-- Songwriting/Influences: Political --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on how politics influence his songwriting.
Fall 1985 - Commenting on politics, social change, and the 60's, art and propaganda
[Interviewer is John Virnile.]
JV: Why have you recently taken to writing songs with social themes?
BC: I wasn't always very interested in social themes although they've
appeared here and there throughout the older work. For instance, an old song
called Burn is a forerunner to the current Latin-American material. Other songs touched on social issues in passing, but wasn't writing about those things as such.
Having a child was a turning point, the beginning of it I think. All of a
sudden there is this infant who's going to inherit a world that, if not of
making, is at least one that I can exercise some influence. Therefore, it's
important for me to do so because I don't want anymore of the garbage than I
can help being handed on to her. I think everyone who has a kid must
experience those kinds of feelings. That was one thing.
The other was that becoming a Christian and having explored internally what
that meant, found myself trying to understand what it meant to love my
neighbor and to care about what happens to the people around me. The concern
started to reflect itself more in the songs and resulted in a tendency to
take social and political issues much more seriously than I did before.
JV: Do you think music can effect social change?
BC: I don't think music can bring about social change by itself. I think it
can be a crystalizing agent for waves of feeling that move through all of
us. A case in point being the response to our songs in the states. There was an
obvious sense that we were offering a focused view of something many people
had very strong feelings about, mainly frustrated feelings. They felt that
they couldn't really act or that their actions wouldn't have any lasting
There's a funny curve to the ability of songs to influence events. In the
60's the whole trend of protest music started off being the cherished
property of a few underground people. It then became much more popular and
provided a rallying point for a whole lot of people. Finally, it reached a
point where people were just cashing in and the way to make a buck was to
write a protest song. This immediately caused the demise of protest music as
a valid form of art, which it should be first and foremost. It became more
like propaganda. There's no question that propaganda influences people, but
that's another topic altogether.
JV: Sounds like an interesting topic. What are your feelings about it?
BC: Well, it's important to me because I've had to look at this question for
myself. It's very important to make a distinction between art and
propaganda. What makes a difference between the two and has value to me is that if one
considers oneself an artist, one has to present something like truth. That's
a bit weird, but I think it's necessary to try and approach something like
truth as closely as possible in one's work. Obviously, the truth is going to
be somewhat subjective, everyone's truth is.
Each of us has individual experiences, but we also are the product of the
circumstances in which we live. Therefore, there's a connection that exists
between any one person and every other person. In that way the experiences
of anyone parallel that of everyone else. The trick is to articulate those
things in such a way so they become accessible or so other people can relate
When you start sloganizing things, you start removing the element of reality
from them. There's no question that sloganizing is probably more effective
in rallying people than trying to present more sides of an issue, but what
we're left with after everyone gets rallied is a very dangerous situation. In the
end it just leads to more repetition of the same old thing.
That was one of the things wrong with the 60's. People got swept away on the
image of peace and love and so on without looking at the reality of what
might mean or how they might bring that into being in the world. It then
became very disillusioning because it didn't work of course, the world
doesn't run on peace and love.
-- from "Interview: Bruce Cockburn" by John Vernile. Written by Mary Anne Devine.
From the WUSB 90.1 FM Program Guide, Fall 1985. Copyright © 1985, 1996, WUSB
18 March 1988 - Commenting on the reluctance to file his lyrics under the heading Protest Songs
"Some of the songs are obviously that," he admits, "but no. I write songs
because I've got an urge to write songs, and I write them about whatever
moves me. Beyond that, there's a certain amount of maneuvering and what-not,
the juggling of words to make sure they say what I want them to say, and
that they're intelligible and all.
"I don't see it as selling messages, particularly. After the fact. yeah.
is about the situation in Guatemala and my feelings about the refugee camps;
the song Nicaragua is about Nicaragua. When you sing it, it becomes a message because it's being sung to people. But it didn't start out as a propaganda piece or anything.
"I have an abhorrence of getting into propaganda writing," he adds, "and I
try to make sure that what I write is not that or is not too likely to be
construed as that. Inevitably, there's going to be someone who will; there
was a reviewer in L.A. who obviously didn't like the politics, and he had
nice things to say about the music but he referred to the lyrics of the
songs as 'knee-jerk leftist rhetoric,' which I don't think it is."
Still, Cockburn believes that "most of the people who come appreciate the
difference between somebody who's making a comment on something that they've
felt and seen, and who's just trying to influence opinions."
-- from "The Social Commentaries of Bruce Cockburn" by J.D. Considine,
Sun Pop Music Critic, Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1988.
