-- Personal: Human Rights/Politics --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on his personal political views and human rights.
19 October 1984 - This is the Stealing Fire era and he's referring to writers noting his political stance
It means they're taking note of what's being said," Cockburn says calmly.
"It also suggests they weren't really taking notice of what was being said
before, because there was a lot of political content in the earlier songs.
though I have to admit the emphasis was different. I was more concerned with
the interior workings and the effect of those things on the person. Now its
the other way around-what can you do about those things?
Referring to the writing of Rocket Launcher
Aside from airing my own experience, which is where the songs always start,
if we're ever going to find a solution for this ongoing passion for wasting
each other, we have to start with the rage that knows no impediments, an
uncivilized rage that says it's okay to go out and shoot some one."
Referring to his personal attitude
We've got to have hope. Otherwise you really won't survive very well, though
each of us has to find our own thing to hope in. I hope in God, and as a
result of being in Nicaragua, there's hope, or at least there's the
possibility, that people can accomplish something-not anything perfect, but
workable. For the first time in that country, I witnessed virtually a whole
nation of people working together to better their situation, willing]y and
in a spirit of commitment, a positive spirit.
-- from "The Long March of Bruce Cockburn: From Folkie to Rocker, Singing About
Injustice" by Richard Harrington, Washington Post, October 19, 1984.
23 May 1985 - Commenting on the refugee camps
Observing the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border,
he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, "I
understand now why people want to kill." Then he wrote "If I Had A Rocket
"The universe will continue to unfold regardless of what happens to the
Sandinistas, or me and you, or Russia and the States," he says. "I also
think that death isn't such a horrifying experience. It's like the ecstatic
experiences - I think life is like that underneath it all. It's just too bad
the rest of it keeps getting in the way."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Launches a Hit - Fired by Christian pacifism, the Canadian singer targets new, worldwide success" by Steve Pond, Rolling Stone, May 23, 1985.
January/February 1985 - Commenting on putting his faith and political concerns together
[Interviewer is Eunice Amarantides]
EA: How did Christian faith and political concerns come together for you?
Being a baby boomer, did you have your political proclivities established
before your conversion?
BC: No, not really. In fact, my baby boomer background made me uncomfortable
and suspicious of political movements. I went to a few demonstrations but
that was more out of curiosity than any kind of commitment. Although I
agreed with the sentiments being expressed, the demonstrations didn't seem like
they would have much to do with anything. Of course, time proved that they did
I saw that especially after going to Central America. The sixties had a
ripple effect that showed people you could change the world. At least there
was the possibility that people could accomplish something -- not anything
perfect, but something workable.
But personally I didn't get interested in politics until I started looking
at what it meant to love my neighbor. I had always been a loner, and the
concept of loving the people around me was a novel one. I'm still not sure I know
what that actually means. But that was partly why I ended up moving to
Toronto four years ago instead of living in a smaller town or in the
In Toronto, I've made a deliberate effort to immerse myself in human
society, a society I've never really felt a part of. And I've found a lot of good
stuff. Part of that whole process has involved becoming more concerned about
what is happening to the people around me.
The trip to Nicaragua really clinched that. In Nicaragua I witnessed a whole
nation of people working together to better their situation. In contrast,
the Guatemalan refugees are the terrible but obvious outcome of a society where
people don't have a voice. Seeing this made me realize why we had politics
at all -- and why this is really worth working at.
-- from "Singing in a Dangerous Time" by Eunice Amarantides, TheOtherSide,p.68,
1991 - Commenting on the aftermath of Chernobyl.
"I arrived in Germany three days after Chernobyl happened, I had wrestled
with myself about going to Europe at this moment but it seemed like it
wouldn't matter, that stuff will get to you sooner or later. It was a very
interesting experience and quite frightening in some respects - funny in
others. The extremes governments went to in order to kind of suppress
peoples anxiety about the whole thing became ridiculous. At first they're saying
it's no problem those stupid Russians made a mistake but we've got it together.
The next day they would say, well there's a little bit of a problem - don't
let your kids play in the dirt. Then the next day - or a week later they would
say, if you're a mechanic changing air filters in a car you should wear
protective clothing and if you're a pedestrian, hold your breath when cars go
by - because of the dust. It just went from the horrific to the ridiculous."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man" by Michael Case, Umbrella,1991,
© Umbrella Magazine.
12 January 1992 - Commenting on visits to Guatemala refugee camps and Mozambique
.. He recalls visiting the Guatemalan refugee camps in southeast Mexico in
1983, and how the villagers would scatter, fearing for their lives, at the
sound of helicopter blades rising behind the lush forests.
