-- Songwriting/Influences: Travel --
This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on how his travels influence his songwriting.
2 November 1981 - Commenting on how where he lives influences his music
Q: Have you noticed a transition in your music from a rural kind
of music to.. the latest album is Inner City Front and the whole.. the setting is so city.
BC: Yeah, well, that's where I'm spending my time... yeah, it makes
difference to the surface of things, but also... it's kind of
on purpose. I spent a long time holding up nature as a source
of opposition to the things that confront most of us in our
daily lives. Two things. One, I kinda said all I had to say
about that at the time, and also I found that people tended
to make too big an issue of the nature part of it. They were
missing the point, because not everybody... people thought
I was writing about nature... So it just seemed like the two
things together made me want to go for something closer to
most people's experience, including my own, 'cause I grew
up in the city...
-- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview, Old Waldorf, San Francisco," transcribed by Charles Wolff, from a tape of an interview with Bruce Cockburn on November 2, 1981 at The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA.
Circa 1986 - Commenting on traveling outside of Canada
"Expanded horizons- first tours outside of Canada - Japan, small club circuit
in Northeastern U.S. Was told I must be the reincarnation of Kenji Miyazawa,
a fine Japanese poet. Sounds good from my end, but what bad things did he do
to deserve me? Also was introduced to the work of "Christian" writer Charles
Williams, a contemporary of and influence on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and
others. These influences are all over the albums from this time."
-- from World Of Wonders Tour Program, circa 1986. Submitted by Rob Caldwell.
September-October 1994 - Commenting on how the writings of Ernesto Cardenal and hearing that the church was being persecutional in Nicaragua prompted him to seize the
opportunity to travel there and see for himself.
"It was a deep sea change that affected everything. Initially, it produced
three or four songs that ended up on the Stealing Fire album. But, more importantly, it was a step toward increasing my understanding of how things work in the world, and how to get involved to change it."
-- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion", by David
Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.
21 October 1994 - Commenting on travelling and being an authority
"That's the only way it is fun and satisfying and meaningful for me," he
says about his travels. "It is more fun than sitting around complaining about
things you don't know anything about. I go around having experiences, and
those experiences, if they are vivid enough and deep enough, end up in
"All of a sudden I'm being treated as if I'm an authority on things
Nicaraguan," he said. "And if I'm going to be involved in something, I want
it to be something I feel qualified to talk about and the only way to get
qualified is to know it first-hand."
-- from "Cockburn Darts to the Heart This Time" by Toni Ruperto, USAToday, October 21, 1994.
26 September 1995 - Commenting on how songs come from travelling
You don't go on these trips looking for songs per se, but you always go with
your eyes open. It would be pretty cynical to go to Mozambique looking for
songs, but I'm happy when they come.
-- from "Mines still threat in Mozambique, Cockburn says: Cross-country tour precedes
visit to African country" by Kim Bolan, The Vancouver Sun, September 26, 1995. (Final Edition)
December 1996 - Commenting on songs having a 'travelogue' feel
Q:A lot of your songs revolve around movement and have a 'travelogue'
BC: There's a lot of different aspects to travelogue but one of
the important ones is the way it can kick you out of your habits of mind,
and I think being regularly kicked out of your habits of mind is very important,
vital really, from a creative point of view. Some people get that from drugs
or indiscriminate sex but in my case it's been mostly through travelogue!
It's a common human thing to fall into an habitual way of thinking about
things that needs to be stirred up every now and then - we need to keep
having these little cultural revolutions, and travel has occupied that
function for me more than anything else. There's a lot of material that
comes specifically from certain travels. On the new album, the Mozambique trip
inspired two songs. The obvious one is Mines Of Mozambique but also The Coming Rains.
was written there. Journeys to exotic places don't always
produce songs, but sometimes they do.
-- from "Tender is the Night", Hearsay Magazine, Vol. 14b, December? 1996.
Fall 1997 - Commenting on travelling in the Third World countries
[Interviewer is Bob Duran]
BD: How did the time you spent in Nicaragua influence your work and your
BC: It had a profound effect on the direction of my life generally and
consequently on the music, at least on the lyrics.
BD: What is the organization Oxfam that you went there with?
BC: Oxfam is an international aid agency operating out of the U.S. as
well as other countries. It started in England and there is a Canadian
arm of it that sent me down to Central America to be a witness. It was
the beginning of a template for something that's happened many times
since and has been rewarding in every case, to me at least, hopefully
sometimes to their people too. The idea was to bear witness to the
goings on and to be able to try to get attention to the work they were
doing and the need for that work.
