Church Times
Songs in the key of love
by Huw Spanner

News Index

24 August 2012 - The veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has helped to shape the vocabulary of the Greenbelt Festival. Huw Spanner discovers that, while his theology has shifted, his ardour has not diminished.

THERE will be bigger acts taking the stage at the Greenbelt Festival over this weekend, but probably no more estimable artist than Bruce Cockburn. The singer-songwriter, who will be headlining tonight, has been compared to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell - and not just because he is, like them, Canadian, and of a certain age. His often poetic lyrics are literate, acutely observed, and both politically and spiritually engaged. He is also a quite extraordinary guitarist.

Many years ago, he was described by the then editor of Melody Maker as "the last great rock obscurity". Although he is fêted in his native land - he was inducted into the Music Hall of Fame in Canada in 2001, a year before U2's producer, Daniel Lanois - that obscurity still stubbornly persists.

Last year, his 24th studio album, Small Source of Comfort, was ignored by the mainstream British media. He has appeared at the Royal Festival Hall, but he has not performed in this country since the 2007 Lewes Guitar Festival.

In 1984, the year Cockburn first appeared at Greenbelt, an album review in The New York Times spoke of "impressionistic songs that combine Christian mysticism and leftist politics with illuminating flashes of imagery". That summed him up pretty well.

Late at night, in the festival's Big Top, Charles Williams and John Pilger seemed to meet, metaphorically speaking, in an electrifying solo set that ranged from Lord of the Starfields ("O love that fires the sun, Keep me burning") to Nicaragua ("You're the best of what we are").

Cockburn had travelled to Central America the previous year, at the behest of Oxfam, and was deeply affected by the hope that he saw in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and by the horror that he heard of in Mexico, where refugees from the "dirty war" in Guatemala gave him eyewitness accounts of "things too sickening to relate". His most powerful song, which was to be a modest hit, was If I had a Rocket Launcher ("I would retaliate").

AT THAT time, Greenbelt was artistically still rather lightweight. On mainstage, Cliff Richard and Sheila Walsh pulled the crowds. Cockburn was something else: a musician and lyricist of multi-award-winning quality who spoke the same language as the festival's heavyweight speakers, but sang it much better.

He expressed the same love of God, the same passion for peace and justice, the same sense of the wonder and mystery of things. Reportedly, one of the reasons why Bono sneaked into Greenbelt in 1987, disguised as a steward, was to see him perform.

Over the years that followed, some of his distinctive turns of phrase became essential parts of the festival's phrasebook. Greenbelt 1990 was titled Rumours of Glory after one of his songs, and, for years, a line from another Cockburn composition, Lovers in a Dangerous Time - "Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight" - seemed to be quoted in every second seminar.

Bruce Cockburn 1987 Greenbelt

When, in 1999, the festival moved from Deene Park to the more worldly surroundings of Cheltenham Racecourse, he was there, once again, to reassure the old hands that Greenbelt's heart was still in the right place.

A GREAT deal of water has gone under the bridge since those days, and, when I rang him, I was curious to know whether, at 67 years of age, he is still, in his word, "burning". He now lives in San Franscisco, where he is looking after a new baby daughter (born 35 years after her half-sister).

His latest album is characteristically classy, and features no fewer than five instrumentals. His eye for an image is still as acute, his wit still as wry, but many years have gone by since he wrote a powerful "political" song. The word is out that he no longer calls himself a Christian.

I ask him whether he has managed to maintain the passion of his younger days. "I think there's a certain curve we go through in our lives," he says. "You start full of warrior energy, and, eventually, you end up becoming more spiritually inclined - or perhaps just lazy."

Does he still find, as he put it in Call it Democracy, that the iniquities in the world "render rage a necessity"? That song is surely as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1985, about the money men who "don't really give a flying fuck About the people in misery".

It is, Cockburn tells me, "the only response that I'm able to find. Maybe 'outrage' is a better word. Perhaps a better response would be serenity, to see it from the top of some spiritual Everest, but not very many of us have the luxury of being able to do that, or the qualifications."

So, why has he not written anything as forceful for years? "In general," he says, "the inspiration to write comes through the heart. When I write what people think is a political song, I'm not thinking politics, I'm trying to express some way that I've been made to feel by the things I've encountered - and anything deep and moving is always more intense the first time you encounter it. I've seen a lot more injustice and suffering since [I wrote "Rocket launcher" and "Call it democracy"], but I doubt very much that I would write a song like that now."

To some extent, he says, that is because his own understanding of the world has deepened. "When you're writing a song, you're attempting to reduce a complex picture to something communicable in four or five minutes, and that's most easily done when you don't know very much about what you're writing about. The more you know, the harder it is to fit it into a song."