"These people were dealing with this fear every day -- Guatemalan
helicopters would fly over the camps, maybe drop a bomb on them, or some soldiers would
kidnap some of the refugees, take them into the woods and chop them up,"
says Mr. Cockburn. "You know the scene at the end of the movie 'Apocalypse Now?'
That's nothing compared to what I saw."
His experience in war-torn Mozambique inspired the same anger years later.
"I was so enraged by what I saw there," he says. "You never knew where the
Renamo guys (the principal insurgents in the country) were going to turn up
next; they were vicious, vicious guys. The people were suffering so much.
They were short of truck drivers and everything, and couldn't move anything
over land. I was just mad enough to go, 'OK, give me an AK (assault rifle),
and I'll ride shotgun for somebody.' But it was sort of a naive idea,
"It was a very sad, very beautiful country. And it's still just like that."
-- from "A RISING NORTHERN STAR- Canadian Bruce Cockburn Wins More U.S. Converts"
by Brad Buchholz, Dallas Morning News, January 12, 1992.
3 April 1992 - Commenting on war, violence, and politics
Had Cockburn been tempted, like Rimbaud, to put down the guitar and actually
take up the rocket launcher?
"No, actually," Cockburn said. "Whatever temptation I feel to be involved
with that has more to do with fascination than frustration. The frustration
I feel is the more honest -- well, not more honest, it's the more useful
feeling, and that says to me that the solutions like the kind of response
that 'Rocket Launcher' talks
about are not the way to get things done. I
mean, sometimes they're inescapable, but it's not a principle on which to
act, really, for me, especially because it's not natural to me to do that.
I'd just be another honky trying to get in on something, trying to give my
life meaning, if I went and did that, and I don't have to resort to that to
give my life meaning. But I have [supported] and will again support people
in those kinds of positions who are doing that kind of thing because I don't
think they have much choice sometimes.
"But there is also something very attractive and fascinating about a war
situation. That's why journalists become war junkies and why some military
people become mercenaries when the war's over, because things are just so
intense and immediate in the presence of that much death. The life that's
going on around you becomes really intense and special in a way that
normally is not. When I came back from Nicaragua the first time, and somebody was
asking me about what it was like to come back from that -- I mean, not that
I experienced anything so drastic and dramatic, but I was there where stuff
was happening, had happened, would happen again, and surrounded by people to
whom it was happening. It was just like coming from color to black and white to
come back home after that. Things just didn't look the same. Nothing was the
same after that. And when I went to Mozambique [in 1988], it was like that.
"It isn't only the presence of potential violence, it's also the novelty of
a situation that makes it like that, that sense of being on the edge, and the
fear that nags at you. I've never been in a situation where I was directly
threatened from extinction from bullets or anything, but I've been close
enough to it where you have to go around with a certain edge of fear --
'What's around the next corner?' And I guess that's the big thing that
really heightens everything, that extra little shot of adrenalin that you live with
all the time. Plus the fact that you know that the emotional contacts you
make with people may be very short-lived. Everybody feels that in those
kinds of situations, and there's kind of a shared warmth. It's like a massive
"All the other stuff just seems kind of unimportant, and whoever you're with
at the time is -- I'm not speaking of sexual things, just of any human
contact, just who you're with at the moment becomes very important to you,
that contact is very important and immediate, and that's very attractive.
So, if I were to go off and become a guerrilla, it might be falling prey to that
kind of temptation more than the failure of reason."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest" , Goldmine, by William Ruhlmann, April 3, 1992, © 1992 Krause Publications.
22 November 1994 - Commenting on future political concerns
It's tempting to try to make a generalization about it," he said. "I'm too
inside my own thing to be that objective. But when you've been involved in
(political themes) for a certain time, other things have been left unsaid.
You address those (personal and inner concerns), and that will produce a
little vacuum (of political expression) that has to be filled later on.
Ten or 20 years from now the Cold War is going to look like a picnic," he
said. "There are other ways it can go, but given the usual way we carry
things off as human beings, it doesn't look very hopeful to me. It may not
be too long before we see the fruit of the plutonium-smuggling trade. We may be
in for some hair-raising times.
-- from "Bruce Cockburn: Interior Motive" by Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times, p.F-1, November 22, 1994.
September 1994 - Commenting on his faith and politics
To me, politics is an external expression of something that people carry
round in their hearts. The songs I wrote in the Eighties touched on issues
because they had touched me personally, not because I had an axe to grind or
an ideology. The songs in support of the aspirations of the Nicaraguan
people, for example, were written because I was there and the situation
touched me emotionally in a very personal way. There's no great difference
between the mechanics for songs like that and for love songs.
