23 April 2000 - On Tuesday 14 March 2000, Bruce Cockburn called WERU-FM in Blue Hill, Maine upon his arrival in Camden for a gig. He was interviewed by Ousman Jobarteh for his program Mostly Manding a show that features West African music. Ousman had met Bruce in Mali a couple years ago. Many thanks to David Snyder for the transcription. Photos of Bruce playing at the Camden gig courtesy of Larry Cassis (©2000 A'nother Rainbow's End Production).
Ousman Jobarteh (OJ): Mr. Bruce Cockburn, welcome to Maine.
Bruce Cockburn (BC): Thanks, good to be here.
OJ: I assume you are here.
BC: Yes, we're just getting organized here at the theater.
OJ: Well, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to give us a little interview. Most of the people who listen to WERU have heard your music and they know what your current music sounds like, but you‚ve been around for a long time. You've had at least 25 albums out. Can you, in a nutshell, explain where you come from?
BC: [Big laugh] Reduce the 30 years or so into a nutshell? I was born. I'm here. Someday I'm gonna die. There's the biggest, the best nutshell I can come up with. Um, wow, its hard, you know? I mean... the first album came out in 1970 and, ya know, the songs, if people are familiar with the songs, they'll know that they sort of reflect the various adventures and life and times and so on that have made up my experience and the early songs do the same although less directly in many cases than they came to later on.
So there's... you'd hear a change over the years but what you'd mostly hear is the change that takes place in anybody's life over that period, ya know, the broadening of things and the, um, and hopefully the deepening of understanding of how to write songs and perform them.
OJ: Well, your writing ability and performance ability is certainly excellent, so if you had to learn anything you certainly have done that.
BC: Well, you never stop though.
OJ: This is true and the world doesn't stop and it is different than it was in 1970. You've always written serious songs it seems, even your love songs. Like your most recent album, the song "Look How Far" which I think is a love song.
BC: Well, yes, but not really actually its more of a... it uses the word "friendship" in the song which is really more what its about. Although, in a way, I don't like to narrow things down too much. If people want to think of their lover when they hear that song that's fine with me.
OJ: Yea, I like the ambiguity of that song. The fact that you used sort of physical principles of light and nature as a metaphor to carry the message is I think unusual maybe in the pop/rock genre.
BC: Yea, I don't talk about money very much. But it's .. who knows? If its my life, you know, its just the things that shaped me are what tend to come out in the songs and the love of poetry, which was one of the things that shaped me, the discovery at a pretty early age of the power of poetry.
OJ: Are there any poets that you are particularly in admiration of?
BC: Many, many, many. Um, who currently? Jeepers, um. I don't know, its a long list, but the people that had a huge affect on me early, I mean, not ... well, I can tell you the first poem that turned that light on for me was a poem by Archibald McLeish called "Ars Poetica". It's a short, little kind of lyric poem.
I'm not really well versed in McLeish's other work [Editor: See online exhibit from The Academy of American Poets] and I don't know what I'd think of it, but that poem was something we studied in school and it was the first time I read a poem that didn't rhyme and didn't have this sort of stilted language and it just had images that piled images on images and created a picture in almost a tangible presence of the things he was talking about without using any of the stuff that I associated with poetry before that and it just hit me like a ton of bricks.
We had to pick a poem to learn by memory and I picked that one and ... I can only remember one line of it now... but it made a huge impression and from that point on I was reading what I considered to be the more interesting poets, and they were Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot and the people of the earlier part of this century who were breaking new ground at the time, and then I got interested in the"Beat Generation" [Editor: Read "How Beat Happened", and article by Steve Silberman for background on this movement] and Ginsberg particularly and I still consider Allen Ginsberg's poetry really great and go back to it from time to time.
OJ: And obviously this poetry has influenced your approach to music. A lot of your tracks have spoken passages or chanted passages.
BC: Yea, and that kind of sprang from a desire to expand the notion of what a song is as much as possible. There are songs that are mostly instrumental with hardly any words and there are more songs that have, as you pointed out, a lot of words that just don't want to be reduced to rhyming couplets and hammered into a melody that need to be recited, so then the trick is to find music that will sort of support that recitation and some kind of various musical elements to pull it together and make it make sense. Its not quite the same as writing poetry because of the dependency on the presence of music, but its similar, I guess.
OJ: Well, the most ancient poetry had musical accompaniment.
BC: Yea, that's true. Me and Homer, we're just like that. [Laughs]
OJ: Yea, it was rhythmic music and another aspect of your music that I find interesting is that the rhythms you use, I can't pin them down. I can't say they're African or they're New Orleans or Cuban or something. You have your own rhythmic style.
