-- Reality Asserts Itself - 9 part video interview --
-- By Paul Jay, The Real News Network --

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28 May 2019 - Reality Asserts Itself, a program on the Real News Network has posted the video and transcript of a nine part interview with Bruce by Paul Jay. Do go give it a watch & listen. The transcripts of the first 8 parts are below.

Part 1/9

[Clip of If I Had a Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. That was Bruce Cockburn singing If I Had a Rocket Launcher. Bruce is a prolific Canadian singer-songwriter and a guitarist. His lyrics addressed a broad range of topics, including human rights, environmental issues, and politics. Over the course of his 40-year career, Cockburn has written more than 300 songs on 33 albums, 22 of which received a Canadian gold or platinum certification. In 2014, Cockburn released his memoirs, Rumors of Glory. He broke through in the United States and around the world with his 1984 song If I Had a Rocket Launcher, which he wrote after visiting a Guatemalan refugee camp in southern Mexico.

Bruce Cockburn now joins us here in San Francisco. Thanks for making time for us.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Glad to be able to do it. And thanks for going all this way to make time for me.

PAUL JAY: So as people who watch Reality Asserts Itself know, we usually start very biographically off the top, and then kind of get into more of what guests think about the issues. But your story has been this weave of music and religion and politics. And I want to unfold that conversation.

But it starts with growing up mostly in Ottawa and Canada during Cold War years.


PAUL JAY: Talk a little bit about the atmosphere around you as you’re growing up in the midst of the Canadian version of the Cold War.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s interesting, because usually when we talk about the Cold War years, we don’t say that. We say “baby boomers,” or we say some some other phrase that indicates the post-war period.

But really, you know, I mean, after about 1950 when I kind of was old enough to become aware of my surroundings, it really was a Cold War atmosphere. And one of the … standout memories I have from that time–and, of course, when this took place I had no idea, you know, what would follow it–but I had a teacher in maybe third grade, something like that. I forget if it was second, third, or fourth, or what. But right in that period, a teacher named Ms. Beachum who was a friend of my great aunt’s, who also was a retired school teacher. And they were kind of hardy, Christian folk. But Ms. Beachum was terrifying. She was a real disciplinarian and just–I was in fear of her every day.

But every morning we had a show and tell, a kind of current events thing, and you had to bring in a newspaper clipping and talk about it. And somebody brought in a clipping about student radicals in Turkey demonstrating. Rioting. So Ms. Beachum says to us all: “What’s a radical?” No one knew. We knew what students were but, you know. Well, a radical is someone who really has a vision of how things should be, and wants to see the world changed in that direction. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what she said.

And she said, “I hope you all grow up to be radicals,” to our little public school class.

[Clip of If I Had a Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn]

BRUCE COCKBURN: What I got at home was was pretty apolitical. My parents voted liberal by reflex, because their families always had. And because I think they thought that was the right thing, also. I mean, it wasn’t completely unthinking. But you know, we generally approved of liberal things and not so much of conservative things. But, that said, socially speaking, it was a pretty conservative atmosphere. No one talked about sex at the table, or any other time, for that matter, for instance. But you know, and we went to church, kind of.

[Clip of Great Big Love – Bruce Cockburn]

My dad said later I … At one point I remember saying in public that we went to church because it was sort of the conventional thing to do, and it was the ‘50s, and people would think ill of us if we didn’t, the neighbors and so on. But my dad said, no, that that wasn’t the reason that we went to church. He and my mom were actually trying to be good Christians for a while, and then it kind of fell away, was how we put it.

PAUL JAY: You write in the book, “Ours was a secular household in spite of the exposure we all had to the surface ideals and imagery of Christianity. There was a need to observe the social norms to keep people from calling you a communist.”

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, there was that. Although, like I said, I may have been mistaken in attributing our going to church to that cause. There’s no question it was a fact. And, I mean, my dad didn’t as far as I know sit around worrying about anybody calling him a communist, because he was so far from being one. But he was also very disinclined to be judgmental of people. Outwardly, at least. I mean, he had his issues. But you know, people were allowed to be who they were.

I remember one time we went one summer, he had met an archaeologist on the, on the train somewhere. And I was interested in archaeology. I was a little kid at this point, and my brothers were tiny. But we all went to Manitoulin Island, which is kind of on the U.S.-Canadian border in western- the western part of Ontario. There was- where there was an archaeological dig looking at the Native history of living there, the Aboriginal history. And there’s a Native community that’s still there that at the time was very noticeable. And I remember driving through this and thinking–I was being judgmental. I’m thinking like, look at these houses, these … Here’s people living in shacks, but they’ve got Cadillacs out front, they’ve got TV antennas on top, but they’re living in these horrible houses. And I said something like that to my dad and he said: “You you can’t judge people for trying to make their lives feel a little better. You know, they’re stuck with what they’re stuck with, but they’re, you know, they’re doing their best to get through their lives and be happy.”

I said, “OK.” And that stuff, that piece of advice made–made its mark.

[Clip of Red Brother, Red Sister – Bruce Cockburn]

So as a sort of description of my dad, he was basically a socially conservative, politically liberal person. And I think the difference is there–I think what, what I take from that now, looking back, is that version of liberalism versus that version, the version that we could see of conservatism was really representative of a less selfish worldview. It was the idea that what happens to your fellows actually matters. It’s not just about you. The conservative point of view was why should I pay for somebody else’s whatever? Why should I do this, why should I do that? It’s all–because it doesn’t benefit me in any way. And this is a sweeping generalization, and we know that there are conservatives who are people of conscience and people of compassion. But the public statements that were made around these things tended to lean one way or the other. And Canada has always been a pretty liberal place, even if it had a conservative government, comparatively speaking, in the world. It’s always been a place where the … where a sense of community prevailed. Even though the community would be defined in different terms from era to era, or from government to government. There was still that sense. That’s threatened in the whole modern world by various elements, but in contrast, the United States, where I think that sense of community has–it comes and goes. It’s not always here. Right now it’s not.

[Clip of Bruce Cockburn – Together Alone]

PAUL JAY: Please join us for Part 2 of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.


PAUL JAY: Your dad, as your music unfolded and got more and more political, thought you were anti-American, or accused you of being anti-American.


PAUL JAY: It seems like you followed the path recommended by your teacher, perhaps, a little more than your dad.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, maybe, but I mean, I didn’t- I didn’t- I didn’t think about it much. I mean, I- to me that, that comment of his came up in a context of things I would say sometimes between songs or by way of introducing songs more than about the songs themselves.

[Clip of Call It Democracy – Bruce Cockburn]

That I’d be … I remember playing in Ottawa, an outdoor show that- within sight of the American embassy. And I could see the big- they had the biggest flag imaginable hanging on top of the embassy. And the embassy is like an armed camp, right. It was not like the- all the other embassies in Ottawa, which were just nice houses. The U.S. embassy is like this- this big fortress-like building.

