-- Bruce Cockburn: ďThereís nothing wrong with singing love songs or old Appalachian river balladsĒ --
That Eric Alper - Think Tank

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13 October 2014 - Legendary Canadian singer and songwriter Bruce Cockburn delivers his long-awaited memoiróa chronicle of faith, fear, and activism that is also a lively cultural and musical tour through the late twentieth century.

Award-winning songwriter and pioneering guitarist Bruce Cockburnís life has been shaped by politics, protest, romance, and spiritual discovery. For more than five decades he has toured the globe, visiting far-flung places such as Guatemala, Mali, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Nepal, performing and speaking out on diverse issues, from native rights and land mines to the environment and Third World debt. His journeys have been reflected in his music and evolving styles: folk, jazz, blues, rock, and worldbeat. Drawing from his experiences, he continues to create memorable songs about his ever-expanding universe of wonders.

As an artist with thirty-one albums, Cockburn has won numerous awards and the devotion of legions of fans across America and his native Canada, where he is a household name. Yet the man himself has remained a mystery. In his memoir, Cockburn invites us into his private world, sharing his Christian convictions, his personal relationships, and the social and political activism that has defined him and has both invigorated and incited his fans.

Eric: Why now for the new book, Rumours Of Glory? After all these years, because youíve been a very personal songwriter and a writer that has always put his thoughts and feelings out there in songs.

Bruce: Over the years, Iíve been approached by various people volunteering to write my biography and by various publishers interested in putting out a memoir or an autobiography of some sort. It always felt too soon. If youíre going to do something like that, you have to have enough life to make a story out of. To be able to hopefully contribute some observations that mean something. Iíve been in book stores and seen coffee table books like The Life Of Whatever Teenage Popstar or a 30 year old hockey player whoís Ė yeah, theyíve got a story to tell but itís hardly a life. Youíd hope their lives are longer than that. There seemed like there wasnít enough there yet and also there was my story to tell, not somebody elses in the case of those who wanted to write the book. 3-4 years ago Harpercollins approached me about doing a memoir, which theyíd characterized as a spiritual memoir. It just seemed like after all this time and after many requests, this was the right one. The timing was right, because I felt like I was old enough and it was appropriate to do a book like that. They wanted me to write it. It just came together in that way. What they meant by spiritual memoir, they werenít able to fully explain to me. So, I was left to try and figure out what that might mean.

Eric: Have you figured it out yet?

Bruce: No. But the book is done, [laughs]. The rest of the people are going to have to figure out whether itís spiritual or something else but thereís a lot of talk about God in it. I think there probably would have been whether that had been the mandate or not, but since it was, itís an obvious thing to put in Ė the spiritual aspect of my years on the planet too.

Eric: A lot of your songs anyway, Iíd consider them not spiritual songs in a gospel sense but I think your religious attitude and your upbringing has to seep into the lyrics of your songs because itís who you are as a person, itís probably not that much of a stretch to call it spiritual.

Bruce: Certainly. I hope it isnít. You're right, thereís certainly a lot of that content in the songs so itís appropriate itíd be in the book. Thereís a lot of stuff in the book about how the songs came into existence. Thereís a lot of songs mentioned in the book weíre actually going to put out a box set of all the songs that are mentioned in the book plus some other previous unreleased stuff that will hopefully coincide closely enough with the release of the book that people will be able to connect them together.

Eric: Itís a good time too. True North put out digitally, at least all of your catalog. They did it in super audio with flac files.

Bruce: Itís a pretty big catalog so I donít think they covered it all but there are certainly some of those and Iím happy for that. Itíd be nice to think that all of it would be available that way at some point. Iím not sure thatíll happen. But, the box set will cover the time span at least, if not all of the songs.

Eric: Do you keep a new journal once you knew you had to start writing everything down all over again?

Bruce: No. Iíve always kept notebooks but theyíre not really journals, itís not like I write every day and keep track of what happened every day. Theyíre song ideas that go into those notebooks. They were Ė most of the many notebooks that Iíve gone through over the years are in the archives in McMaster University, they were very helpful about getting access to that stuff. Certainly those were a useful resource in terms of writing the books. To be able to go back and see the context. Because I could remember, once Iím looking at the actual handwritten pages, a lot of stuff comes back that might not have otherwise been so present in the memory. Iíve never been systematic enough to keep a real diary or journal.

Eric: I had Jen Chapin on the show a few times. She workes for an organization called Why Hunger? We were talking about you, she loves and respects you immensely. We were talking about her family when she was young, and which seeds were sown that not only would help her become a musician, but giving her a spark that was going to be an activist as well and merge the two. Was there a time that you might have forgotten about that really kickstarted your activism? When it came down to writing lyrics on the music side?

