-- Career: Early Years --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the early years of his career.
[Interviewer Stephen Holden]
He views his playing as merely competent. The six string acoustic
is his chosen instrument. He is a writer first. A singer-guitarist second.
BC: "I went through a period of playing ragtime and country blues, and later I
mixed in a lot of Beatle and Dylan with Jelly Roll and Mance Lipscomb. I was
always interested in jazz, and when I finished high school I entered the
Berklee School of Music in Boston, where I majored in composition."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn's Quiet Optimism", High Fidelity, 1981, by Stephen Holden.
23 May 1985 - Before Bruce studied guitar he half-heartedly studied trumpet and clarinet
My parents were worried that the guitar might turn me into a hoodlum, because
for a while I hung out with a strange crowd: our favorite game was to kick
the other guys in the balls as often as possible without getting your own
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Launches a Hit", Rolling Stone, 23 May 1985, by Steve Pond.
3 April 1992 - Commenting on his early influences and progression of musical career
[Interviewer William Ruhlmann]
BC: "I liked rock 'n' roll from the very first moment I heard Elvis Presley," he
is quoted as saying in his Columbia Records press biography. "It caught me
in a big way."
Cockburn had tried playing trumpet and clarinet, but now began taking guitar
lessons and playing the piano.
BC: "I started out playing guitar because Iwanted to play rock 'n' roll, basically," he said in a recent interview. Cockburn played in Top 40 bands in high school and "fell in with some folkies." In the 60's, he was a street musician in Paris, but also picked up formal training
by attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston, studying composition and
arranging. "The guitar style I've been using ever since developed from all
these influences," he said.
At the same time, his musical tastes continued to expand.
BC: "I discovered
other kinds of music, jazz and what-not," he recalled, "and I thought I might want
to do that, but when I actually got down to studying it, I discovered I
didn't really want to work that hard, and in the meantime I'd been learning
to fingerpick, playing ragtime, country blues and stuff."
The major rock artists of the 60's influenced Cockburn's lyrical bent.
BC:" I always loved the poetic use of words," he said. "When I first heard Bob Dylan and John Lennon, it was revealed to me that you could put poetic words with
After Berklee, Cockburn returned to Ottawa, where he played in a succession
of rock bands, such as the Esquires and the Children. No released recordings
resulted from these associations, though there were some attempts made.
BC: "There were some demos, but nothing that was ever intended for release,"
Cockburn said. "Probably all the bands I was in, with maybe one exception
had demo tapes made. One of them even tried to get a gig doing a commercial for
Salada tea, without success. But we had a song called 'Tea Freaks Blues'
that we used to do that was written for this tea ad campaign that was far too
weird for Salada tea. Which is just as well, 'cause I don't think I wanted
to get into the advertising world anyway."
At the same time, Cockburn was beginning to gain a reputation as a
songwriter, leading to at least one recording of his work that he could
BC: "There's an album that was recorded by a Canadian group called
Three's A Crowd, I believe on Fantasy Records, but I'm not absolutely
certain of that," Cockburn said. "It was produced by Mama Cass, and it had at least two of my songs on it and some co-written with another guy named Bill
Hawkins that I used to work with in Ottawa at the time. They did a song of mine
called Bird Without Wings. There's also a song that's erroneously credited to me that Bill Hawkins wrote, which I think was 'Cotton Candyman.' This was '68, around that time, and the album would be a very obscure addition to anyone's collection at this stage."
Soon enough, Cockburn himself turned to the idea of recording, though not in
the rock band format.
BC:"By '67 I had a little body of work that I'd written,
some of which was specific to the various bands, but some of which
transcended the limitations of those bands and stood on their own,
BC: " he
explained, "and I discovered that I liked all those songs better when I just
played them by myself."
The move toward a solo, acoustic approach was in keeping with the temper of
the times at the end of the 60's, which saw such performers as Neil Young
and James Taylor turning away from playing in bands to make folkish music.
BC: "There was a general feeling of exhaustion in the air anyway, with the psychedelic
scene and all that, which I felt, the same as a lot of other people did,"
Cockburn said. "And I thought, 'Betcha there's a lot of people that would
like to hear songs with just voice and guitar right about now.' So, I went
solo, and it took me another year or so to extricate myself from the band
involvements. I had been doing the odd solo thing through that period
anyway, and started concentrating on that in earnest, and it wasn't all that long
before I got an opportunity to record.
