-- No second-guessing for Cockburn --
By Brian Kelly, Sault Star

News Index

3 October 2013 - Bruce Cockburn doesn't pack his bags planning to write songs about what he'll encounter on his travels.

But there are times he'll see something that spurs him to put pen to paper.

That's what happened when the veteran Canadian folksinger wrote If I Had a Rocket Launcher for his 1984 album, Stealing Fire.

The song, a minor hit in the United States, was based on Cockburn's experience visiting a refugee camp for Guatemalans in Mexico.

“I didn't go to Central America looking for material to come up with a song,” said Cockburn in a recent telephone interview from San Francisco.

“I've never gone anywhere with that intention.”

He was surprised when his record label wanted to release the five-minute track as a single.

“It shows you how much I know about audience reaction,” said Cockburn.

“The business people could see the potential in this song. Radio people were coming back to (my manager) Bernie (Finklestein) saying, 'Yeah, we'd play that.' I'm going, 'How could they possibly play that song?' But they did.”

A song from Cockburn's most recent album, Small Source of Comfort, saw a similar start.

He lobbied the federal government to travel to Afghanistan to meet with Canadian troops including his brother, a doctor. Hockey legend Guy Lafleur and rock band Finger Eleven were part of the delegation that visited Canadian troops in 2009.

During a rest stop en route to Afghanistan, Cockburn participated in a ramp ceremony for two Canadian soldiers being returned home.

"It was a very, very moving experience which is what I tried to capture in that song (Each One Lost),” he said.

“That's not an angry song. It's topical in its way because those ramp ceremonies were a feature in Canadian life for a number of years and hopefully it won't be again for awhile. It was actually a very touching thing to be part of, and an honour, to be part of it.”

Two Sault Ste. Marie natives, Master Cpl. Scott Vernelli and Sgt. John Faught, were killed in action in Afghanistan.

Cockburn took notes during his time with Canadian troops and wrote Each One Lost the day after he returned to North America.

“I just had such a vivid memory of that experience that it wanted to be a song,” he said.

“When I sing that song those feelings still come back. The scene is still very present.”

Cockburn has recorded numerous songs with a social message – from concerns about First Nations (Stolen Land, Indian Wars) to taking a jab at the International Monetary Fund (Call It Democracy).

His 1988 album, Big Circumstance, featured If A Tree Falls in the Forest about the razing of rainforests, Where The Death Squad Lives and Radium Rain.

Cockburn doesn't spend time debating if he has too many songs with a message that may weigh down listeners.

“The songs are a product of whatever I was experiencing during the time they were being written,” he said.

“Everybody's got their own idea of what they want to listen to. You can't really second guess, at least I can't anyway ... If I were trying to write something more stereotypical (as a pop song) then I would try to second guess how much they're going to like it. But that's not really my goal. I write the songs the way they seem to want to be written. I have to take my chances with how people receive them.”

Cockburn is a rare songwriter who notes the city, and year, where each of his tracks are penned on album sleeves and, now, booklets. It's record-keeping he started after noting some of his favourite poets, possibly T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg, making similar efforts.

“After awhile it started seeming like it mattered in some way,” said Cockburn.

“It's not critical to an understanding of the song in most cases. Once and awhile it is. I think there was some songs that come from situations that it's helpful to know that I was in that situation when I wrote that song ... It does leave a kind of trail for anybody who's interested enough to want to try to track the comings and goings of the creative force.”

Cockburn's setlists can potentially be drawn from the more than 30 albums he's released since his self-titled debut in 1970.

But his choice “automatically gets narrowed down” because he can only keep 50 to 60 songs “in a playable condition.”

“There's a lot to choose from,” said Cockburn.

“That's not such a bad thing really.”

He plans to draw largely from his last three to four albums (Small Source of Comfort, Life Short Call Now, Speechless, You've Never Seen Everything). But there'll also be material from throughout his career including God Bless the Children – the closing track from his 1973 album Night Vision.

He'll switch up one to five songs a night. If there's an encore, his song selection “can open right up.”

Cockburn still has a house near Kingston, Ont., but primarily calls San Francisco home now. He's married and has a daughter, Iona, who turns two in November.

He's eased back on touring since her birth. His appearance at Kiwanis Community Theatre Centre as part of Algoma Fall Festival is the last of a short tour of Northwestern Ontario.

“I tend to spend as much time as I can here at this point,” said Cockburn.

~ from

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.