30 June 2017 - We lived in what was stamped a "hippie haven" in the early seventies Ė Gothic Avenue, which borders Quebec Avenue Ė in High Park, Toronto. The brown rice/alternative lifestyle sanctuary was a haven for writers, musicians Ė in fact the late Billy Bryans lived only a few steps away and was playing in a band called Horn. Music was big fun and discovery. You could start in the early morning after a hit of a hash/tobacco joint and walk in on neighbours. Music played day and night, in fact it was all about checking out the person next doorís album collection.
The progressives blasted Emerson, Lake and Palmer Ė the countrified Ė Pure Prairie League Ė and the folkies loved their Tea for the Tillerman/Cat Stevens and a newcomer rising on the Canadian scene, Bruce Cockburn.
Even if you didnít pay much attention you learned who the artists were were through peripheral listening. I had Bruceís voice memorized as well as his fluent guitar playing. Cockburn stuck with you like he belonged in your life. Right time, right place!
The debut Ė Bruce Cockburn, produced by Eugene Martynec, came with a single that seemed to follow Canadians everywhere Ė Going To The Country. I know the inhabitants of Gothic Avenue were served a new side each year we survived the developers wrecking ball Ė High Winds, White Sky Ė Sunwheel Dance, Night Vision, Joy Will Find A Way and In The Falling Dark.
Come September, Cockburn is inducted into the Canadian Songwriterís Hall of Fame (CSHF)and releases his thirty-third recording, Bone to Bone. I connected with Bruce from his San Francisco home and collected his thoughts on a number of issues, episodes and events.
You have a couple of big events in September Ė induction into the Canadian Songwriterís Hall of Fame and your 33rd recording Ė Bone to Bone. Your thoughts?
Any particular order? The exciting thing for me of course is the album Ė itís been awhile since Iíve had an album out. Iím happy with the songs and how it came out. Iím anxious to get it out and get people to hear it. The Songwriterís Hall of Fame thing is nice. Thereís a lot of Ďhalls of fameí in the world. In one way, itís delightful to be recognized by the scene Ė people who enjoy what I do and people who are close enough to it to appreciate what I do. That means a lot. I can also remember thinking, getting inducted into some kind of hall of fame means you should already be dead or about to be. I donít feel like that now. It feels pretty good. I also remember being somewhere and there was the towing and removal hall of fame Ė every industry has one. This is a national one and a big deal Ė itís nice and Iím very appreciative.
Itís about songwriting too Ė something very special.
Itís nice to be recognized by the people who understand what you do.
You have a healthy attitude about your career. Itís spanned decades and there is no reason to retire Ė just keep making music..
Yes Ė as long as I can keep doing it, thatís what I want to do. I donít take it for granted or assume my feelings would ever change Ė it could, but hasnít so far. I like what I do and I like performing the songs I write for people. Itís the way they get to hear them best and the way I get to share them in the presence of actual human feedback. As long as Iím physically able to do it, I expect I will.
Do you still enjoy your time on stage?Iíve always been terrified on stage and that hasnít really changed that much. Terrified would be overstating now but back in the beginning it was terrifying, now itís just kind of stressful. When you perform your songs to actual human beings in a live situation, thatís where the song really lives and becomes meaningful. If nothing else, the experience of being there focused on the same thing with a whole bunch of people is a pleasant sensation. Then afterwards, it feels good for a few minutes and then you start thinking about all of the things you did wrong and then it takes a day or two before you start feeling good about it again. Along with the precarious situation is the idea of making a living without having a boss. Being able to travel Ė some people would find it as having an adventurous lifestyle. Itís a great thing Ė a gift and not everybody gets to do it.
You were there at a time when the ďprotest songĒ made a difference in peopleís lives. It was impactful. The war in Vietnam came to a halt through song and action. Are there songs out there today having the same force or influence?I donít know. I donít think itís down to the songs in this generation, but means and distribution. You can write the best song in the world and itís not going to change things itself. It has to fall on fertile ground. In the sixties and up to relatively recently, the way a song fell on fertile ground was when it got sung at a protest Ė when it was sung to an audience who understood what it was protesting about and sympathized with the message. Then it becomes an emotional rallying point for all of that popular feeling thatís out there. If you donít have that, I donít think the song is going to have that much of an effect. People relate to music in a different way from most of the time Iíve been around. Iím not sure what that adds up to. In the state that Iím living thereís more popular feeling than you kind of want Ė itís so polarized. Thereís a lot of angry people on one side and lot of bewildered and worried people on the other. Can somebody write a song that would establish common ground with those opposing views that would be effective?