BC: "Initially, I wanted to record because I wanted to forget those songs. I
felt choked up. I'd written all these songs, and I wanted to put them out in
front of people and then get on to writing other ones, naively, of course, because
I didn't have any idea that once you recorded a song that's what people
wanted to hear then, but I found it out quick enough."
Cockburn got the "opportunity to record" through a combination of associates
in Toronto in 1969.
BC: "It was a fortuitous circumstance that around the time I
was getting really desperate to record I ran into a guy that I'd known from
another rock band that was playing in bands the same time I was, named Gene
Martynec. We started talking about doing this. The band he'd been in had
broken up, and he was interested in getting into other things, and he wanted
to try producing records. So, we started talking about that, and he knew
Bernie Finkelstein, who wanted to start a record company. So, the three of
us got together with converging intent, and that was the first album, and the
beginning of True North records. True North is still the label I am
officially connected to; everything else is a distribution deal of one sort
-- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest", by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine, April 3, 1992.
Spring 1993 -
James Jensen: Was an acoustic guitar your first instrument?
BC: Well literally it was but I was interested at first in playing
electric guitar and as soon as I could convince my parents that I
should get a guitar I got an old Kay arch-top which, in fact, was an
acoustic until I put a D armond pickup on it. I always maintained a
certain amount of interest in the acoustic side of things. This was
when I was fourteen and I was interested in playing Rock 'n Roll but
the guy I was taking lessons from was more of the Chet Atkins school.
JJ: That's where the fingerstyle came from?
BC: No, I didn't learn any fingerstyle from him it was all with a
flat pick but that style of music was sort of injected into the
equation, the sort of country swing kind of thing that led to my
introduction to Jazz and other types of music. I was still thinking
of only electric guitar but late in high school I fell in with a
bunch of folkies who were into country blues and ragtime and that
kind of stuff and that's when I started to fingerpick. My picking
style hasn't really changed at all, the right hand technique is the
same as it was then. My style is basically a combination of Big Bill
Broonzy and Mississippi John Hurt or Mance Lipscomb...
JJ: The monotonic bass?
BC: The thumb drone or an alternating bass. You sort of have one or
the other and Mississippi John Hurt was a great source of direction,
I guess would be the way to put it, because of the beautiful and
simple way he used to put the melody over the alternating bass. I
mean he just played the melody of the song, and that was like no body
else I had heard, it wasn't just licks, it was the actual melody.
That sort of opened up a whole new thing and because of my interest
in Jazz and other types of music that all got added in so when you
take that same sort of right hand technique and apply it to a more
complex musical approach you end up with something like what I do.
JJ: You mention that alot of your music comes from finding a lick on
the guitar and expanding it but I believe you had a formal education
at the Berklee School?
BC: Yeah, I went to Berklee for a couple of years, well actually for
three semesters out of a four year course (laughs) all the best
people dropped out. I had a fair amount of formal training and quite
alot of theory training and a few years of piano. I'm able to read
music and when I was in High School it hadn't occurred to me to write
songs but I was trying to compose instrumental music in the Jazz
mode. I wrote a rather naive Jazz mass that was performed at a local
church and which I'm sure if I could get a tape of now would be big
laughs for all concerned. At Berklee I majored in composition so I
got as far as learning how to make Big Band arrangements like Glenn
Miller style of things and then I dropped out to play Rock 'n Roll.
That same crowd that I had got the fingerpicking from were putting
together a rock band back in Ottawa and they needed an organ player,
and I had enough keyboard knowledge to play what passed for organ
parts in those days, so that was the first band I was in. That's the
point where I really started writing songs, I had written two songs
before I joined them but it was in that band that was committed to
doing original material that I sort of was encouraged to write alot
and I spent the second half of the sixties writing for a bunch of
different bands I was in. Then I decided that all the songs sounded
better if I played them by myself. (laughs)
JJ: Your guitar arrangements were very dense [circa 1977]compared to a lot of
singer/songwriters of that time, was that just your style or did you
feel that you had to keep it busy being a solo?
