Journey Through the Past: The Bruce Cockburn Archives
By Rob Caldwell

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Bruce Cockburn Journal photo by Rob Caldwell Journey Through the Past: The Bruce Cockburn Archives
By Rob Caldwell

1 December 2013 -

"Dec. 30: Get Married!?"

This 1969 journal entry of Bruce Cockburn's is just one of the many idiosyncratic, illuminating, and often humorous entries found in the Bruce Cockburn Archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

Another entry, from 1977 while on tour in Japan: "This whole town would fit nicely under one of Godzilla's feet" written just below "Newspaper headline: 'Sacred Mountain Towers Above Meadows'", which listeners will recognize as a lyric from his 1980 song "Grim Travellers".

Bruce Cockburn Journal photo by Rob Caldwell

The set of 32 journals of Cockburn's covering the years 1969-2002 is arguably the highlight of the Bruce Cockburn archival collection, which was donated to McMaster in 2012, with an official unveiling ceremony in May 2013. But it's only a portion of the available treasure trove of memorabilia and flotsam and jetsam of the veteran musician's life. Close to 1000 audio and video recordings, plus press clippings and photos, correspondence, sheet music scores written when he was an ardent jazz fan in high school, awards, posters, concert shirts, tour books, guitars, and more await discovery.

The archive department is located in the basement level of the Mills Memorial Library, a tall concrete modernesque building near the center of the McMaster campus. A small, mellow-lit reading room with wood tables is encircled by archive staff offices and storage rooms. Due to space restrictions and the often fragile nature of archival material, it's not a browsing collection. Rather, the visitor requests the boxes of artifacts they would like to view and a staff member retrieves them. For security purposes, visitor ID is held by the staff while viewing material, and laptops for playback of audio/video items are not allowed.

Bruce Cockburn Archives - photo by Rob Caldwell

Reading through the journals is almost like an archaeological exploration. Among the bits and pieces and jottings of everyday life - phone numbers, schedules, doodles - well known songs appear with additional lyrics that were never used, unreleased songs and poems abound, as well as tentative track listings for albums.

For example, it appears that Sunwheel Dance was originally going to be the title of his second album, rather than his third. Looking at the track list written out in the journal, it would have combined tracks from both those albums, in addition to a few songs which have still not been released. Going further back, we get a view of Cockburn's thoughts about signing a record deal in 1969 with Columbia Records (he was on True North in Canada, but ended up being on Columbia in the U.S.) in a journal entry titled "What I Need & Want". Even this far back, he was very astute and focused. Among other items, he stipulates "complete artistic control", "promotional considerations to allow me to expose myself in order to gain acceptance as I have here (in places where does the most good)", and "any publishing deal must be proven beneficial to me."

Bruce Cockburn Archives - photo by Rob Caldwell

When you finally look up from the journals, there's plenty more to explore. Some other highlights of the collection include:

Bruce Cockburn Archives - photo by Rob Caldwell

For a full list of the all the material in the Bruce Cockburn archives, check out the catalogue.

According to the archivist, users of the collection thus far have been researchers as well as the occasional fan. Parts of the collection are also sometimes lent to other institutions, with some items currently on loan to The Canadian War Museum for an exhibit.

As well-known rock and folk musicians age, we're seeing more and more of them donating their memorabilia and belongings to libraries and archival institutions. McMaster also houses the archives of Canadian musicians Ian Thomas and Jackie Washington. At the University of Toronto Media Commons, the historical repositories of Blue Rodeo, The Cowboy Junkies, and Triumph sit alongside the True North Records Archive. With Cockburn being on True North's roster for the entirety of his career, he's no small part of that collection as well as McMaster's.

The Bruce Cockburn archives at McMaster University provide a snapshot of the development of a successful music career, but more importantly give an insight into the creative process of an artist through his journals, works in progress, and recordings. The collection is a valuable and integral addition to the history of Canadian music.


~ Rob Caldwell is a longtime Bruce Cockburn fan who has been on the 'Humans' Cockburn Internet fan discussion group since the mid 90's and was the original setlist editor for the Cockburn Project. He also wrote, Bruce Cockburn + Toronto - A Historical Tour. He has a music blog called Music To Eat.

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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.