You live in California Ė a state thatís kind of a country unto itself now.
It is sort of. It is certainly resisting some of the trends that are sweeping the rest of the country. How long that can go for, who knows? Once they get into the real contest Ė the vast sums of money that transfer between the federal government and the states Ė just like in Canada Ė the federal government has a significant amount of leverage over a state like California. It hasnít come down to that kind of arm wrestle yet. California, by and large, is forward looking as a society. This is where people are paying attention to environmental concerns in a deeper way than a lot of places. With respect to some issues, California gets carried away. Like Etobicoke in Toronto Ė itís famous for having more bylaws than anywhere else. Unnecessary things like how long your grass should be.
We tend to go that way Ė there are a lot of laws in this state. Some are not very smart, I think. Thereís a significant amount of energy behind having a future and having influence over the quality of that future. I think that may have to do with the relative absence of fear. Itís also the kinds of jobs too. The jobs that arenít skill jobs are mostly agricultural. In Kentucky or West Virginia where the economy has mostly been dependent on mining Ė they are screwed! They are worried and angry. You canít blame them. It isnít about environmental laws like the powers that be keep painting that way, because there are never going to be mining jobs again Ė itís all going to be automated.
Even if they rolled back all of the controls and let corporations do whatever they want, there still wonít be work. California is lucky in that respect that it isnít currently in such a state of collapse. What will happen with the agricultural industry with climate change is another thing. We donít know.
Bone on Bone? Is there a theme or something that links each song?
They are linked by the period of time they were written. People will notice an emphasis on the spiritual side of things more characteristic of what I was doing in the seventies than what Iíve done recently. Itís a rawer kind of sounding record Ė kind of bluesy and deliberately rough around the edges than some of them have been. The songs seem to suit that treatment. I donít think people are going to see this as a ďpolitical, quote, un-quote albumĒ. I donít think Iíve written anything people would call a protest song on this album, but there might be one. Thereís a song called, "False River" thatís about oil. That I think would qualify. There are passing references to that state of things but itís more interior.
Even the Stones reacquainted themselves with their past and just put out a blues side.
I havenít heard that album and I hear itís good. I liked it when they started writing songs that were more in line with their actual real roots. The music that came out of English culture, but heavily blues-based. They got more interesting after they started writing about their understanding of life. That said, thereís nothing wrong with honoring those old blues songs. I think thatís what they intended to do in the beginning and did again now.
Some day I have intentions of doing an album of other peopleís stuff that would include that kind of thing. From the artists I learned from when I started out. In fact, thereís one of those on the new album, what we used to call a "negro spiritual". Itís called "Twelve Gates to the City". I used to hear the Reverend Gary Davis sing it, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry sing it and various others. The song keeps popping up Ė I donít know why really. Itís a song I feel I have a relationship with.
With YouTube, Spotify and so many streaming situations itís like the world of music has been harvested and archived. Do you spend time exploring?
I do that but I donít have much time to do anything and donít listen to as much music as I once did. There was a period back in the 70sí I wouldnít listen to anything I could be accused of imitating. I didnít want to listen to any other songwriters. I didnít listen to rock ní roll or even the jazz I loved. I went around looking for music I hadnít heard before. I got deep into European Renaissance music and ethnic music from various parts of the world and what we would now call ďworld musicĒ and was not called that back then. It was just recordings of peopleís folk music.
I was traveling in southeast Asia in connection with the land mine issue in Cambodia and ended up jamming with these two guys. One played percussion and the other the Cambodian equivalent to the erhu and the tunes were traditional music and sounded like a cross between Appalachian fiddle music and blues. Fast tunes really bluesy sounding in a minor key. A lot of sliding notes. I played rhythm Ė just tried to keep up. Iíd never given a thought to what Cambodian music would even sound like. Here I am jamming with this guy Ė blind from a mine accident.
Whatís taking up your time these days?
I have a five-year old. One more day of kindergarten then off for the summer. Going into grade one in the fall Ė and itís takes a lot of attention. Some of it is terrific and some of it is draining Ė Iím too old for this. Sheís a terrific kid and thereís a lot about this that is really wonderful.
~from FYI Music News Ė A Conversation with Bruce Cockburn Ė by Bill King.