BC: Well it was both, when I first started playing things like
Beatles songs solo you had to think of some way to make it move the
way the record moves or it's really boring if your just strumming
chords. I tried to make the guitar function as a band as best as I
could so that's part of the thinking and the fingerpicking and the
development of my style. That actually has led to a peculiar
relationship with bands that I do have because I still basically work
that way when I write a song so when I invite other people in to it
to play they have to find a way around that busy guitar part which
causes difficulties sometimes but usually produces some interesting
JJ: At that point [referring to the first few albums] were you touring as a
solo or with a band?
BC: I was hardly touring at all. I played in bands for the second
half of the sixties but by the end of the sixties I was doing mostly
solo work and the touring those days was pretty limited for me, I had
like four or five places I could go. When the first album got out
and things gradually built up I began traveling alot. I lived the
first half of the seventies out of a camper truck and went back
and forth across Canada, I didn't play outside Canada really. Little
by little I built up an audience, but it wasn't until the album "In
the Falling Dark" came out that I had got sufficiently fed up with my
own company and thought I better start adding people to the stage
show. That folkie / jazzy group is the one on "Circles in the Stream"
the live album from 1977, that was the first band I had.
-- from an Interview by James Jensen at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, circa
6 October 1995 - On starting out wanting to be a Rock 'n' Roller, some early influences, learning period of the 60's
"I wanted to play rock and roll when I started playing. Nobody at that time ever thought about songwriting. You sang songs, that's all. You sang other people's songs. That's all there were."
Then toward the end of his high-school days, he was whomped up the side of the head by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
"I'd always loved poetry and I'd always loved writing music and composing music, but I hadn't thought of putting the two together until around that time.
"The second half of the '60s really was a kind of learning period, in terms of writing, for me. I did a lot of writing for a lot of different kinds of bands that I was in and out of during those five years and... that left me with a little body of songs that I liked better when I played alone, so I ended up going out solo and very soon... made my first album."
[referring to choosing music as a career]
"All I ever thought was, 'I'm going to do this as long as I can, and if I can't get paid at it, I'll be a bum doing it.' And so, here I am... I'm not quite a bum."
-- from "Cockburn's Convictions Bring Him to Verde Fest as Well," by Salvatore Caputo, Staff writer, The Arizona Republic, October 6, 1995, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.
"Where Were You in 1974?"
This question was posed to
Bruce in 1994, read y'all about it:
"The most significant thing I can recall doing that
year was doing an album called Night Vision. I hadn't
planned on doing an album then but I was producing an
album for a Canadian artist who had one album out and
was at odds with his record company- they were stuck
with the need to make a record and nobody to produce
it so they got me.
The album got put on the shelf because the artist had
a drinking problem, but I had put a band together- it
was the first time I'd worked with an actual band
since the '60s, when I was playing in garage bands- to
do that album. When the artist became incapacitated
for a period, we decided to learn a bunch of my songs
and go into the studio to do Night Vision. It was a
It was the beginning of a whole bunch of things.
Prior to that, for three albums, we had gone into the
studio and built it around me and added people as
needed for each song. With this one it was an actual
band and part of it became the first band I toured
with. That album was more urban in nature than ones
I'd done before, and more humorous.
I actually stopped listening to pop music during this
period. I'd played in a bunch of bands in the '60s-
everything from questionable R&B to questionable
psychedelia- and I really got sick of the whole thing
after awhile. There was a great hunger on my part,
and I felt it would probably be shared by other
people, for something kind of quiet and to the point,
instead of long, meandering solos. That feeling did
seem to be shared by a lot of people."
-- from Gavin's Woodpile, December 1995. Submitted by Rob Caldwell.
18 January 1997 - Commenting on working with Jimi Hendrix
[Interviewer is Scott Simon]
Scott Simon: May I be the -- what I am sure is a 1001th person to ask you about --
what it was like to open for Jimi Hendrix back in 1968?
BC: I was part of a band that opened for Jimi at a stadium in
Montreal. What was it like? It was, it was bizarre...
BC:... because I'd never done anything like it. I'd never played any place for
that big an audience and I'd never seen anybody mic a drum kit before.