And you can see it. And it- like, I’m looking over the heads of the audience and there’s this enormous American flag waving. And I made some crack about it. And it wasn’t intended to be, you know, a major statement of any sort. But is anybody noticing the fact that the American flag is waving bigger than everything else around here right now? Something to that effect. And I don’t know if that set my dad off or something, but he did comment on the fact that I was somehow anti-American. And he mentioned that a couple of times. And I heard it from other places, too. But I only ever heard from Canadians. No American ever accused me of being anti-American.

[Clip of Listen For the Laugh – Bruce Cockburn]

The Americans are- one of the wonderful things about this country is people are capable of self-criticism. And I mean, even-


BRUCE COCKBURN: Some. Well, even the people who vote for Trump are capable. I mean, theoretically, at least. I mean, they’re individuals. You have to be careful with any generalizations. But I think it’s one of the one of the really healthy things about American culture, is that capacity. So you know, you can criticize things- and it’s true, in this very polarized atmosphere we’re in right now, it’s a bit dicier. And it was probably this dicey in the ‘50s, if you said certain kinds of things. But in between-

PAUL JAY: People lost their jobs for-

BRUCE COCKBURN: –this golden age where- that we’ve lived in between, you know, 1950 and a year ago, we’ve been able to say pretty much whatever we wanted to. And I mean, people look askance at it, or they agree with it more than you wanted them to, or- I mean, there’s- there’s every shading of of reception [crosstalk].

PAUL JAY: But during the Vietnam War, there were certainly- people lost jobs, and-

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, I mean, stuff happens. People lost jobs- a lot of people lost jobs and lives during the struggles of the ‘20s and ‘30s and- and before.

PAUL JAY: Some went to prison.

BRUCE COCKBURN: There’s- you know, it’s- it’s not a monolith. And that’s one of the healthy things, too, that I think when- once something becomes monolithic then it becomes easily manipulated in the other way than dividing and conquering creates an ease of manipulation. So that’s- it’s nice that the- that we have the contrast and the variety and the tensions that we have to- up to a point. At the moment I think it’s gone a little too far in the direction it has, but a dialogue, a, you know, a dialectic, dare I say, is healthy. You’ve got to have this going, this back and forth, to have- to have a healthy culture and country.

But … so, you know, I pointed this out to my dad-

PAUL JAY: You think think this- you think this is a healthy country?

BRUCE COCKBURN: I think it’s it’s one of the healthier countries in the world. Not in terms of healthcare, certainly, but in terms of the ideals on which it was based, and the degree to which people are still willing even now to try to adhere to those ideals. I mean, it comes and goes. It’s stretchy. It’s ugly at times and-

PAUL JAY: Because your music is is mostly a savage critique of U.S. policy.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, I wouldn’t say mostly. Well, I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that.

PAUL JAY: The political [inaudible].

BRUCE COCKBURN: I think mostly my music is about God. But- but I- certainly there are those songs that are very critical of certain United States … certain events that involve the United States and certain attitudes that I’ve run across. Yeah. But those attitudes are not exclusive to the United States, and the events are … you know, they- I mean, you can take America to task for its international actions in lots of areas, but it’s not unique in that respect. History’s full of countries taking advantage of other countries that were less strong. So when I criticize the United States, it’s an act of love, really, because having grown up as a Canadian with the United States- we’re always are more or less good neighbors. I mean, there were times when it wasn’t so good, the Bomarc crisis and stuff, where American missiles were discovered to have been secretly placed- nuclear missiles- on Canadian soil without asking anybody. And you know, there were moments like this.

PAUL JAY: Or they, did they- Kennedy steps in and actually helps overthrow Diefenbaker as prime minister.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, because he was really upset because Diefenbaker wasn’t going to have any of that. And Diefenbaker- that was the only thing about Diefenbaker that I liked. I thought he was terrible prime minister.

PAUL JAY: Well, he also kept- opened up that- opened up and allowed relations with Cuba. Even though Trudeau gets credit for that it was actually Diefenbaker.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. I don’t think I even knew that. I was in my teens, you know, when Diefenbaker was in power. I wasn’t paying that much attention. But I kind of- My parents didn’t think much of Diefenbaker, so I didn’t either.

[Clip of Open – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: You described school as a prison.

BRUCE COCKBURN: High school became a- I look back on that as feeling like a prison sentence. Public school is not … I liked public school, I liked going, I like learning, I liked all the stuff. You know, I liked the relationship between me and the teachers for the most part, some better than others. But in spite of being terrified of Ms. Beachum, I was- I liked most of my teachers, and even her, at moments. You know, I saw a side of her that was likable. But by the time I got to high school it was a combination of me hitting the kind of hormone-driven period of my life that adolescence is, and of the school itself, perhaps. So all of the social stuff, it was- it was not a good time. I learned a lot, still, but I kind of learned it by default. I wasn’t motivated to work very hard, or anything, and I was uncomfortable most of the time when I was in high school.

PAUL JAY: You said just a few minutes ago- couple of minutes ago- your songs are mostly about God. And we’ll get into the music. But your relationship to God and religion- you write in the book that you were kind of intrigued by some of the, in my words, crazy bible stories. Some of the bizarre stuff that’s on the Old Testament.

BRUCE COCKBURN: When I was young, we- yeah, I mean, you know, I was introduced to Christianity through Sunday school, and basically by rote, because that was the culture. We said the Lord’s Prayer every morning in school. That was just what we did. I mean, Americans stood up and had the Pledge of Allegiance. We said the Lord’s Prayer and we sang God Save the Queen. It was- it was very British and very, kind of, Victorian Christian, I think, might be a way to characterize it, just in the culture. I mean, I had lots of Jewish friends, I had Jewish- lots of Jewish classmates who seemed to … nobody ever complained. Nobody minded it. They did their own thing. And the one Jehovah’s Witness girl that I remember being in class didn’t have to stand up for the national anthem. But you know, that was- and she wasn’t very friendly. I mean, she seemed nice enough, she just wasn’t friendly.

[Clip of Put It In Your Heart – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: But you write about the sort of salacious parts of the Bible intriguing you, from incest to murder …

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, this is- this became, you know- when I got old enough to kind of go beyond the, you know, the pious stuff that we were getting in Sunday School and the- pious isn’t even a very good word for it because it mostly was just like, well, you know, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And it never- I never really understood why we were paying attention to this stuff, particularly. But it’s what everybody was doing, so I did it, too. But later on, I needed to start- I don’t remember what triggered it, but I remember discovering something in the Bible. Maybe it was the story of Lot, or maybe- you know. But, you know, start digging through the Old Testament-

PAUL JAY: You write about Sodom and Gomorrah.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, yeah, I mean, there’s- and that’s, like, nothing compared to some of the other stuff that’s in there in terms of sex and violence and, and whatever, right. There’s- there’s really terrible things. And- that, of course, were exciting to discover back then. It’s like, oh yeah, then they did this, and then they did that, and look at this, holy- who knew that was in the Bible? You know, we were going- my friends and I just started doing this.

And so that became my way of relating to the Bible for the long- well, not for the longest time, I guess, but for a long time, until I was led elsewhere. But it- but it- it was just … you know, I mean, I rejected the conventions that I’d grown up with, like everybody does when they’re an adolescent. And part of the rejection was the enjoyment I got out of pointing out to my friends these outrageous things.