BC: They're Canadian. [Laughs]
OJ: Canadian. Yes, that's right.
BC: Yes, perhaps we can even narrow it down further and say Ontario rhythms.
OJ: Ontario rhythms. Okay, this is a new genre that the world needs to know about. And you're doing a good job of spreading it around. You also went to Africa.
OJ: And you spent some time there on behalf of the efforts to end desertification or at least to promote knowledge about it.
BC: Yea. Really the latter, because I'm only marginally involved with efforts to fight it, but I got a call one day from a guy that I've known for some time named Bob Lang who's a filmmaker with whom I've done a number of public service announcements for a particular charity that we both give time to at home, and he said, "What do think if we organize a trip to Timbuktu?" [Laugh] I said, "Okay," ya know, "It's alright with me."
But the point of the thing is it was ages before we actually went, about a year before we actually went, and he wanted to go and do a film and I'm not quite sure what was in his mind in the first stages, but what it evolved in to very quickly was a documentary for Canadian TV on the issue of desertification and using Mali in West Africa as an example of a country faced with this problem.
There are, you know, as you probably know, there are lots of countries and somewhere in the neighborhood of a billion people whose ability to support themselves is directly threatened by the process of desertification, which I suppose we should define for those who don't know what we're talking about.
The word is used to describe the process by which a dry, but usable land degrades into actual desert that isn't usable by humans and that is invariably accomplished by human misuse of the land, by cutting the trees down, by overgrazing sometimes, by bad irrigation practices and so on. And often these are the results of poorly thought out government policies... in the rush, especially in the third world, but here, too, in the rush to kind of modernize and industrialize, certain key things are overlooked sometimes, like the need for trees to hold the soil together.
OJ: Yes, and there's often IMF money pointing towards certain projects that may not be the best for the environment.
BC: That's right. And its all that, you know, "We'll give you the money if you do this program and that program." And governments will go, "Well, we don't really want to do that, but okay, because we want to keep the money flowing," and sometimes the governments in certain countries don't... I don't think this is quite true of Mali, but in some places you go the governments don't really care that much what happens to the country anyway. They're really interested in expanding their Swiss or Miami bank accounts. You know, that's what its all about.
OJ: Well, thank you for your work in this department. As I mentioned earlier, you do deal with serious subjects and you don't hold back on singing about them. I noticed on your most recent album which is Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, there are a couple of tracks that have African kora.
BC:Yea! And the kora is there because of that trip to Mali, as we probably talked about there, we did some filming with Tumani Djoubati, as your listeners may know him from, I don't know what all kinds of things your station plays, ....
OJ: We do play Tumani.
BC: Yea, he's a brilliant musician and I had heard him on record but never met him and then we set up some jamming time to film together and that music makes up much of the music soundtrack of the film and there's some footage of us playing together.
Playing a song of mine and a piece of his, and the guitar and kora fit together so beautifully, finger style guitar, so much so that you'd sorta' swear that the guys who invented finger picking were originally kora players, because the right hand technique is almost exactly the same and kora is, of course, a harp, its not a guitar, but its approached with similar rhythmic principles and so on and so the instruments just fit together beautifully and sounded great together and I thought, "I gotta' have this on the next album!"
We were unfortunately not able to get Tumani, but a Canadian guy by the name of Daniel Janke was able to come in and played really nice kora stuff on the album, so I was very happy with that. There's other elements too from Mali. There's the song "Use Me While You Can". Its made up entirely of images from there, from around Timbuktu and from the Dogon country which is where we spent more time while we were in Mali.
OJ: Yea, that song struck me as being the most African perhaps on that album. Is this the album that you'll be essentially playing from for tonight's concert?
BC: Yea, we'll be doing a lot of songs from the album. It varies lightly from night to night, very slightly [laugh] but generally the show is probably half stuff from the album and half a selection of older stuff.
OJ: Yea, there's certain of your tracks around here that have to be played or people will feel that they've missed out. [Both laugh] You're very popular around here.
BC: Well, its good to know that.
OJ: Well your concert is sold out tonight.
BC: Its good to know that, too.
OJ: At least that's what your agent in Canada said.
BC: Well, we hope they're telling the truth.
Editor's note: And, sadly, that is where the digital editor being used to record the interview ran out of room, and the interview for broadcast was cut off. Ousman did say that Bruce went on to make a nice pitch for non-commercial, community radio.