And I'm looking at these guys, I mean, the kinds of situations that I was
used to playing in -- little clubs -- you're always turning up your amp to
get louder than the drummer. And here these guys are putting the drums
through the PA. And I'm going, these people are insane...
BC: But, of course, that was my own ignorance, but Hendrix was fantastic.
Afterwards there was a jam session to which we were all invited and there
was a whole lot of pot being smoked and in fact, you could barely see
through the clouds in the room.
And Jimi was there and he was sitting there and everybody was looking at
him. And nobody was saying too much and he said to me: "I don't know why
everybody's looking at me like that. Can we just play some music?"
And so, a jam ensued and went on for longer than I was able to maintain my
-- from "An interview with singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn. His new album
is called "The Charity of Night", Weekend Saturday, National Public Radio,
interviewed by Scott Simon, 18, January, 1997.
Fall 1997 - Commenting on Berklee School of Music
[Interviewer is Bob Duran]
Bob Duran: You recently received your degree from Berklee School of Music.
BC: Thirty years after the fact. (laughs)
BD: When you went there, was is to study jazz?
BC: I was majoring in composition and the guitar was my instrument, but
I was interested in being a jazz composer, whatever that is.
BD: That was right after high school?
BC: More or less.
BD: So had you decided from the beginning that you wanted to be a
BC: Um, with hindsight I can say yes. At the time I didn't feel like I'd
made any decisions at all.
-- from an "Interview with Bruce Cockburn", by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.
Circa 1997 - One of Bruce's early bands opened for Hendrix in Montreal in 1968:
"It was an interesting glimpse of fame, looking at him looking at the people
looking at him. The whole star phenomenon was very strange, I certainly
didn't want it to happen to me. I don't worry about that any more,"
Cockburn says, punctuating the comment with a laugh. It was also around that
same time he opened for...Gary Burton. "[Larry] Coryell was in that band. I
was just some guy in a psychedelic band playing guitar with his teeth. I don't
think Gary would remember me from then."
-- from !Music, circa 1997.
Steve Lawson: [Responding to the question]: When did you start playing?
BC: I started playing when I was 14 which was 1959.
BC: Scott Moore - the early Elvis records. Buddy Holly.. well, the sound of the
Crickets - I didn't really associate it with particular people it was just
music. That's what got me excited about music. I started taking guitar
lessons at the age of 14 and was very quickly introduced to other kinds of
music. The teacher I had was into country swing like Les Paul and Chet
Atkins, and all the tunes that were on Willy Nelson's 'Stardust' album were
the tunes that I learned to read music on the guitar with, to learn chords
and all that stuff... The first tune I can remember actually working out off a
record was 'Walk Don't Run' by the Ventures. It just kinda moved on from
there - I got interested in jazz pretty quickly, and through that moved into
folk-blues. By the time I got out of high school I was doing some
rudimentary finger-picking and was starting to compose music, and dabbled in
writing poetry. I went to Berkley for three semesters out of a four year
course, and did what all honourable Berkley students that are any good do -
drop out! Last year they gave me an honorary Doctorate so I finally got my
degree. When I was at Berkley I was shown by John Lennon and Bob Dylan that
you could actually put poetry and music together and make something.
SL: So Dylan was the catalyst?
BC: That's what interested me about it. I had no interest in imitating the songs
I liked - old Elvis songs, ragtime tunes - those were the product of a time
and place and an experience that I had no part of so it made no sense to try
and write those songs. It was OK for me to sing them, that made sense, but
not trying to write anything like it. But it hadn't occurred to me that you
could do anything else until Dylan came along, and it was like 'Oh wow, you
can actually say stuff.' So I started writing songs. When left Berkley I
joined a rock 'n' roll band in Ottawa where I had grown up, made up of a
bunch of folkies that I knew, and we all were writing songs at that point,
and that's when I really started taking it seriously. It kinda grew from
SL: So that was the beginning of the solo career...