When I first came back from Central America, the media attention was quite
intense. All of a sudden I was some sort of authority, because I was
somebody outside the system who had stood up and said they had been there and seen
what was going on. One acquaintance of mine was in favour of the dictator of
Guatemala, who professed to be a born-again Christian and would deliver
sermons on Sunday mornings exhorting the youth of the nation to behave
themselves, practise chastity and what not. In the meantime, his troops were
out in the bush slaughtering and torturing people by the thousands and doing
unbelievable things. I had met several thousand of the victims of those
things and knew damn well they were going on.
But my acquaintance believed the hype that this was a good man supported by
Christian groups. I explained what the guy was really doing, and the best he
could come up with was: "Well, we have to stop Communism." Where is Christ
in that? What a pathetic little god those people believe in that think he needs
to be protected like that.
I started losing some of my hardcore fundamentalist fans around the Humans album, which had a couple of cuss-words on it. I got some angry and disappointed letters asking, 'How can a Christian say that?' I didn't know
whether to laugh or cry. There's no response to that.
-- from "Faith in Practice- Holding on to the Mystery of Love" by Bruce Cockburn (as told to Cole Morton), Third Way, p.15, September 1994.
20 May 1996 - Commenting on politics in Guatemala
You may try to be apolitical in Guatemala, but the politics is liable to
come around in the night with a machete and take pieces off your body.
Some of those (politically aware) people are a little disappointed, perhaps,
with the current album," Cockburn admits. "But the things people call
political'... were very personal statements.
-- from "Cockburn's Quiet Passion", Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1996.
Fall 1997 - Commenting on music and politics
[Interviewer is Bob Duran]
Bob Duran: At the ceremony when you got your degree you gave a speech. I ran
across it today on the Internet. You said, "I believed then and for a
long time after, that music was somehow above politics, that art could
be held separately from the rest of human affairs and we wouldn't be
touched by the mundane machinations of government."
What changed that opinion?
BC: Well, life. The speech alludes to that too. Of course it's a whole
bunch of things, mostly to do with experience. You see things and
eventually even for the thickest of us, it sinks in after a while. You
make connections. The point I was trying to make in the speech is that
you can ignore whatever you want to ignore, but it will go on without
you and will have an effect on you. The case in point I gave in the
speech was: we could ignore Viet Nam and write of the actions of SDS and
that sort of stuff as springing from a paranoid mentality, but in the
end it effected people's lives whether you paid attention to it or not,
like the guy (his bass player friend) who had to leave music school to
enroll in barber college so he wouldn't get drafted. The war changed his
life even though he didn't go to it.
The point is that you have to pay attention. I learned that over time.
You have to decide whether you want to take a stand or not. To me it's a
legitimate decision if you decide to take a stance of non-involvement,
but you it has to be a deliberate choice and you must realize the
For me, having a child, much later on of course, was a big step away
from non-involvement because suddenly you have this kid that you've
thrust into the world. And what kind of world is that? And what's it
going to do to them? You start to notice, you know.
My concerns (back then) were more internal and spiritual, in fact they
still are, but I've learned that I have to also pay attention to what's
going on in the world.
BD: Do you feel a responsibility as a musician to include political
content in your music?
BC: I feel a responsibility as a human being to be aware of as much of
the human experience as I can and to share as much of it as I can.
-- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.
July 1999 - Responding to the question whether a period has begun of a less critical Bruce Cockburn he says
[Interviewer is Gerard Vos]
"For me it's important to remain sceptical towards human institutions,
whether they are religious or political. It's extremely important to pay
attention to the political arena. To pay attention to what people initiate
together, this is the essence of politics. Politics is as much part of life
as other things. The emphasis only changes from time to time. In writing,
this emphasis changes in relation to my own experiences, depending on what
I'm confronted with.
Concerning songwriting, politics is less important, but this does not hold
true in my daily life. I just came back from Cambodia and Vietnam in
relation to the landmine issue. After all those years there are still
landmines. These are ongoing issues that mean a lot to me.
When I travelled around Central America, I continuously saw the disastrous
effects of the Western monetary way on people. This produced the song Call It Democracy. I wrote that song to criticise the Western exploitation, and -- on the other hand -- to excuse myself from the enormous complicity and frustration.
But that was then, I cannot continue to write the same songs. That same
situation still exists, perhaps worsened".
Cockburn is animated, his face speaks of war. Has this involvement and anger
cost a lot of energy?
"Yes, anger can be effective when it is focused in an effective way on a
certain goal. Otherwise it's a waste of time. Some say it's no use walking
around angry, but I don't share that opinion. Even though I spend a lot of
time in my life being angry, it works better for me if it means something.