It was my first encounter with the real Third World other than as a
tourist. I'd been to the Caribbean many times before that and had tried
my best to see what was going on, but when you travel as a tourist, you
have a certain impediment, because everybody knows that's what you're
there for and you have no reason to talk to people except for whatever
you make up at the time. But when you go with, I hesitate to call it
official status, but with a reason to be there beyond tourism, then you
find that you have access to people in their homes talking about the way
that they think and it's a whole other experience, a much richer one.
The experiences on that trip (which also included) the south of Mexico,
Chiapas, and the refugee camps, produced If I Had A Rocket Launcher. That alone changed the course of things for me because it got on the
BC: A most unlikely thing, even MTV. It's the only thing of mine that
they've ever shown that I can think of. I guess they hadn't yet figured
what videos were, so we snuck in through the loop hole. In any case, the
song got exposed and that changed my history. More important was getting
that glimpse and beginning to understand what people have to live with
is the world.
BD: Was you travel to Mozambique in a similar context, with Oxfam?
BC: It was a bit different, Oxfam was one of 16 organizations working
under an umbrella agency. I first went there in 1988 when that group was
first set up, then back again in '95 for the same group. It was the
second trip that produced the two songs on the album: Mines Of Mozambique and The Coming Rains.
-- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.
September 1999 - Commenting on the role of travel in his work
"Originally, I just fell into making music," he explains. "But early on it
became apparent that 'I can do this over there too.' I had cut my teeth on
beat generation literature, like 'On The Road', so I had a travel bug early.
Travel is still so natural to me. It's habitual, ongoing and I like it! One
does get fatigued, but the trick is to maintain or cultivate the ability to
be receptive to things. Partly that is what travel does. There's a lot of
stuff or human behavior I haven't seen directly. A mountain is a mountain.
It is what people have done around it that makes it different from home.
"There is still a lot of room for discovery in my life, but there's also
periodic reminder of things about human nature, like the hopeful side. That
comes more readily with travel than through sitting in familiar
circumstances. Here it's so easy to get cynical. You start thinking that
whether you can get a parking spot or not actually matters."
-- from "Staying POWER" by Kerry Doole, Word and Music, September, 1999.
25 October 1999 - On moving from Southern Ontario to Toronto in 1996
Commenting on his move three years ago from a southern Ontario farm back to
Toronto, where he settled in a renovated west-end loft, "I found that I'm an urban person," he says of the move, which brought an end to his competitive equestrian and target-shooting activities. "I like the buzz and the hubbub."
-- from "Music: Pilgrim soul: While many of his contemporaries revisit familiar
territory, Bruce Cockburn keeps taking his muse to new places,' by Nicholas Jennings, Maclean's, 25 October 1999.
6 February 2000 - Commenting on the influence of traveling to Timbuktu in Mali during the filming of the video River of Sand
BC: The experience in Mali was fantastic. It is such a nexus, in a
way, a historical nexus of all kinds of cultural strains. Timbuktu was the
site of a major university in the Middle Ages, an Islamic university.
Timbuktu itself, at this point in history, isn't a very impressive place,
other than by its isolation and the kind of exotic quality of the buildings
and what people are wearing, but you can't escape that feeling of history,
that sense that the sand that's blowing around contains grains that were
part of various empires.
BC:(Soundbite of music)
There's a black and white crow on the back of a two-toned
sheep in a field of broken yellow stalks below looming cliffs. High above
the plain, little gray houses blend with giant jagged boulders and
-- from "Bruce Cockburn, Musician, Shares History and Songs of his New CD,
Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu" by Liane Hansen, Weekend
Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, February 6, 2000.
7 February 2000 -
Brent Bambury: I wonder what you get from these experiences. I know you were in
Kosovo in the fall. I know you have been to Central America. You seem to have
sought out experiences that represent the extremes of human conflict and
behaviour. Why is that so attractive to you?
BC: Curiosity about how people behave in those kinds of circumstances -
in all kinds of circumstances really. You can look around at the familiar
circumstances and take that for granted and it becomes hard to see what's
making people move because it's all too familiar.