BC: Yeah, except I did it with my wife at the time.... At first I wasn't really on
the road - we were on such a small circuit, that it didn't qualify as on the
road. There were clubs in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal that I could play and
the occasional folk festival, and in the early days that's what I did. I was
in bands for the second half of the sixties but had started to do solo stuff
in the latter part of the 60s. '69 was a fairly busy year for me as a solo
artist, and that's when the first solo album was recorded. In the spring of
'70, I bought my first truck, I was started to get paid for gigs so I had
some money. It cost three thousand dollars, which was a big deal at the
time. And we put a camper on the back of it, and spent the next five years
driving back and forth across the country, staying with my in-laws or my
parents during the winter and hitting the road again as soon as it warmed
up. So for 7 or 8 months out of each year we'd be on the road.
SL: Was there a sense of the emerging Canadian sound?
BC: There WAS an emerging Canadian sound, but there wasn't really a sense of it.
People started thinking about it after the fact.
SL: It must have really pissed off the Americans.
BC: That Canada had all the best song writers? I don't think anyone thought
about it - in those days you didn't say you were from Canada - most
Canadians were embarrassed about Canada. Most Canadians didn't know that
Joni Mitchell was Canadian, or that Neil Young was Canadian. You'd say it to
people and they'd go 'What? Nah, that's bullshit!' It's like 'Can any good
thing come out of Nazareth???' Same thing...
There were a lot of us around that time who thought this was a bad thing who
were right behind Joni, Neil and Gordon Lightfoot, who was the first to opt
to stay in Canada rather than to move to the US. It was a clichť of Canadian
culture that in order to be accepted by Canadians you had to prove yourself
somewhere else first - you could do it in England or the US, but not in
But there was kind of a wave of nationalism that we were all affected by at
the time that said it shouldn't be that way, so I just thought I'm going to
build up whatever audience I can in Canada before I think about going
anywhere else, and then we'll see where it goes. Over the next ten years -
it took about that long to build a strong national audience, but by the end
of the 70s I did have that, and I was also starting to work outside of
Canada, a little. But hardly in the states at all - it was Italy and Japan
at first. The states did really start to get interested in me until '83 when
Stealing Fire came out, when we started to do national tours.
SL: Didn't you get some adverse press for Rocket Launcher?
BC: No, it got no adverse press, it got nothing but positive response - it blew
my mind! The Religious Right to my mind said nothing about it. I got the odd
letter from somebody who were disappointed in it. One woman I remembered
writing saying how could I write an anti-American song like this - her
husband was a jet pilot and didn't I know what awful things the Russians
were doing in Afghanistan? Well yeah I do, but it doesn't excuse what you
guys are doing in Guatemala, and it's not your husband who's guilty, it's
I got the occasional letter like that, but what I also got was a huge amount
of air-play for that song, which I hadn't really had before - the one
exception being Wondering Where The Lions Are which got played in the US as
well as Canada. WWTLA was the first song I'd had that got big time national
air-play in Canada and it got on the Billboard chart in the US. But whereas
it was the start of something in the Canada, in the sense that the next few
records I put out also got a lot of air-play, in the States that didn't
happen, so with Rocket Launcher it was like starting all over again. And
that time it did take, and it's been progressively better since then.
SL: How did your music develop through the 70s?
BC: The finger-picking that I'd learned to do was based on Mississippi John Hurt
and Manse Lipscomb, mainly, and other old blues guys like that, but I'd also
learned how to play more complex chords. When I went to Berkley I went
majoring in composition, with guitar as my instrument and I had this notion
that I'd be a jazz musician - I hadn't thought about it one way or the
other, but that seemed like the thing you do when you went to Berkley! And
then I realised part way along that I wasn't prepared to do the amount of
work, and I wasn't interested enough in jazz harmonies per se to pursue it
the way they were teaching it. But I still loved jazz and continue to love
jazz, and whenever there's an opportunity jazz creeps into the music - more
now than ever, partly to do with increasing command of the instrument over
the years, and partly to do with exploring options as a writer.
SL: Did you continue to study?
BC: I didn't study formally in anyway - I taught myself this and that. But I
listened to a lot of stuff - you mentioned the world music thing - through
the late 60s and into the 70s I was listening to music of every culture that
I could get my hands on. I was particularly infatuated with European
Medieval and Renaissance music - you can hear that in the records. I was
also listening to African records, Tibetan Ritual music. I guess I got
started on that track at Berkley because a lot of the jazz players were
interested in Arabic music. That interest in Eastern music was prevailing in
the jazz scene at the time and I got totally captivated by it.