You only have to read the newspaper, on every page there is something which
makes you angry."
About his own mindset Cockburn says
"For me it's more important to see what anger comes to surface and to act
accordingly. All those things which make you angry are also things that
need healing. I always had the opinion that life is about learning and the
growth in yourself. I don't feel I succeeded yet. It's an ongoing process.
Sometimes nothing grows and at other times you feel it happen. This is one
of those times that I feel it happen and I can say: it feels good".
-- from "The Rage of Bruce Cockburn", by Gerard Vos, Platenblad, translated into
English by Arjan El Fassed, July, 1999.
10-17 February 2000 - Commenting on a series of landmine-ban concerts organized by Emmylou Harris he participated in
"I believe each of us has a certain responsibility to make the world better
than when we arrived in it. It's the old 'leave the camp-site cleaner than
the way you found it' idea."
-- from "The Good Fight, Politics, religion and music are a fine mix for Bruce Cockburn", Vancouver Sun, February 10-17, 2000. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.
3 August 2000 - Commenting that he's been happy to see growth in the progressive movement as expressed on the streets of Seattle, Washington, D.C., and now Philadelphia
"It's overdue and welcome. The willingness to get out and be active is the
most overdue and the welcome feature of all of that, regardless of point of
view. The World Trade Organization stuff has made some strange bedfellows,
but why not? It's a good thing whenever we recognize our common interests.
The nicer thing would be if it works, and there's no evidence yet to say
that it's working, but it's really necessary. There have to be some breaks on
-- from "Canadian Singer/Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Inspired by 30-year Journey", by Pamela White, Colorado Daily, U. Colorado, August 3, 2000.
16 October 2000 - Commenting on being called an "activist"
"I'm honored to be asked to share the stage to help celebrate here,"
explained Cockburn, after being introduced, "In the media when I am
interviewed they say I am an activist because I sing certain songs - that is
if they are polite they call me an activist - sometimes they just call me an
a**hole. To me an activist puts their life on the line or at least their
livelihood on the line for what they believe in. I'm not an activist, I'm a
songwriter. I get to sing songs about people and issues and human experience.
That's where my songs are coming from..."
-- from the Institute for Policy Studies', 24th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights
Awards, 16 October, 2000. Transcribed by Ruth White.
3 March 2001 - Commenting on the sudden realization that much of the world was skewed and cruel
"Growing up in Ottawa there may have been Native kids in the school, but I
didn't know them. There were people with feathers in the history books, but
that's it. When I started travelling out West I started meeting these folks
and hearing their stories and thinking, 'I don't want to be part of this. I
don't want to be the inheritor of this history.' The other big factor at that
time was the birth of my daughter, which caused me to look around at the
world she had come into and think, 'It's not fair not to do anything about
-- from "The Witness", Saturday Night Online, March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.
26 January 2002 - When asked, What motivates you politically?
"There's nothing wrong with living a comfortable life. But if you're going to live a
comfortable life, we should allow our neighbours to live one as well. So, ethically, a lot of my songs kinda start someplace like that. What does it mean to love your neighbour? You can't really care about them if you watch them starve and bomb them."
[Pressed, he says he feels] "..obliged to resist the need for orthodoxy in myself and in the world at large. Dogma sucks." [ he offers, with the first laugh of the afternoon.]
"I don't have very high expectations of humanity. But I like to take a realistic view of what we're capable of in any direction, from human suffering and cruelty to incredible courage and loyalty. It's a big fluid jigsaw puzzle and being a part of that is endlessly interesting in itself."
No melancholy ever?
"Ah," he says with a little nod of his head. "I'm very
attached to melancholy. I'm kind of a melancholy addict."
-- from "The journey is what I'm interested in", The Globe and Mail 26 January 2002, by Sarah Hampson.
27 March 2002 - Commenting on when he jumped on the political bandwagon
vI wasn't that young. It was all around me in the '60s, protesting the (Vietnam) war. I went on one of the big marches on Washington in '65, I think. I went because my friends were going, I was extremely cynical."
"I didn't think there was anything that could really be done about it. I thought the idea that the CIA was spying on students was paranoid raving, which history would, like so many things, prove true. Step one in my political education."
Commenting on the influence of earning money
"In the '70s I was travelling around Canada and started to make more money. In a funny way, it was the first big paycheque I got that turned me around.
"I thought, 'I don't really need as much money as I've just been handed,' so my conscience told me to put that money somewhere useful."
-- from "mouth that roared: Bruce Cockburn says he's not an activist but a concerned voice", Edmonton Sun, 27 March 2002, by Fish Griwkowsky.
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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.