But when you get into a situation where it's not familiar or where it's even
a little scary, then you start really seeing what's there to be seen. Your
senses are sharp, and you're thinking fast and furiously. It's difficult to
assess and think about what it is you're confronted with. And that's a lot of
the attraction. I consider it part of my education and a necessary part of
BB: What are we doing when we stay at home? Are we sleeping through life
-- from "Bruce Cockburn on international cuisine", CBC Infoculture, February 7, 2000, by Brent Bambury.
16 October 2000 - Commenting on personal costs associated with witnessing tragedy during his travels to Cambodia, Vietnam and Kosovo
"I think if there is a cost, it's far outweighed by the benefits of greatly
enriching experiences of all kinds. It isn't always comfortable, sometimes
it's real sad to be in those kinds of situations, but when you see how people
deal with tragedy on that scale, it's kind of inspiring, as often as not,
because people really do on a personal level at least, rise to the occasion.
Growing up in comfortable North American middle-class atmosphere, it's real
easy to get hopeless, because you look around and you think we're never
going to solve all this shit that's going on. But when you're face to face
with people who are actually in the shit, who are the ones on whom it's being
inflicted daily, they don't have the luxury of being hopeless, because they'd
just give up and die if they did that. And sometimes that happens, but more
often you find people finding ways to get on with life in the face of the
most incredible things, and that is really inspirational."
-- 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 writing the song Waiting For A Miracle while in Managua, Nicaragua
"This song was written in Managua after a few visits to that part of the
world and I had a chance to see how things kind of added up and it occurred
to me.. I was honored to be singled out by Vernon Walters as one of the
artists duped by the Sandinistas. I was just one of the artists talking
about people and people lives. They were not perfect, they had some
reliance on Marxist rhetoric about history, but that was just rhetoric.
But history will never be the same because of what they did. Maybe history
doesn't belong to them. But they tried bravely to establish a fair social
order. This is a song for people trying against odds most of the time to
set things right in the world. I send this out to the honorees tonight..."
-- from the 'Institute for Policy Studies', 24th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights
Awards, 16 October, 2000. Transcribed by Ruth White.
3 March 2001 - When Bruce travels he's sponsored by aid agencies as a researcher and speaker
"It would be obscene to go to a place like Mozambique or Nicaragua looking
for song material. I don't go there for that. My assignment is to be a
witness. If I get a song out of it in addition to that, great. I'm very happy
when that happens because the chances are it's going to be an interesting
song, at least. But my songs that people think of as political, they are just
me and my reaction to a situation."
-- from "The Witness", Saturday Night Online, March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.
15 January 2002 -
I saw on "Life & Times" [editor's note: The Life and Times of Bruce Cockburn, a CBC production in 11/2001] that you recently moved to Montreal. What part of the town did you move into? (roughly so to speak)
Bruce Cockburn: The move to Montreal was for personal reasons. Partly, it was just a case of having lived in Toronto for 20 years and feeling like it was time to experience other kinds of surroundings. I really am enjoying being there (Montreal). I seem to be away more than I'm there but it's nice to have a different base in a different place that happens to have such a vibrant kind of life to it. I live in the central part of the city.[editor's note: The song "My Beat" on "Anything, Anytime, Anywhere" was a direct result of this move.]
-- from Canoe Online Chat with Bruce Cockburn, 15 January 2002. Submitted by Suzanne D. Myers.
2 March 2002 - Commenting on his recent (at the time of publication) move to Montreal from his long-time home in Toronto
"It's six hours closer to Vermont than Toronto is, and Vermont is where my
girlfriend lives. But I also needed a change. I wanted something different."
On biking around Montreal
"It's how I get around it is a little hairier here than it is in Toronto, but I've
ridden my bike in Manhattan and nothing can beat that."
"Everything is different in Montreal because of the French-English cultural division. In ways that are hard to pin down, it affects everything that happens here."
"It affects the way everyone looks. There's no place I've been where everyone looks like they do in Montreal. Also, the fact that the immigrant population, so much of it has come from former French colonies, which is different from anywhere else. In France, it's probably the same, but they don't have the English presence. That's one of the things that makes Montreal unique."
Commenting on conversing in French
"...it's not what I had hoped it would be by now. I can survive in French and I can read it reasonably well. I have a big collection of bandes dessin?es that I practice my French with."
"But I'd hoped by moving here that I'd be using it all the time and be able to go beyond the survival stage and be able to carry on an intelligent conversation. But so far that hasn't happened."
-- from "Cockburn fits right in: songsmith finds himself at home living in Plateau", Montreal Gazette, 2 March 2002, by Brendan Kelly.
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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.