So the guitar style was partly... having started with a blues style that
featured alternating bass with a melody over the top or a droning bass with
licks over the top, the melodies and the licks got more complicated, and the
harmonies never were as simple as blues harmonies so. So on top of that
would be a song like Joy Will Find A Way, where the guitar part is an
attempt at duplicating an Ethiopian thumb harp piece that I had on a record
- it's not the same notes, but an attempt to get that feel into it. I found
that a lot of African folk music suited adaptation to finger picking guitar,
which wasn't lost on the Africans either, but I hadn't heard African guitar
music then. It was obvious to me that you could take these complimentary
drum and xylophone type instruments and translate that music onto the
guitar, and that became part of the style and then everything I heard that I
And then in the 70s I discovered Reggae and then Punk came along and
revitalised rock 'n' roll for me and so then I started getting those
elements in there to.
SL: Was electric guitar an anathema - with prog rock etc.?
BC: I used it a bit - all through the 70s there was also the Stones, don't
forget, so there was good guitar around of the sort that I related to as
roots based. And there was good jazz guitar, although there was a period in
there where I didn't listen to much rock or jazz - I completely missed David
Bowie, for instance, until Heroes in the late 70s, then I went back and
discovered the rest of what he'd done. Then I started to look into rock
music again. Yeah, I missed a lot, but I also gained something in the
freedom I had from that influence at that particular time. When the
influence came around it was affecting me as a more developed artist.
SL: So the addition of electric stuff happened around Humans, or Inner City
BC: Inner City Front was really the big one. There's electric guitar on many of
the earlier albums, but it didn't start to take over until I was playing
with heavier bands with more drums and more emphasis on rhythm, and then it
was an irresistible pressure to pick up the electric guitar - to hear myself
on stage for one thing - but also to keep up in intensity with the other
guys. There was a big learning process in there. on Inner City Front I got
away with it, but there a lot of learning in front of people going on. I was
applying the same techniques to the electric as I used on the acoustic, but
there's a big difference in touch and it took some time to kind of get the
feel for it.
SL: Was there a parallel between the music and lyrics in that development?
BC: The earliest album that has a real noticeable amount of electric guitar on
it is Night Vision, which is also a dark kind of record and I hadn't thought
about it but I guess that's true, it does contribute to it, though
unconsciously - I must contribute to what I was doing. The choice wasn't
unconscious the connection was...
The tone of the albums really changes with Humans, which also coincides with
my divorce, and the end of a decade and a point in my life that was partly
triggered by the divorce and partly not where I spent a lot of time looking
at how my inner being related to the big picture, the cosmic picture, and it
was time to include other people in that search for an understanding of
relationship. To put it in simple terms, as a christian if you're gonna love
your fellow mankind you gotta know who they are, you can't love them in the
abstract. So it was time to kind of be among humans. It started with the
album Humans and the songs there come from those first travels in Japan, and
Italy - the first ventures outside of North America, and the greater
understanding of human interaction on mass which translates into politics,
and that carried through into Inner City
Front, and all through the 80s.
SL: Your one of the few artists who was around in the 80s, when all the
world's singer songwriters went electric, who has no embarrassing period -
BC: I was pretty careful, but I look back on certain of those things with a
little embarrassment, but only a little - more the live gigs that the
records 'cause there were more chances taken on stage than in the studios.
- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview", Guitarist Magazine, November 1999, by Steve Lawson.
3 March 2001 - Commenting on his early years
"Originally, I just wanted to be a guitar player. I wanted to be like Scottie
Moore, who played with Elvis -- he was my original model -- and early rock
'n' roll, Crickets and stuff, Ventures. But I never really felt at home with
that music, even though I loved it.I remember trying to write a song and
failing miserably at it, but trying to invent something anyway."
-- from "The Witness", Saturday Night Online, March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.
4 March 2001 - Commenting that it's harder now, than when he started out in the 60's
"There was an audience that didn't drink when I was starting out," he says.