PAUL JAY: So, I mean, did you grow up in your own mind as sort of a believer, and then you get disenchanted, and then become a believer again?

BRUCE COCKBURN: No, I grew up as a kind of bystander. And when I got into that part of it I became an interested bystander. But it wasn’t till kind of in my mid-teens that I began to have a sense that there was a spiritual element to life that should be paid attention to. It had nothing- well, it had no direct relationship that I recognized between the Christian teachings I was given as a kid and that sentiment. But I, maybe there- I mean, it’s hard not to think that there was some connection. But I wasn’t aware of it. And so, you know, it was more from reading beat writers, reading about Buddhism and stuff, and you think, well, these guys are really interesting guys, and they’re talking about this stuff that- I started paying attention to that.

[Clip of One Of the Best Ones – Bruce Cockburn]

And you know, the word ‘existentialist’ got tossed around in those circles, so I started reading existentialist philosophers and I, you know.

So I’m wading through Martin Buber, and I’m reading, you know, for fun I’m reading Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. And it really started with that. And then- things move fast at that age. There is- when I look back at it I think, in a given year, so many things happened. Like, nowadays it seems like- it’s partly the internet culture, but mostly it’s just age- that everything happens fast. So I look at a year, and like, what happened in that year? Oh yeah, Iona was born in that year. Well, you know.

PAUL JAY: Iona is your- your daughter.

BRUCE COCKBURN: My 6-year-old.

PAUL JAY: 6-year-old.

BRUCE COCKBURN: So. You know, that- I mean, I can look at events. But when I look back at what happened the year I was 18 or 19, there’s all these things that happened. It seems like- like how could all that stuff have happened in only one year? So what I’m- why I’m saying that is that somewhere in that very few years, that two or three years of teenhood, and late- the second half of being a teen- I discovered the idea of spirituality. And I went through a whole lot of angles of approach to that, from rudimentary- I mean, I never became a Buddhist, but I paid attention to Buddhist stuff and I read Buddhist literature and I, and I- I read Alan Watts, and I- and the beat writers. And I took it seriously. And I read these philosophers, and I took that seriously. And I got into a kind of flirtation with the occult, and I took that seriously. And all of this was about finding out what spiritual reality might be, and if- and how I should relate to it.

I’m still, you know, working on that. But it’s a bit clearer now than it was then. So I went through all these- all these different things. And it’s not like I looked at Buddhism and then put that away. They synthesized. So my understanding of spirituality was shaped by exposure to all these things. And you know, that’s- the book talks a lot about that.

[Clip of Night Train – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: Please join us for a continuation of our series of interviews on Reality Asserts Itself with Bruce Cockburn.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Glad to be with you.

PAUL JAY: You wrote about your 1975 song Gavin’s Woodpile: “The laments of Gavin’s Woodpile were real. The prisoner was real, the mercury poisoning was certainly real. The hawks eclipsed by a jet were real. The rapid transformation of a great Canadian West was real. And my anger was real.”

A little further on, you write: “Mercury occupies a keystone position in my evolution as an artist-correspondent,” meaning mercury poisoning.

So what was going on in your life? And is this kind of a … you seem, at least in terms of your writing, to get much more political at this point.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, I would … In my mind that transition happens a bit later. But it’s probably a fair comment. What was happening was in 1970, I traveled West for the first time. I bought a van- well, it was a pickup truck and we put a camper on the back- and we just spent the next five years, basically, going back and forth across Canada during all but the hardest part of winter. And then we’d winter somewhere in Toronto, or Ottawa.

But in the course of these travels westward, I began to meet Native people, who I had never met growing up. At least not knowingly. And I- you know, I’m meeting my peers at folk festivals, other singer-songwriters that happened to be from First Nations backgrounds, and hearing about their experiences growing up. It was very different from mine. So that started me thinking. It just got my heart. So it’s like, you can’t not talk about this stuff, right. There’s a real- there was a song called Red Brother, Red Sister that came out of these kinds of thoughts.

[Clip of Red Brother, Red Sister – Bruce Cockburn]

But it also happened that, in the course of driving West, we would pass through northwestern Ontario. And it came out at one point that this community, Native community, in northwestern Ontario was suffering from mercury poisoning. And it was called Minamata disease back then; it was named after a Japanese town where it had been first identified as the result of industrial pollution. And sure enough, this community in northwestern Ontario, in a very remote area, was poisoned by industrial effluents from the wood processing industry. And they were eating contaminated fish. The government was saying things like, well, they should fish somewhere else. As if, you know, as if they had access to other places to fish.

They were- like, part of the, what was then the stereotype of the, among certain white people, of the drunken Indian was the result of this, because the symptoms of mercury poisoning are not unlike the symptoms of drunkenness. So you get, you know, you stagger, you stumble, you can’t see straight, you slur your words, et cetera. The people who were doing this in Kenora, for instance, some of them were drunk, because there’s always been an alcohol problem in the demoralized Native communities that resulted from the actions of the dominant culture. But along with that was mercury poisoning. And you couldn’t tell the difference.

So it just seemed to me to be a total outrage, because I was getting to know Native people personally. This shouldn’t be happening. And the stuff that was coming out of the government about it was offensive as all get out. And there was a general unwillingness to address it. That problem still exists now. It was in the paper again a couple years ago. It hasn’t gone away.

[Clip of Gavin’s Woodpile – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: This kind of tension I see in your book, and your music, this sort of- as you said earlier in the interview, it’s all about God, and the religion and the spirituality. It’s kind of about forgiveness, it’s about the Buddhist part, letting go of emotions. But you’re using words like “outrage,” and you use the word here about you got angry about this.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, I sure did.

PAUL JAY: The real world asserts itself.

BRUCE COCKBURN: You can say real world. To me it’s all the real world. The … It would be easy- well, I’m not sure if this is really true, but I’ll let it stand anyway- it would be easy for me to maintain an apolitical stance, in a certain way. But if I were to do that, I would also have to amputate the part of me that says I’m supposed to love my neighbor. That understands what is meant by that phrase. And you know, you can’t love your neighbor and watch your neighbor starve. You can’t love your neighbor and watch them succumb to mercury poisoning. That’s BS. How can you step back from these engagements that are put in front of you? I’d be a different person if I went around seeking these things out, if I was someone who went around looking for causes to embrace, for instance. I’m not that.

The stuff that’s come up in my songs is stuff that has confronted me in my life, that’s produced a strong enough emotional reaction to get the creative juices flowing. So you know, this was a case in point. The discovery that people who were just like my new friends were being subjected to this intolerable situation. That was one. And I didn’t write a song specifically about that; I mean, the song is really- that song, Gavin’s Woodpile, is a song about the relationship between people and God, people and the divine. But in talking about people, it talks about mercury poisoning, it talks about a prisoner I met when I played in a penitentiary a couple times in Manitoba, a medium security place.

