-- Festival preview: A conversation with activist Bruce Cockburn --
By Fish Griwkowsky, Edmonton Journal

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7 August 2013 - EDMONTON - An ideal Folk Fest headliner: Bruce Cockburn. Bruce Cockburn is one of the mainstage acts, headlining Aug. 10 at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Writer of a handful of the great Canadian songs, advocate and adventurer to war-torn horizons worldwide, and truly one of the most intuitive guitar players still picking, 68-year-old Cockburn was eased into the recent retrospective film Pacing the Cage with testimonies and on the-spot-covers by famous figures including Sarah Harmer, Jackson Browne and Bono. As we’ve seen here live from the slope many times, the onscreen performances of standards like Wondering Where the Lions Are, If I Had a Rocket Launcher and Lovers in a Dangerous Time tensely shine with a sort of stolen hope, ephemeral little moths of songs resounding for decades due to simple, echoing beauty.

We talked to him about the cinematic portrait earlier in the year, but with Cockburn you never stay in one place for long.

Journal: “There are a lot of fantastic quotes from the movie — ‘I think we’re f---ed’ is one that really rings.”

Cockburn: “Good headline, eh?”

Journal: “I’ll pitch that one to my editor. What do you think of it?”

Cockburn: “They did a great job of capturing as much of me as I’m willing to make public, and certainly the flavour of being on the road.”

Journal: “You looked back and considered your life. At 68, did you make more of a difference than you thought you might?”

Cockburn: “I never thought about it at all. When I dropped out of music school at the end of ’65, I had no idea what I was going to be doing, whether I would be able to survive off music or not. I dove in. I just tried to follow the same kind of urges that got me started in the first place. Over time, involvement with one thing or another, songs came out that had an effect on people, and the involvement certainly had an effect on me.”

Journal: “You have people from David Suzuki to Sylvia Tyson lauding you. Bono can rattle off your lyrics from memory. It must be gratifying.”

Cockburn: “It is. It’s particularly nice people thought about it. It’s nice to be taken seriously.”

Journal: “I love the imagery of ‘the magnetic strip’s run thin’ on Pacing the Cage. It reminds me of Bilbo Baggins saying he feels like a piece of toast thinly buttered. Is your mortality in your head a bit?”

Cockburn: “It’s always kind of been there. I was never a fan, but the best thing Jim Morrison said was no one gets out of life alive. There’s the sense of the inevitable ticking closer, but I look at my dad who’s 95 and he feels the same way.”

Journal: “Did you have a relationship with your grandparents?”

Cockburn: “My grandfather on my mom’s side had been a forester, and in the days when he was a forester there was no such thing as ‘the environment.’ He had a clear conscience about what he did and no one could argue with that. He taught me a lot about appreciating the bush out on his farm outside of Ottawa, how to tell a jack pine from a white pine. He cultivated in me a love of the forest at a very young age, the relationship between us and that. By modern standards he would be considered an exploiter of the forest, but in his era it seemed unlimited. He did have a sense of responsibility. For awhile he ran what amounted to forestry policing itself, which consisted mainly of not setting accidental forest fires. (Laughs.) But between that and doing a lot of canoe tripping in Algonquin Park, I got this love of the wilderness.”

Journal: “Pierre Trudeau wrote that every Canadian should take a canoe trip.”

Cockburn: “I really think so. When I was in Mozambique at one point, we’d flown into this camp for internally displaced people, but from the air you could see the Zambezi River and I asked, ‘Do people use the river for transportation?’ ‘No. No,’ he says, and I asked why not. ‘Hippos and crocodiles.’ This is something Canada is free of — we have bears, which you’re very unlikely to run into, and mosquitoes, which you’re extremely likely to run into. Other than that …”

Journal: “There’s a central irony in If I Had a Rocket Launcher I’ve always wanted to ask you about. You’re so angry about violence you’re brought to fantasizing about blowing someone up, which is of course where war comes from in the first place. It’s a very shocking protest song.”

Cockburn: “It came out of a sense of outrage, bigger than anger. There was no appropriateness about any of it. You’re in a war (in Guatemala), you have a counter-insurgency going — but that doesn’t mean you go and strafe the refugee camps. It was subhuman behaviour and as such, warranted being stopped by any means. The people in the helicopters seemed to have forfeited their claim to humanity. I don’t believe this is true (now), but this is what it felt like: righteous anger. Once it was written, I had to wrestle with, ‘Do I sing this for anybody or not?’ I never worried about hypocrisy, I never claimed to be a peacemaker. I just think peace is better than war.”

Journal: “Do you think there’s something about humankind that just doesn’t work when there’s too many of us? We seem to be escalating the scale of a number of economic, environmental and political problems lately.”

Cockburn: “The issue of peace isn’t only about numbers, though that’s a big factor. Tribal societies have been fighting each other since Day 1. In Mozambique I came to the sense that war is the default condition of mankind. Every now and then we get these waves of calm where we can flourish as a species, make art and do well. But inevitably we descend into this chaos again. I’m not smart enough to figure out the whys and wherefores of that. (Laughs.)

Journal: “Have you ever fired a real rocket launcher?”

Cockburn: “I narrowly missed an opportunity to do that. The closest I’ve come is a machine-gun, once with an Ontario Provincial Police group that was training, and once with Canadian troops in Kandahar — not at anyone, just at paper. I was in Cambodia and only found out afterwards you can rent stuff like that and play with it, even rocket launchers. They’ll take your money, take you out to the range and show you what to do. Which I probably would have gone along with.”

~from Edmonton Journal, by Fish Griwkowsky ( - © Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal.

Bruce Cockburn
At: Edmonton Folk Music Festival
When: 11:10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 10, mainstage
Where: Gallagher Park
Tickets: Sold out except seniors tickets

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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.