"It's a huge factor. Not that there's anything wrong with drinking, but it
breeds a different kind of music."
-- from "In Praise of Bruceness", Ottawa Citizen, March 4, 2001, by Craig MacInnis.
Q: Let me start by asking you about the time of Le Hibou. The romantic idea is:
here is a kid who is so desperate to get out of his life that he is spending
six hours a day burning his fingers on the neck of the guitar, driven,
passionate, all the rest. So how close am I?
BC: Pretty marginal, Iíd say. Driven in a sort of strange inward-directed way. I
did a fair amount of playing, I guess, but what I remember about that time
was mostly hanging out.
I sort of start my -- I donít like the word "career" but I donít know what
else to call it at the moment. This course Iím on started when I dropped out
of music school and went back and joined the Children. At that point or
sometime soon after that I ended up renting a room in Bill Hawkinsís house,
and he became a kind of mentor in terms of the writing. Originally I was
writing music for his lyrics, and he encouraged me to write words.
What I ended up doing, without being consciously aware of making the choice,
was embarking on a course of trying to write songs that used something like
poetry but put it with music, so that way there was a kind of mutual
dependency. There are things you put in to make words fit music that you
wouldnít put in a poem, that you donít need in a poem for rhythmic reasons
or others, and different dynamics that come into it. So, even in public
school I hated poetry that rhymed, it just sounded stupid to me, you know,
Q: Archibald Lampman never got to you?
BC: The light went on with poetry for me in grade six when we had to memorize a
poem and I remember looking through the book -- whatever the textbook was --
and there was a poem by Archibald MacLeish called Ars Poetica. Thatís the one
I picked to memorize and it blew me away. This big light went on because it
was a totally abstract, almost, I donít know what the literary term would be,
almost a cubist poem.
Intellectual light only, or a sense that this is a direction for me?
It was more than intellectual, it was a visceral response to this use of
language. From that point on I suppose I was in some way in love with poetry,
but of a certain type, not all poetry: Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot and people
like that, people we studied in school, who were more, well, itís hard to
call people like T.S. Eliot left field, but at least it was less literal and
more challenging poetry that appealed to me.
Q: Did you feel at the time you were studying with Bill Hawkins that songwriting
was as close as you could get to poetry?
BC: Well, it didnít invite comparisons with these great poets. You could use
language poetically in a song without some reviewer going: "Well, this guy
writes good poetry. Who is this bozo to produce this stuff?" I just felt like
I was taking on less, you know, because I valued poetry so highly I didnít
want to be guilty of being a crappy poet. Iíd rather be an independent
songwriter and create my own scale on which to be measured.
So thatís music -- not to be too pretentious -- thatís music with a mask.
I suppose, although itís been a pretty workable mask. I mean, the songs I was
writing in those days were embarrassingly simple and far more embarrassingly
unfocused. But it was the start of something, and where I moved to from there
was this understanding of a song as a way of combining words and music with
almost any kind of emphasis and almost any kind of shape. And itís
interesting to me that you could explore those different kinds of shapes and
ways of bringing those things together.
Q: I remember responding when I first saw you thirty years ago. You were clearly
the best guitar player who ever walked through the doors of Le Hibou, you
were twelve years old or whatever the hell you were. . . .
BC: Well, hardly, but ó
Q: No, it was very clear that you worked very hard at your guitar and you were
extremely good at it.
BC: Well, I worked very hard at it. When I first started playing, it was a refuge
from being a teenager. I started playing when I was fourteen. Iíve never been
disciplined. Iím still not, but the time spent on the guitar was time when I
didnít have to live with being teenage me. So that was one of the big things
that kept me playing it, and I just liked music.
I got introduced to jazz pretty early on, and I wanted to absorb that music.
And again sort of like with poetry, I got close to it but backed off partly
for the reason that it required too much of me, too much focus, singular
focus, for me to get good enough to become competitive at it, to be able to
keep up with the people I admired. So I chose a course that didnít require
that much of me, but really thatís a harsh way of looking at it. What it
meant was that I got a sense of literature and a sense of deep music that I
was able to put to use for a new meaning.
-- from "The Cockburn Transcripts", Saturday Night-Online, March 2001.
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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.