And on one occasion met this guy who was in, was halfway through a five year term for dealing pot. This is in the ‘70s. And he said, you know, the worst thing is half the time I can’t remember why I’m here. It’s like there’s, the- and I had other prisoners, much more hardcore guys that were ringleaders. And [inaudible] I gave a guitar masterclass to some of the inmates who played guitar, but who were also the ones who could say “It’s going to me, you get out of here.” So a half a dozen guys who were murderers, and other things. And they all agreed on this, they said bring back the lash, as compared to solitary confinement. Because after a period of a time in solitary, everything became meaningless. You didn’t know why you were there. You just knew you were being put through the wringer. But they said, from every point of view that they could think of, immediate corporal punishment would be much more effective, and preferable. Prisoners talking, right.

I think the- this guy who hadn’t been subjected, as far as I know, to solitary confinement, he was probably on good behavior. But he was a mellow, kind of, not very physically impressive guy, so he probably was getting all kinds of terrible treatment from his fellow inmates. But the despair in his eyes was really disturbing. So he ends up in the song. But it’s in- this is stuff that’s going through my head. The song unfolds over a period of time in which I’m chopping wood at my ex-father-in-law’s place.

PAUL JAY: When you write “The anger was real”- you said before, love thy neighbor. But the message is also love your enemy.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. It doesn’t mean don’t be angry. Nothing in there, in the Bible, that I know of that says don’t be angry. In fact, the opposite is true, everybody in the Bible that’s worth anything gets angry all the time, or at least enough of the time that it shows. There’s- if you turn your anger into an unthinking brutality, if you turn your anger into spitefulness, or any number of other ways it can go, then it’s better if you didn’t get angry. But it’s appropriate to be angry about things that get done in the world, about a lot of things. And you know, I guess it’s also appropriate not to let it run away with you. But I think that, as a source of energy and as a source of what sometimes might be a needed commentary on things, that’s perfectly legitimate.

PAUL JAY: OK. Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself with Bruce Cockburn on The Real News Network. And we’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.


PAUL JAY: Bruce, you write, as I mentioned in the last part of this segment, “Mercury occupies a keystone position–mercury poisoning–in my evolution as an artist-correspondent.” I thought that was an interesting phrase, “artist-correspondent.” And you write a little bit later, “It has to be art. There’s an important line to be drawn between art and propaganda.” Now, where does that line fall for you, and what’s an artist correspondent, and where–and this issue of art and politics?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, these words become … They’re all terms of convenience, really, because, yeah, I mean–hyphenated things. I mean, I’m an artist. That’s how I think of myself. As much as I think about it at all, which is not very much. But if somebody asked me. But the correspondent part applies to a lot of what I’ve done. And, well, in a certain way all of it, I suppose.

Because with hindsight, I didn’t start out this way. I didn’t start thinking about things this way. But I’ve come to see the process through which I work as kind of like making a film. And a lot of the films, a lot of the filmmaking, let’s say, that’s gone into my songs, has been documentary in nature. A lot of it. I mean, Gavin’s Woodpile is a case in point. Other–the songs that came later from Central America are, even more so. I think I can thank Allen Ginsburg for some of the influence on that, because the stuff he wrote in the ‘70s about traveling through America is very much like that, and influenced me.

But a lot of it is just an attempt to distill the emotional content of what I encountered into some communicable form, and one of the ways that I’ve found I can do that is by creating these pictures. So often a song will be a combination of more or less cinematic moments juxtaposed in some way that makes them add up to, I hope, something meaningful, and that aren’t in themselves necessarily directly related. I mean, there’s–I have lot of songs like that. The Charity of Night is three completely different scenes over a long period of time, united hopefully by the chorus that kind of pulls it all together.

[Clip of The Charity Of Night – Bruce Cockburn]

A lot of my songs, I rely on visual imagery very strongly, very heavily. So … nd on the feeling that the things I encounter visually produce in me. So it’s the feeling that, as I said, it kind of gets the juices flowing. But the content will end up drawing heavily from, from the visual side of things.

PAUL JAY: A lot of artists–musicians and otherwise, but particularly in music–went through the ‘60s, and wrote and continue to write about love, about–if they were on a spiritual path, they kind of wrote about the spiritual path. And to a large extent they wrote to make money. You increasingly wrote about real stuff. I’m not suggesting the spiritual path isn’t also a reality. But you wrote about politics. You wrote about what was going on in the world, what was wrong in the world. And one, it’s not the best way to make money in the music industry. It’s not the best way to break through in the U.S., although ironically, Rocker Launcher did. But generally speaking, political music is not what gets played on American radio.

BRUCE COCKBURN: No, it was a–it was an anomaly.

PAUL JAY: So you made some choices there that–that were down a certain road.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. I mean, they weren’t very difficult choices to make. I never wrestled with any of it that I can recall. I mean, I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where material needs were taken care of without much–without me having to think about it. My dad, as a practicing physician, made good money, but he never talked about how much he made and never–would never tell us anything about it. And didn’t like hearing it even discussed. He didn’t want us to sit around talking about how much other people made. He was uncomfortable with all that. But the basic needs were always taken care of without any kind of question. So that gave me kind of a start in life that said to me money doesn’t matter very much.

PAUL JAY: But also, you know, a lot of musicians and writers, it’s more about self-realization. It’s more about how they feel.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. It was for me, too.

PAUL JAY: You write in your music–was very much about, you know, having some influence and change–some effect on the world.

BRUCE COCKBURN: It was, it—well, yeah. But really, for me it started out the same way. If you listen to the songs that you could say are spiritual observations from the first album, second album, they’re very interior in their orientation, and – and they’re … they are all about me.

[Clip of Thoughts On A Rainy Afternoon – Bruce Cockburn]

BRUCE COCKBURN: But after, over time, I mean, I take my spiritual involvement very seriously. And I feel like I was led–somebody else might call it something else. But you know, I’ve been led into situations that produced different effects on me.

I’m in a marriage, and the marriage is great for a while, then it’s not so great, then it gets good again, then it’s not, just like any other relationship. But during those times when it’s not so great, well, you know, I could sit around writing bitchy songs about how terrible my relationship is. Or I could be looking for how to fix it, and writing about that. And realizing in the context of some of these kinds of moments, realizing my own insufficiency. I can’t do this without help. I can’t … I can’t be the person I imagine myself being by myself. God’s got to help. For me that’s what it came down to. Other people might be luckier and somebody right next to them would help. But for me it was–I knew I needed God to do that. So–and he did.

[Clip of God Bless the Children – Bruce Cockburn]

BRUCE COCKBURN: So, over time. A long time, right. And it’s still–it’s a work in progress, still.

But the big turning point came for me, really–the set up took longer. Like, you know, in the earlier part of the ‘70s it was started happening from travel, from encounters with new people, and people from different backgrounds. But really, when I got divorced, or when that relationship ended–it’s not really about the divorce, but just the end of the relationship was pretty traumatic for me. And it was traumatic partly because I had made a promise–as had my wife–to God to be together forever no matter what in the church. You know, church I didn’t take particularly seriously, especially as early as the actual wedding took place at the end of 1969. It was like–I liked the idea of getting married in a church because I was obsessed with the Middle Ages, and I liked the stained glass in the tower and stuff, you know, but the–and the stones. But later on it became not so much about the, the building, and much more about why people build buildings like that.

