Did Singer-Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Become A Radical?

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13 July 2011 - In elementary school, Bruce Cockburn remembers a teacher wishing upon her class that they all grow up to be "radicals," a person intent on forcing change by uncompromising methods.

The future folk-rock singer-songwriter doesnít known how that mightíve affected his desire to make a difference in the world, but in the 1980s ó after the release of his hit single If I Had A Rocket Launcher ó the Canadian became known as an outspoken political activist and hasnít wavered in his firm stance against war-mongering, environmental damage, and various injustice.

His latest album, his 31st, Small Source of Comfort, has a couple of issue-oriented songs, the comical Call Me Rose about Richard Nixon getting reincarnated as a single mother living in the projects; and the somber tribute Each One Lost written after his trip to Afghanistan where he witnessed the ramp ceremony for two fallen Canadian soldiers. talked to Cockburn about landmines, finding a cause, and musicís power.

Have you seen changes come about in the causes youíve supported over the years?

"How can I answer that backwards? Yes, Iíve seen changes. There have been changes. The landmine issue, for instance, was probably the most dramatic example of that where the campaign went from being very low-voiced murmuring to being this groundswell and then, ultimately, producing a treaty [The Ottawa Treaty or Anti-Personnel Lane Mine Treaty in 1997], to which most of the countries in the world are signatory, banning the manufacturing and use of landmines. Itís not a complete victory because there are some major holdouts there, including the U.S. and Russia and China."

How many landmines are estimated to still be buried out there?

"I donít actually know current numbers, but thereís lots of them and they are still in use in places. They are, unfortunately, a relatively cheap and convenient weapon for certain kinds of warfare. The problem is, well, somebody invented them in the first place, but since the Second World War really, the wars that have gone on in the world have mostly been internal, not very often between countries; there have been a couple of international like Iran-Iraq and so on, but most of the wars that have taken place have been civil wars. So the old concept of putting mines along your border and then putting up a sign that says, ĎDonít Step Here,í ó which was kind of how it was in the Second World War and elsewhere ó itís indiscriminate use of mines and increasingly over time, as a terror weapon. Itís a brutal presence in the landscape."

"In those limited civil war situations, thereís still continuing use of them and those wars are not signatory to the treaty; theyíre just independent operators, warlords and whatnot. So theyíll use whatever they can get, landmines. Of course, what have become noticed as an even cheaper and effective weapon in the hands of those kinds of operators is child soldiers. Thatís another whole thing thatís a bit more on everybodyís radar at the moment, but then, to me, thatís an example of a campaign that did produce some noticeable results."

We donít hear about the landmines issue in the media as much as we did a decade or more ago. Is the issue as important a cause as it once was?

"Itís as important to the people that are threatened by them and itís important enough to keep on the trying. Itís just that a lot of the people that were working on getting the U.S. for instance to sign on, there was a strong campaign to do that and all of a sudden 9/11 happened and the U.S. is in a war and itís not going to stop and itís not going to give up any weapons."

Has the treaty been presented to the Obama regime?

"I donít know whatís been presented, but I doubt thatís anybodyís going to be very successful being heard with that kind of a campaign at this stage. When the American public is sufficiently tired of bleeding and they pull out their troops, then we might get a resurgence of interest in that. But in the meantime, thereís no end to these kind of issues coming up. For me, the big point is that itís all one issue. It manifests in different ways, but whether youíre talking about industrial pollution or water rights or any of the humanitarian disasters that are exacerbated by poverty, all of these things are verification. You can go around the globe and pick out manifestations of what is essentially one issue, which is the way that we relate to the planet and each other and who are we in the system that weíre in."

Were you politically and socially aware before you started writing songs and became a professional musician?

"Yes, to a degree, before; politically aware before that. From my teens, we were all brought up to read the news and pay attention to whatís going on although in a very liberal atmosphere, where you werenít expected to do anything about anything other than vote."

"I had a public school teacher who we always had show and tell, a current events thing at the beginning of the day. This was grade three or four or something like that. Youíd bring in a news clipping and read it to the class and then talk about it. Somebody brought in a newspaper clipping abut rioting by student radicals in Turkey. This was in the Ď50s. So the teacher said, ĎWhatís a radical?í and none of us knew what a radical was. ĎA radical is someone who wants to make the world better by forcing change, where it needs to be changed.í And then she said, ĎI hope you all grow up to be radicals.í Imagine saying that in the Ď50s? Even in Canada, we werenít under the same kind of fear of communism thatís the States was, but it wasnít the time to be talking like that [laughs] and yet thatís what she said to us in class and it never went away. That teacher was one who I found particularly scary and did not empathize with her at all, but I remembered her saying that and I respected her. Anyway, I donít know how much of an affect that had in the long run, but hearing an authority figure say that at an early age might have mattered."

For young people who want to find a cause to support, can you recommend how they can find one that speaks to them, that they can fully understand and articulate?

"You canít understand it without gathering as much information as you can about it. If you see something that bothers you in the world a little bit in your heart, do everything you can to find out about it. The means are there, especially the age we live in. You can go online and find out perhaps slightly suspect information about anything, and then you have to sift through whatís real and what isnít. If you want to know whatís going on in the Middle East, donít just take the world of FOX TV. Go to Al Jazeera online or whatever. Get all the points of view and then you can make sense of whatís happening. Not enough people do that. So if you have the energery while youíre young to start that, great."

Do you agree with your friend Neil Young when he said that music doesnít have the power to change the world anymore?

"I never thought it did. I must have been ahead of him (laughs). It always seemed to be that what music does is accompany what goes on. There is a place for music in political change for sure, but that place is created by a body of popular feeling that is going to respond to a song. If you donít have that, then the song isnít going to create that. If youíre an Egyptian in Alexandria, and youíre looking around at how much everything sucks and somebody comes along with a song that goes, ĎEverything sucks,í youíre going to feel empowered by that and it might give you the energy you need to eventually making a change yourself."

~ from The SamaritanMag- by Karen Bliss

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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.