Bruce Cockburn Photo by KEVIN KELLY

THERE is one song on his latest album which he likens to "Rocket Launcher": Each One Lost similarly comes across as a call to arms, although not a call that Pilger would endorse. Cockburn wrote it in 2009, after witnessing, on the way to Kandahar (where his brother was serving with the Canadian army), a ceremony honouring the bodies of two young servicemen who had been killed in Afghanistan that day.

"This is going to get me in trouble, probably, but there is a point where loving your neighbour means stopping your neighbour from being brutalised - maybe.

"I don't know that it's always wrong to get militarily engaged in something - I don't sympathise with the notion that we should just let these people sink in their own shit. But it's very tricky, and it's never clean, because, once you start that stuff, you've unleashed something very negative on the world. It's something I'm still wrestling with, as you can hear."

If his politics are "very broadly in the same place", Cockburn's spiritual journey seems to have taken him further afield. "At the moment," he confirms, "I'm not comfortable calling myself a Christian, because I have too much doubt about the possible limitations of the Christian understanding, let's say. Do I believe in the historical reality of Christ? I'm not sure - which, I guess, is a bogus way of saying I don't."

He refers to C. S. Lewis when he adds that "it doesn't matter: Christianity is mythic, in the biggest sense of that word. I see it as one of those noble bodies of myth that gives us access to the divine, but it's not the only one that does that. There's a lot of deep spiritual understanding among people that is not Christian, and I feel I've gained as much from contact with other spiritual pathways, including the writings of the Chinese and Arabic sages."

Cockburn has long talked about "the mystery of it all", and, for many years, his lyrics have invoked the Spirit rather than the man he recently referred to as "the guy on the cross with the beard".

HE DID have a life-changing encounter with Jesus, once, but he has been re-evaluating it. "One of the reasons I came to Christ", he says, "is that, the day I got married, in 1969, at the point in the ceremony when we were about to exchange rings, I became aware of this warm, glowing presence, and I was completely blown away. Some people might have called it an angel, or a hallucination, but I thought: 'Well, we're in a Christian church: it's got to be Jesus.'

"I had a subsequent encounter with the same entity, and I became very focused on understanding Christianity, and that led to me deciding that I was a Christian, because I felt that reality.

"I still feel that reality. I just don't know that it's Jesus. I don't think Jesus is the only way that energy can appear to us."

Where does this unravelling of past beliefs end up? Is the idea of the divine just a metaphor, then? Or does he have some apprehension that there is something real, but at the moment unknown, out there?

"The divine is not a metaphor," Cockburn says. "We are a metaphor for the divine, if anything. God is, I think, after a relationship with us - with each of us. To me, everything is about that relationship."

Does he feel that he is in touch with the divine? "I feel that the divine will fill me up if I [allow it] - though I find it very, very difficult to. I'm always excited and grateful when I get that feeling that there's something going on, something divine."

COCKBURN pleads, in "Each One Lost": "Screw the rule of law, We want the rule of love, Enough to fight and die to keep it coming." He comes from a generation that once paid lip service to love - his first band once opened for Cream and Jimi Hendrix, after all. So I wonder what exactly the word means for him.

Bruce Cockburn in the 80's

"Well, I don't mean hippie love. To me, love is a force like gravity, the glue that holds the universe together, down at the level of that Higgs boson particle they think they've discovered. We feel this connectedness; it makes us feel at home; it makes us long for something that we aren't in contact with; and that's where it starts, for me.

"The rule of love, to me, is the anarchic notion that, when you get down to that level of things, when you're motivated by God, you don't need rules. Can you run a society like that? Probably not. But in the hearts of us all, there's room for that."

In the past, Greenbelt has described Cockburn as "prophetic". It is not how he sees himself, but he tells me: "I hope that people will take this stuff seriously, and be moved by it. I try to write songs in such a way that I think that that will happen. If the songs open the world up for people, or touch them in some way they feel is prophetic, that's as much as any artist could ever hope for."

Does he find that the kind of people who go to Greenbelt are especially receptive? "It's different from other festivals that I go to. There's this whole intellectual and heart-based dimension to it that's quite distinctive." He adds, drily: "I don't think I've played for another audience that sang along as lustily to 'If I had a rocket launcher'. Nobody did that at the Royal Festival Hall."

Bruce Cockburn is also being recorded for the Bob Harris Show on BBC Radio 2 on Sunday 26 August. It will be broadcast in the autumn.

~from Church Times - Songs in the key of Love by Huw Spanner

News Index

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.