[Clip of Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn]

And so when we broke up it’s like I had to face this. It was like I made a promise, and God seems to be saying it’s OK to have broken it.

PAUL JAY: How did he say that?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, he didn’t kill us, for one thing, right? We didn’t get struck by lightning. But-

PAUL JAY: But you didn’t have a fundamentalist view of God.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, no. I tried to at first, but it didn’t take. You know–because the first thing … I didn’t, we talked about this, I didn’t–having grown up surrounded by the trappings of Christianity, it didn’t really mean much to me until much later when I began to see my own spiritual growth and journey in terms of–in Christian terms. So OK, so I started going to a church eventually. And then I–then I’m sort of going, OK, well, you know, when this–the trauma associated with the breakup came along, it’s like, well, OK, what do you think about this, God? I’m–here I am. I felt terrible, as did my wife, you know, about having broken this promise.

And the feeling that came back from this was it’s OK. You know, this is life. Life is–life isn’t necessarily smooth.

[Clip of Going Up Against Chaos – Bruce Cockburn]

BRUCE COCKBURN: There was no judgment coming from God about this. There was no sense of being required to pay a penalty for it, or anything like that. It was just like, let’s move on. Let’s go to the next place. And the next place for me was, OK, you spent all this time talking about you and your interior, and your interior relationship with the divine, et cetera, et cetera. What does it mean to love your neighbor? I didn’t–I didn’t grow up–the word ‘love’ was never used in our household, really, growing up. It was there, the phenomenon was there, but not the word. And so, I mean, to love your neighbor, that took some digging. I embraced the community culture in a big way, and kind of consciously, because of that.

[Clip of Put It In Your Heart – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. And we’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.


PAUL JAY: You wanted your art to be meaningful politically, but you weren’t quite sure how effective it was. Let me quote you.


PAUL JAY: “Still, at the time, I was skeptical about the ability of music to accomplish anything in a direct way. Music can have emotional impact and it maintains an important place in the nurturing of culture and of dissent. Pinochet’s shock troops understood that when they killed Victor Jara. But a song by itself does not foment change. It’s a harbinger or a chronicle, a spark.”

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, I’ll stand by that, and I think I still feel that way. What I was doing when I wrote the songs that people think of as political songs … And I suppose I could put this in the present tense, too, because it could still be happening … I’m writing what touches me. I’m trying to share that with people. This is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. Take a look. Maybe you’ll feel the same way. I mean, when you’re doing any kind of art you’re not, I don’t think–most people who do art are not sitting there thinking of their audience in such specific terms when they’re creating. I mean, they may be aware of the fact that people are going to like this, or will not like this as much, or maybe they’ll be stepping out on a limb with this, or whatever.

But you were aware. I mean, if you’ve been around for a while and you have a sense of an audience, you’re aware of that audience when you’re working. But at the same time, it’s in the background. It’s just a–for me, especially–well, I guess I can only talk about me, really. It’s in the background, that. But I’m aware. I want the language to be intelligible that I use. I want people to understand what words I’m using and why, kind of. And I want to communicate those–those things that touched me with enough force that that desire to communicate is triggered. You’ve got to–you’ve got to see what this is, you can’t … We’re all familiar with that feeling. Little kids have it in spades. I mean, “Daddy look at this, look at this.” You know, and it’s basically that same sentiment. It’s just that lies behind the writing of a song. So if I go–if I’m standing in a refugee camp in the south of Mexico surrounded by a thousand Guatemalans, or 3,000 Guatemalans, who fled from horrendous things that they’re telling us about, and these people are telling us these horrendous stories with a great feeling of dignity, and of a … a kind of rise above it calm that it seems unbelievable to me, but there–but here it is, all the same, it became very poignant.

And in the case of If I Had a Rocket Launcher, I didn’t witness the attacks that were taking place. But one had happened the week before I was in this camp, and happened again a week after, I found out. But you can hear the helicopters patrolling the border. And it could have come up over the camp any time. It was only a few hundred meters away. And I just thought, in the face of all of this poignancy, that these people who are perpetrating the stuff that they were doing had forfeited any claim to humanity. And that was a very disturbing feeling. It went along with the sense of outrage, this … But I couldn’t, I noticed even then at the time, that the people who were telling me these stories did not show the same evidence of the outrage as I was feeling. They were calm. They were … They just wanted it to go away.

Now, there were other Guatemalans, of course, who chose an aggressive response to that stuff. But it’s, it was pretty interesting, the contrast there. And I ended up writing the song out of my sense of outrage and out of a sense of compassion for the people. But what made me record it–because I almost didn’t. I thought, you can’t put a song like this out in public. You know, people are going to think you’re telling them to go kill each other. And that’s not what I wanted to say to the world. But then I, you know, I had heard enough, I’d had enough discussions with Latin American writers about self-censorship that I was like–I was hesitant to not do it, also, because there it was, it was a real thing, I had done this thing and it came from a real place.

And in the end I decided, OK, the reason–what I want to share about this is, along with drawing people’s attention to the situation itself, is how easy it is for me, coming from a position of luxury, to–where nobody is threatening me–to embrace a feeling like this, that’s willing to go out and shoot people, or blow somebody’s helicopter up, in this case, you know–though I didn’t want to shoot anybody. Didn’t want to be that personal. But just–you know, to do this–these–to do an act of violence, that would have seemed to me completely legitimate.

In the big picture, you know, is anything like that ever legitimate? Sometimes it’s inescapable. But I don’t know if it’s ever legitimate. But the–in fact, I kind of don’t think it is. But the … the feelings, all feelings, are legitimate. Feelings are just feelings, if we have them. So you know, how do you go–what do you do with a feeling like that? And that’s really, you know, it was putting that song out there and inviting a discussion or a set of speculations along those lines that that justified recording the song for me.

PAUL JAY: Had you thought of yourself as a pacifist up until that point?

BRUCE COCKBURN: No. I never thought of myself as anything with an -ist or an -ism, really. I mean, I call myself a Christian, but that’s gone through many, you know, permutations. I think there was, when I was in my late teens and just starting to get into music, it made a big difference whether somebody called you a folk singer or a blues singer. Like–you know. And people used to worry about stuff like that. But once I got past that stage of my life, I–it really, you know, the definitions became kind of abhorrent, actually. I don’t–I don’t like the idea of being pinned down to an -ism, or an -ist, or being some kind of -ist.

So no, I mean, you don’t have to be a pacifist to recognize that peace is better than war. You know, I mean, anybody with a brain can see that.

PAUL JAY: But the song is saying people in affluence should not be rendering judgment on people fighting for liberation.

BRUCE COCKBURN: That’s the hope. That’s the hope, is don’t … don’t write off this component of people of, in that case Guatemalan society, that happens to have taken up arms against the oppressor of the–of their government. Don’t write them off as a bunch of radical flakes, because they come by their position very honestly. And you know, if there’s a way we can mitigate that struggle and make it less necessary for them to do that stuff, and make it end quicker, then we should do that.