3 April 1992 - Commenting on Central America and political messages in his songs
"When the Central American thing was what people were noticing about my
songs and I was called upon to talk about that a lot, a lot of journalists,
particularly the mainstream news variety especially, tended to go, 'You're
just playing to an audience of the converted. The people who are coming,
buying your records, they already like those damn Sandinistas anyway,' or
whatever," Cockburn recalled. "There was this kind of attitude and cynicism,
and I thought, I don't think that's true, because, first of all, more people
bought that record than had bought most of the previous records.
"If I Had A Rocket Launcher, I still hear about that, 'cause it had a video, it got shown a lot and it was kind of noticeable as a song. It stood
out from the rest of what was on the radio, and there's all kinds of people
that-- truck drivers'll go by and recognize me on the side of the road and
go, [derisively] 'Eh, where's your rocket launcher?' or this kind of thing.
But it's in a good-natured way, they're making a joke, and it's okay, those
people heard that song.
"Whether they really paid attention to what it was about or not, they heard
it, and some of them actually liked it, and some of them went out and bought
the record, because I do hear from that end of the social spectrum a lot,
especially [because] where I live now is out in the country, and that's
who's around, is farmers and truckers and general working people. And none of them
are very far to the left and a lot of them know some of my songs. Some of
them even have a couple of albums.
"I don't have any desire whatever to preach to the converted or to preach to
anyone else, for that matter. I mean, when I write these songs I'm not
trying to sermonize to anyone. I'm mad or I'm hurt or I'm happy, or whatever the
case may be, and I want to share it. I want to just put it out there for
people to see, and of course after that fact I hope that by doing that it
may produce an effect, but it's not the purpose in writing the song in the first
place. They're not propaganda pieces, and perhaps people sense that, they
don't feel propagandized to, for the most part. Once in a while somebody
does, but most of the time not."
-- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest" by William Ruhlmann,
Goldmine, April 3, 1992, © 1992 Krause Publications.
September-October 1994 - BC cautions about taking the role of "political spokesperson" too seriously
"Soon people start saying, 'Hey, we went to the Sting or Cockburn concert,
we've done our bit for the rain forest!'"
Commenting on Bono's song, (sung with U2), Bullet in the Blue Sky
"Well, I don't think Bono was very clear on that song," Bruce says with
characteristic bluntness. "All the same, I don't think you can do anything
on a mass level that is effective. If Bono did not hit that song quite right
(that is just my opinion; it certainly isn't his, I imagine), at least he's
trying to do something with serious intent and get deep with his songs."
"Like I said earlier, we just have to accept that there is a lot of
unwillingness out there to listen for something, to be surprised. Look at
Springsteen's "Born in the USA". It is a bitter, bitter song, but when he
performs it the crowd is pumping their fists, Rah, rah, rah, America!"
-- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion", by David
Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.
7 September 1996 - Commenting on defining moments in his career
[Interviewer is Nora Young]
NY: Are there any real defining moments in your career when you look over 30
years of playing music?
BC: Yeah. The answer to that would probably change with each day I was asked
it but there was a big turning point when I started to travel outside of
North America a lot and especailly in the early '80's when I got involved
with Central America and so on. That was a pretty big eye opener in lots of
ways. One, it was the first time that I was able to encounter, face to face,
what a refugee camp consisted of, for instance. Or what life in the real
Third World means when you're not a tourist and you're not looking at it
from a tourist's perspective. As well as unlearning the prejudice I had about
mixing music and politics. Because I had previously felt that the two should
be kept apart. That politics would taint art if you got them too close
together and I was made to realize that my view of politics was a very
narrow one in making that kind of distinction. That it may be true that if I were
to join the Conservative Party that it would interfere with my art. But it
certainly is not true that art shouldn't address the kinds of issues that we
think of as political.
-- from "Definitely Not the Opera", CBC Radio, by Nora Young, September 7, 1996,
© 1996 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
July 1999 - Responding to the question whether a period has begun of a less critical Bruce Cockburn he says
"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.
9 February 2000 - Commenting upon political issues appearing in his songs
"Putting an issue in a song invites whoever hears the song to consider that
issue, but it doesn't hit them over the head. They can turn off the song if
they don't want to hear about it, or they can just listen to the music. But
if they want to hear it, it may inform some people, and it may provide a
rallying point for others."
-- from "Sun Shines on Cockburn's Breakfast", Vancouver Courier, February 9, 2000, by Jennifer Van Evra. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.
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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.