposing views that would be effective?
You live in California – a state that’s kind of a country unto itself now.
It is sort of. It is certainly resisting some of the trends that are sweeping the rest of the country. How long that can go for, who knows? Once they get into the real contest – the vast sums of money that transfer between the federal government and the states – just like in Canada – the federal government has a significant amount of leverage over a state like California. It hasn’t come down to that kind of arm wrestle yet. California, by and large, is forward looking as a society. This is where people are paying attention to environmental concerns in a deeper way than a lot of places. With respect to some issues, California gets carried away. Like Etobicoke in Toronto – it’s famous for having more bylaws than anywhere else. Unnecessary things like how long your grass should be.
We tend to go that way – there are a lot of laws in this state. Some are not very smart, I think. There’s a significant amount of energy behind having a future and having influence over the quality of that future. I think that may have to do with the relative absence of fear. It’s also the kinds of jobs too. The jobs that aren’t skill jobs are mostly agricultural. In Kentucky or West Virginia where the economy has mostly been dependent on mining – they are screwed! They are worried and angry. You can’t blame them. It isn’t about environmental laws like the powers that be keep painting that way, because there are never going to be mining jobs again – it’s all going to be automated.
Even if they rolled back all of the controls and let corporations do whatever they want, there still won’t be work. California is lucky in that respect that it isn’t currently in such a state of collapse. What will happen with the agricultural industry with climate change is another thing. We don’t know.
Bone on Bone? Is there a theme or something that links each song?
They are linked by the period of time they were written. People will notice an emphasis on the spiritual side of things more characteristic of what I was doing in the seventies than what I’ve done recently. It’s a rawer kind of sounding record – kind of bluesy and deliberately rough around the edges than some of them have been. The songs seem to suit that treatment. I don’t think people are going to see this as a “political, quote, un-quote album”. I don’t think I've written anything people would call a protest song on this album, but there might be one. There’s a song called, “False River” that’s about oil. That I think would qualify. There are passing references to that state of things but it’s more interior.
Even the Stones reacquainted themselves with their past and just put out a blues side.
I haven’t heard that album and I hear it’s good. I liked it when they started writing songs that were more in line with their actual real roots. The music that came out of English culture, but heavily blues-based. They got more interesting after they started writing about their understanding of life. That said, there’s nothing wrong with honoring those old blues songs. I think that’s what they intended to do in the beginning and did again now.
Some day I have intentions of doing an album of other people’s stuff that would include that kind of thing. From the artists I learned from when I started out. In fact, there’s one of those on the new album, what we used to call a “negro spiritual”. It’s called “Twelve Gates to the City”. I used to hear the Reverend Gary Davis sing it, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry sing it and various others. The song keeps popping up – I don’t know why really. It’s a song I feel I have a relationship with.
With YouTube, Spotify and so many streaming situations it’s like the world of music has been harvested and archived. Do you spend time exploring?
I do that but I don’t have much time to do anything and don’t listen to as much music as I once did. There was a period back in the 70s’ I wouldn’t listen to anything I could be accused of imitating. I didn’t want to listen to any other songwriters. I didn’t listen to rock n’ roll or even the jazz I loved. I went around looking for music I hadn’t heard before. I got deep into European Renaissance music and ethnic music from various parts of the world and what we would now call “world music” and was not called that back then. It was just recordings of people’s folk music.
I was traveling in southeast Asia in connection with the land mine issue in Cambodia and ended up jamming with these two guys. One played percussion and the other the Cambodian equivalent to the erhu and the tunes were traditional music and sounded like a cross between Appalachian fiddle music and blues. Fast tunes really bluesy sounding in a minor key. A lot of sliding notes. I played rhythm – just tried to keep up. I’d never given a thought to what Cambodian music would even sound like. Here I am jamming with this guy – blind from a mine accident.
What’s taking up your time these days?
I have a five-year old. One more day of kindergarten then off for the summer. Going into grade one in the fall – and it’s takes a lot of attention. Some of it is terrific and some of it is draining – I’m too old for this. She’s a terrific kid and there’s a lot about this that is really wonderful!