PAUL JAY: The song is a real repudiation of U.S. policy in Latin America. And you write about that in the book.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. And I mean, you know, like it or not, I mean … I grew up thinking of the United States as our friendly neighbor. And in the case of Canada it has been that, almost throughout our mutual history. Not completely, but mostly. But you know, you look south and you see that since the era of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has been up to its hips in Latin American bloodshed, basically. We–because I can say ‘we,’ because I live here, and I’ve been accepted here as a, as a resident alien. The, you know, we’ve exploited the injustices that the culture of those countries has latently or actively have for our own benefit, and perpetuated them for our own benefit. And when they didn’t–when things didn’t work out too well, and things looked like they might be getting a little better for the folks down there but it was going to cost us some money, we go in there and we blow them up.

We’ve been doing this, you know, for generations. So, you know–and this is this is what’s behind the current influx of people trying to escape their situation in Central America coming to the States. And it’s–you know, we tend to downplay that aspect of immigration at this moment. But you know, in the ‘80s it was–it was active. It was real. I mean, Reagan was saying there’s no war in Central America, so there can’t be any real refugees.

But you know, it was obvious that there was war in Central America. Everybody else in the world knew it. And there were real refugees. And you know, yeah, people would like to–if they’re going to flee the place they’re in, they’d like to go to a place where they could–might have a better life. Why would you not do that? But the reasons for fleeing the place they’re in are pretty profound, and very visible if you go there.

PAUL JAY: And I think we should add Canada’s hands are certainly not clean when it comes to Latin America, from gold mining companies, to supporting the U.S.

BRUCE COCKBURN: No, I mean nobody’s hands are clean. I mean this is the thing, this is one of the reasons why it’s not good to get a swelled head about anything. We’re all in it together. We’re all–we’re all wading through the same crap and we all come out of it with the same kinds of scars. And it’s the–this is what unites us. We’ve got to recognize this. Yeah, yeah, you’re up to no good. And I’m up to no good, and we’re up to no good, but we shouldn’t be.

PAUL JAY: But it’s also a class question, no? I mean, it’s the elites of the United States that profited from all this policy in the U.S., even if there was public opinion-

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, but who votes–who voted for the current elite? You know, I mean, people are–everybody is complicit. You can’t–you know, it’s true that there are people in positions of influence who could change things, who could do things a different way. And if they’re smart enough they could pull it off, and the rest of us would be happy to go along. But that isn’t what we see. Most of the people who are in the position to call the shots act out of self-interest. And they manipulate popular opinion for the furtherence of that self-interest. But—you know, the nobodies.

I like to quote–I forget his name, now. There’s some French anarchist from the late 1800s who at his trial was, you know, confronted by the judge. He said, well–he’d blown up a theater. And the judge said, well, what about all the innocent bystanders? He said: “There are no innocent bystanders.” And I mean, that’s a horrible position to take-

PAUL JAY: That’s what Bin Laden says.

BRUCE COCKBURN: That’s what?

PAUL JAY: That’s what Bin Laden says.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, yes, that’s what ISIS says. That’s what–I mean,it’s warped. But in the same way, though, none of us can stand back and say that we’re completely free of complicity in the bad things that go on in the world. And in recognizing our complicity, we have something in common with everybody else. We have–we have grounds for communication there.

PAUL JAY: And also stop the complicity.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, That’s the hope. Would be nice. But I–you know, I mean, that’s a long shot. But in the way it kind of shakes down for me is that you can-

PAUL JAY: Isn’t that what your music is to a large extent, to spark–stop the complicity?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, you know, in a perfect world my music would – you know, I’d write a song, and everybody’d wake up and go, “Oh, yeah, he’s right, let’s fix this.” You know, that isn’t going to happen. But what happens if you don’t do anything is that everything just gets worse faster. At the very least that’s–you’re acting against that current.

And so it matters to me to try to further the good, I think. I come by that from my upbringing and I come by that from my spiritual inclinations and experiences. And that’s–that’s my job. To the extent that it … that my job is more than just putting words on paper and then putting them to music. It’s about that. But I don’t expect it to have great impact by itself. In concert with a lot of other stuff going on that other people do it might be effective.


PAUL JAY:OK. Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on the Real News Network.

PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.


PAUL JAY: And you really are a virtuoso guitarist. We’ve been talking about politics, and the words in all this. But I just need to say that when I listened again to Rocket Launcher-

[Clip of If I Had A Rocket Launcher – Bruce Cockburn]

PAUL JAY: I was really kind of blown away with just how beautiful the music is, never mind all the politics of the words.

BRUCE COCKBURN: You know, that’s, that’s the whole point. You’re going to make the music interesting.

PAUL JAY: It’s the art that makes the words work.

BRUCE COCKBURN: You know, it doesn’t always have to be beautiful, but it always has to have its own weight, you know, and to offer something. Otherwise you might as well just put out a page with words on it.

PAUL JAY: Talk about Planet of the Clowns, 1981.

BRUCE COCKBURN: I wrote that in the Canary Islands. And I was there with my then-girlfriend, and just having a holiday, but exploring the place. And one night out on the beach, just looking at the waves, looking at the sky, feeling like that beach was a beach on the whole cosmos, like that dark ocean, which you could only make out the whitecaps of the breakers, merged with the sky. And it was–it was really this island, Earth, that old sci-fi movie. And I had been reading Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, which is a dystopic–well, I mean, almost anything you can say about it shrinks it in an unfair way. But it’s a really interesting and not very happy look at kind of a sci-fi view of world history and where we’re going. And she didn’t pull any punches. It’s Earth’s history, basically viewed from an alien perspective, by aliens who are continually interfering in the affairs of the planet.

And it’s–anyway, I’d been reading this, and there I was, standing there in this, ind of confronted by the cosmos. And out of it came this song about standing on the beach being confronted by the cosmos, basically.

And Planet of the Clowns, it’s like we just–the evil that we do is, I mean, some of it is overtly and intentionally evil. But mostly it isn’t. Mostly it’s just a bunch of people bumbling. It’s people doing stupid things, rather than evil things. And the stupid things have disastrous effects on others, and sometimes on the perpetrators themselves. But this is, this was a kind of … the aspect of humanity that struck me at that time. So it’s–there we are, all are just these unintentional clowns with our shoes wet from the cosmic sea.

PAUL JAY: In ’85, you write People See Through You.

Some saw Reagan as a clown. But he’s also–under his watch, at the very least–a lot of the atrocities that you witnessed in Latin America-

BRUCE COCKBURN: He was a kind of sinister clown.

PAUL JAY: But is still deified in this country.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Rosario Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s wife, who was at the time that we had this conversation the head of the artists’ union of Nicaragua–this is back in the ’80s–said that they had been to the White House. And they had actually been to see the Reagans. And she said they were received with great grace and hospitality, and that they had a really good time. So you know, you have to–have to take all the pronouncements about everybody with a grain of salt.

But Reagan, yeah. It was–he was called the Great Communicator. What he was was a great deliverer of scripts. And he was good at that. Can’t take that away from him. He had a, he had a style that I kind of wish we had now, because he at least was gracious, and no matter what drivel he was speaking.