Bruce: Nah, I hadnít forgotten about it. It really was a product of my own experience. I didnít grow up with that approach to things. We were a typical middle class Canadian family, which involved from the social point of view, a general awareness of whatís going on in the world and a certain compassion for peopel in difficulties. But a general disinclination to be involved [laughs]. That grew over time, I trace it back to Ė well, partly to the anti-war vibe of the 60s but much more to my own travels in the early 70s when we first started to travel across Canada. I started meeting Native people and becoming acquainted with what it was like to grow up as a first nations person in Canada. Meeting people my own age and their life experience being so different from mine, well, thatís not supposed to have been like that. I think it really started there, but it got a big kick forward in the early 80s with the first trip to Central America and subsequent travels: Chile the same year, 1983. Chile was interesting because at the time, it was like going to Nazi Germany.

They were living under a really brutal dictatorship. It was a first in their history, since their independance from Spain in 1800s, they had always been a Democrazy until the coo that produced this military dictatorship. It was that and a few other things, demographically it wasnt very differetn from Canada. Yes, mostly Spanish originally but the immigration waves that came from Europe were the same as the ones that came to Canada. Italians, Irish, etc. There was a lot of comparisons to be drawn between Chile and Canada. It just seemd to me that if it can happen in Chile, it can just as easily happen in Canada if we donít maintaine our vigilance. Allowing for obvious temperamental and historical differences but thereís Ė it was close enough to be worrisome and to focus attention on the fact that not only was that going on, but even in that atmosphere, the distinction between art and politics in music especially is just not there in Latin America. It certainly wasnít there in Chile. All the songwriters that spoke of political things in their songs were banned, some of them were sentenced to concentration camps. But, they were still doing it. For them, politics was part of life therefore it belonged in the songs. I came away from that experience having been educated in that way. Yeah, youre absolutely way. Politics is as much a part of the human experience as sex, God and hockey. Therefor wants inclusion in whatever art youre doing.

Eric: I grew up in the 80s and I remember waking up very early in the morning to tape Live Aid and that blended into me following the Amnesty International tours. Thatís where I got the knowledge that music can truly be a force for good and evil, at times. It seems like after George Bush left office, there seems to be a very lackadaisical attitude from musicians Ė not that the audiences were always looking for their advice, I think we used to before but now we kind of donít. Do you think there will ever be a moment where weíll all agree that at least maybe in the music world that we need to band together and fight something? It just seems like a lot of artists donít want to do it, they might be scared because of the repercussions in sales or radio play. Or maybe they just donít feel like music and politics donít mix.

Bruce: Thereís an argument to be made for that latter point, but I donít support it at this point. I used to feel that way a long time ago. But no, honestly I donít know if itíll ever happen like that and I donít know that it ever has, really. I think that thereís always a strain of art that resists evil, letís say, to keep it simple. That strain is still there, itís around, it just doesnít get any media coverage. At points, things Ė when it becomes popular for whatever reason and by whatever means for artists to be speaking out, then you hear those voices and of course other voices get added because people are encouraged by the popularity of something. If a bunch of famous artists get out and sing Free Nelson Mandela, all of a sudden the lesser artists or lesser known artists are encouraged to make their own statements too. But, those famous artists may be singing on that song because some other famous artist is doing it, not because they necessarily care about the issue. Everybody cares, we have to be realistic. Very few people are so lacking in compassion and interest in their fellow humans that they donít care at all about these things, but to actually take the step to be involved and be heard requires more than just caring. It really is a question of opportunity and motive, I suppose.

Just like any other crimes, [laughs] out there. I think weíd make a mistake to assume because weíre not hearing those voices on the radio that theyíre not there. I think that Ė how often do you hear Ani Difranco on the radio? Certainly on commercial radio, youíre not going to hear it at all. You donít have to sing about politics all the time. Thereís nothing wrong with singing love songs or old Appalachian river ballads or whatever. But itís important to keep your focus, I think and be aware of the stuff thatís going on and not be afraid to get up and sing about it. Along with the other stuff that youíre singing about. I think it becomes, perhaps some artists are called to make a whole career about it, for one of a better word, protest music. I donít find that itís usually the case. Most people whom become associated with that and in the minds of the media or the public, are doing a lot of other stuff too. Jackson Browne, for example. Music business people tell me, oh Jackson Browneís career really went down the tubes after he started doing Central American protest stuff. When I look at how Jackson Browne is doing these days, I donít see the evidence of any tubes but thatís how they felt. Yet, at the same time for me, when I had ďLovers In A Dangerous TimeĒ come out, it was a huge boost to my so-called career. So, that song got on the radio and it didnít hurt me at all. Itís really all about the spin and to some extent we have the ability to influence the spin so we shouldít be afraid of it.

~ from Bruce Cockburn: ďThereís nothing wrong with singing love songs or old Appalachian river balladsĒ - by Eric Alper - Think Tank

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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.