But in that era–this is , Canada’s refugee laws changed as a result of the same thing, that there were many people coming. There was a big increase in people coming from Central America trying to get into the States, and trying to get through the States to Canada. Because that was–it was an underground railroad that ran from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. And a lot of people were taking advantage of this. A lot of churches were involved in running it. And this was important to the powers that were. So there were break-ins of churches. There was a kind of subtle terrorism. And it wasn’t blowing people up or assassinating anyone, but it was a break-in where things were totally trashed, but nothing was taken, of the churches that were involved in the sanctuary movement. And this–and the intimidation of people, of individuals, of–you know, having them interviewed by the FBI, or whoever. This was going on. And at the same time there were these official pronouncements coming out of Washington that none of these refugees had any legitimate claim to that status, that they were–it was all about just looking for a better job. They just couldn’t wait to come here and be a maid, or something. Right.

So that that prompted the writing of People See Through You.

And at the time I was also–a friend [laughs] a friend of mine had given me a subscription to Soldier of Fortune magazine, which was kind of fashion magazine for mercenaries that you don’t see around anymore. It might still be in existence. But they got to–they always had some, like, somebody in a very cool-looking uniform with cool-looking weapons on the cover. And in the back you’d find want ads for, you know, anything anytime anywhere, any job done by some ex-military person that was looking for work along the lines he’d been trained for. And in one the magazine got sued, because one of one of the buyers of these ads got hired by somebody who wanted someone murdered, and they got caught before the crime was committed, I think. Anyway, there was a major lawsuit because of these want ads. So they stopped doing those want ads.

But at the time this is–I used to buy the magazine because I was interested in both the military stuff that they talked about, and in the fact that at the same time as Reagan was saying there was no war in Central America you could read articles in Soldier of Fortune by veterans coming back from Central America telling you all about the exploits that they performed, and the kinds of stuff they’d run into. So it was interesting to read from many points of view, for me. So here were these–the death fetish mercenaries that are referred to in the song come from Soldier of Fortune magazine.

But I mean, I remember them advertising a t-shirt that had a picture of a guy in a, I think a U.S. Marine uniform, but something like that. And at his feet are kneeling peasantry from different cultures. A guy in a sombrero, a woman that looks like she may be Polynesian, you know. And it says … I think it was the U.S. Marines. And I–forgive me, Marines. As an institution I have respect for you. But this t-shirt, I’m pretty sure it said ‘U.S. Marines: Stabilizing the third world through conquest.’

I mean, how much more blatant and how funny–how much funnier can you get in the dark–very dark way? And you know, I just–I can picture that ad. So this was the death fetish mercenaries. But it was all–the song was all about the intimidation of, or the attempted intimidation, of people who were trying to help their fellow human beings by people who had no interest in the welfare of any human beings other than their immediate family, presumably, or their–whoever they saw as their peers.

PAUL JAY: The song Where the Death Squad Lives is part of this.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, it’s part of–it’s from the same time period. In that case I had been down–I have friends who are both Presbyterian ministers, a couple. And they had been living in Honduras for an extended period doing agricultural work, mainly, with people in the back country who were traditionally the–because they were forced to live on land that couldn’t produce enough food for them to feed themselves, they were a source of cheap labor for plantations at harvest time. And that relationship was the product of a system which was being maintained by force. So any time those people tried to live on better land, they were forced off. In some cases they were murdered. In other cases they were just scared off.

And the land that–all the good land was owned by either plantations, or by big cattle ranchers, or whatever, who didn’t even live on the land.

PAUL JAY: You write Stolen Land around this time?

BRUCE COCKBURN: No, that came later. That’s just–that was in response to something, to Haida Gwaii, and what was happening on the Northwest coast of British Columbia.

But Where the Death Squad Lives, I went to Honduras twice in that period; once to visit my friends, who were doing work with very disadvantaged people in the countryside, and one to a refugee camp, a U.N.-run refugee camp in a little village called Colomancagua, that for the first time in the history of the U.N. had been the subject of an attack by the army of the host country. So the Honduran army had raided this camp. They were trying to. Honduras was very worried about refugees from El Salvador. Not for the same reasons that the U.S. is worried about refugees from El Salvador, but because in the ’60s, I guess, there was a war between the two countries called the soccer war. They actually fought over a soccer championship. The countries went to war with each other. El Salvador beat the crap out of Honduras. So the Hondurans were very nervous about attracting heat from El Salvador. So they were making–trying to make sure that the FMLN, the guerrilla movement in El Salvador, was not able to take root among this refugee population. That’s why there was a raid. You can see the logic. But it was still a precedent that–it was a very unfortunate one in U.N. history.

And nobody knew about it. This Canadian church group had been there right when it happened, or right after, and they came back and they talked about it. And I happened to be at their report of this. It was a press conference with, you know, a dozen journalists, and Meyer Brownstone was head of Oxfam Canada at the time. And me and some others–and I happened to be sitting beside Meyer, and we heard this story being told of what had happened. And he turned to me and said, “We gotta get down there.”

OK. Let’s do it. Let’s go. So this was on a–as I recall, maybe a Tuesday. Or maybe a Thursday, something like that. And then the following Tuesday we were on our way to Honduras. Nobody else could move that fast. The U.N. was going to send a delegation to look into this. But you know, take–there’s all these gears that have to start turning, and whatever. So we just went. It was Meyer and me and a Toronto immigration lawyer named Jeff House who did a lot of work with Central Americans.

Interestingly, there–Canada had a Consul General in Tegucigalpa who was a retired banker, and very well-placed in Honduran society, and knew all the generals, and he knew all the top people. And we had a very nice meeting with him.

A congenial meeting. And he said, “Well, I think the general in command of the armed forces, I think we can get him to give you the paperwork to get into the camp.” So so he did. There’s a whole–some convolutions involved. But we ended up in this little place almost on the Salvadoran border where, sure enough, they had gone in, they had killed two people, they shot an old guy. And they stomped an infant to death. And they shot up the houses. I mean, there’s little–the kind of shacks that everybody was living in had bullet holes all over the place.

But that was–those are the only actual casualties. But this–at this time, because the whole idea of the raid on the camp was to suppress the actions of of any Salvadoran guerrilla fighters that might be in the area, they had a curfew, as well. And if you violated the curfew you would have your head cut off in the jungle. I mean, that’s what farm families were living in.

The song talks about this. Farm families were literally living in fear after 5:00 at night. I mean, you dare not go out of your house for any reason whatever. And even if you stayed in your house, if they thought there was the wrong people in there with you, you were subject to attack. So–and my friends were living not in this immediate area, but in similar … surrounded by a similar vibe in the back country in Honduras, where they were regarded as subversives because they were teaching people to feed themselves. Or, I should better say, helping people discover how to feed themselves. And so, you know, it just seemed like there was something worth talking about there.

PAUL JAY: Please join us for a continuation of our series of interviews on Reality Asserts Itself with Bruce Cockburn.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. We’re continuing our discussion with singer songwriter Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us again.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Glad to be with you.

PAUL JAY: So what’s the story behind Pacing the Cage? This is–you’re sounding frustrated.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, trapped. You know, stuck. I mean, it’s something everybody goes through sooner or later. And hopefully less than more, you know. But at this particular point, I was in a situation that I felt that was kind of going nowhere, and I felt like …

PAUL JAY: This is personally, musically?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah, personally. Not–well, no. Not musically, no.

PAUL JAY: Because Pacing the Cage is a wonderful song.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Thank you. But the–no, I wrote that song and a song called Night Train almost at the same time.

And Night Train was a kind of, a kind of personal manifesto, in a way. But Pacing the Cage was more a lament about just being stuck. And I think the … just looking at where I was and thinking, you know, I want to get out of this somehow. I had a fan accuse me of having written a suicide note when he heard that song. Which it wasn’t intended to be, at all. But it was certainly an expression of there must be some way out of here. And it was a while before there actually was. But you know, that was what the song was trying to talk about. And you know, I mean, I’ve done this stuff for a long time. I know when I feel an impulse to write a song whether or not it’s likely to have any kind of application beyond my own circumstances. That one obviously did, right from the get go.

PAUL JAY: I should mention I used it in my film Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, Pacing the Cage, of course, had a very specific reference for Hitman Hart the wrestler, because they refer to the ring as the cage, which I didn’t know when I wrote the song, and wasn’t thinking about that. But I just pictured a kind of angsty ennui, a feeling of just being, being trapped where you are, but having put yourself there.

PAUL JAY: In terms of your spiritual, religious path you were stuck?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, I was–no, that wasn’t so much … It was more day-to-day than that. But I suppose I don’t have to–I’d have to spend more time than we probably have thinking about it to give you a good answer to the spiritual side of it. But it’s, it’s basically a plea, I suppose, to be relieved of the that sense of being trapped. Of pacing the cage. It’s like, I felt like an animal that’s where it doesn’t want to be.

PAUL JAY: When did that stop? Or did that stop?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yeah. It stopped when I got out of the situation I was in. Which happened later, a little bit later. But it’s been one of the songs that people have requested a lot over the years since it was released, because of, I think, the degree to which everybody goes through that sometime in their life. You get a job you think is going to be a great job, and after a while it gets really boring or it gets really, you know, it weighs on you heavily. And much of your life is about a search, not just for meaning, but to live a meaningful life.

PAUL JAY: You felt stuck, in terms of that?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Yes, I felt like I didn’t know what to do next or where to go with it, or what. It’s like–I felt like I was treading water.

I mean, I was treading water in a pond of my own creation, but treading water nonetheless. And it felt like I really wanted some relief from that, I guess. That’s the feeling that the song tries to express. It’s like, I’ve done all this stuff. I’ve proven who I am over and over again. I’ve–You know, and by the end of the song I’m sitting there. It’s like, almost like a scene from a spaghetti western. There’s just the–there comes the stagecoach way in the distance, and it’s coming this way, and eventually it’s going to get here, and it’s the stage out of here. But it’s way over there right now. Very far away.

PAUL JAY: Do you want to talk more about what the situation was?

BRUCE COCKBURN: Not especially. I mean, it was personal. It was the circumstances I was in that were the immediate cause of it. But I think anybody going through midlife crisis, for instance, might find themselves feeling the same way. I don’t think that’s what I was going through at the time. It might have been. But I mean, it might have been bigger than just the immediate situation, is my point. But certainly, you know, I felt it to be a product of the more recent choices that I had made up to that point.

PAUL JAY: OK. Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay. And joining us again is Bruce Cockburn. Thanks for joining us.

So what you write is that there is an existential threat to humans, to our whole civilization, to human society. And it’s something that is barely being talked about. All we hear about is, like, Russiagate, and we hear about Trump tweets, and there’s practically no conversation about the real threat to humans and the planet.

BRUCE COCKBURN: Well, this is–this is the thing. And I mean, the topic comes up. But it comes up in the context of is there climate change? And if there is, is it a Chinese conspiracy? Or is there no climate change, and it’s some other kind of conspiracy? Because there’s always a conspiracy in this conversation somewhere, right?

BRUCE COCKBURN: And it’s it’s so off the mark. It’s like, yes, climate change is happening, whether it is due to human agency or not. It’s happening. That’s incontestable, it seems to me. And whether it’s due to human change or not, human behavior has an effect on it. Whether we caused it or–doesn’t matter. I think we did.

PAUL JAY: And almost every climate scientist in the world thinks so.

BRUCE COCKBURN: And I believe the thousands of scientists who also say that. But you know, even if you don’t accept that, the change is happening. That’s measurable. It’s all over the place. And if there’s something we can do to mitigate that change that will give us a bit of an edge in terms of figuring out how to deal with it, let’s do it. It’s a no-brainer. If carbon emissions have anything whatever to do with it, even the tiny amount, fix it. Don’t leave it. I mean, how much brain does it take to figure that out? But here’s people going, oh, carbon this–and you know, the people whose income is jeopardized by controlling carbon emissions, of course, are going to tell you that it’s not them. I didn’t do it. I’m not doing it. It’s these other guys doing this other thing.

But–and there’s always the finger pointing. But really what it comes down to is there’s a whole–it’s a broad picture. The world is, as we have known it, is changing. And if we want to stay on top of that and don’t want to become victims of it, we better get our act together faster than we have shown any inclination of doing so far.

I get asked sometimes, you know, well, what’s the issue you’re interested in right now? I mean, Central America was in the ’80s, and blah blah … There’s only one issue, and it comes up in two ways. The issue is our relationship to the planet, and our relationship to each other. Those are the issue.

Both of those relationships are heavily affected by greed, by self-interest that comes out in the form of greed, or by fear in the form of, you know, my livelihood might be jeopardized if I agree that there’s climate change, or something. I mean all of these things come into it. But really there’s only those–that is the issue. It’s just who are we, and how do we relate to the systems that give us life?

And they do give us life. And if we take them–if those systems go down, we will not have life. It’s that simple.

PAUL JAY: Tell us the story of False River.

BRUCE COCKBURN: I got asked by a woman named Yvonne Blomer, who is the poet laureate of the city of Victoria in British Columbia, to contribute something to a collection of poetry that she was putting together in protest of the Trans Mountain pipeline thing that’s going on. And I thought, well, yeah, I’ll try something. So I wrote what was supposed to be just a piece for the page. I kind of imagined it as being kind of rap-like, and I just wrote a bunch of stuff about oil. And about oil and water. Basically oil and seawater.

The issue with–it isn’t just a pipeline. The issue is all the tankers that will be going in to offload that oil, or to load that oil to ship it elsewhere. So all these tankers are going to be traveling in waters that have not been subjected to that much of that kind of traffic, and wildlife will be threatened, human life is threatened, or at least the quality of human life is threatened big time. So I wrote a bunch of words about this, and then I thought, you know, this should be a song. This is not, like, I don’t want to just leave it as a contribution to Yvonne Blomer’s book. It did end up being that, as well. But I ended up kind of creating a chorus, or at least a repetitive part of it, and putting some music to it, and we recorded it.

PAUL JAY: Please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Bruce Cockburn on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.

Part 9 transcript had not yet been uploaded.

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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.