20 February 2017 Bruce Cockburn received the inaugural Folk Alliance International People’s Voice Award during the opening-night awards ceremony at the organization’s 29th annual conference in Kansas City, Mo. This was the first time Bruce has received an award in the United States.
Here’s the video of Bruce giving his acceptance speech:
Ladies and Gentlemen, Sisters and Brothers
I’m greatly honoured, and very pleased, to be the first recipient of the Folk Alliance’s “Peoples’ Voice” award. For me its a night of firsts: it’s my first Folk Alliance… this is the first such honour I’ve received in the United States, a country that has made me welcome as a visitor for decades, and in which I now dwell. Ultimately, I guess DHS got tired of issuing me work visas and just decided to give me a green card instead.
It all started, though, with a student visa allowing me to attend Berklee College of Music. I found it interesting that as a foreign student during the Vietnam years, I had to swear that I would accept being drafted, in the event the war effort ran out of young Americans.
When I started putting out records, in the ’70s, there was always a visa, as needed, letting me come here to tour. With the radio exposure of Wondering Where The Lions Are, I began to acquire an audience of measurable size. It was with the release of Stealing Fire, though, in ’84, that things really took off. That album included a number of songs that grew out of travel in Central America, much of which was at war.
Many Americans felt betrayed by their country’s complicity in those wars, but there was virtually no public voice for that very large body of dissent… some underground media, but little in the mainstream. If you didn’t approve of what the U.S. was up to, you were left feeling isolated.
When we took Stealing Fire on tour, it was amazing to see rooms-full of people encouraged and uplifted to look around and see that the lyrics spoke to so many besides themselves. “Hey–I’m not alone”. It was exciting for them and for me. I had not thought much about the effect of the political aspect of my songwriting. I had always felt, and still do, that the job is to tell the truth of the human experience as we live it. That, of course, includes the political, as well as lust, humour, family, general grumbling, and spirituality. The key word is truth, delivered directly or obliquely, as understood by the artist.
In the mid-’80s, the Reagan administration’s official truth was that there was no war in Central America, therefore there were no refugees… all those Latinos and Latinas coming north across the border were just dying to be cooks and chambermaids and gardeners. People were dying in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, slain by weapons and training provided by the U.S. Murderous as that was though, and I don’t know the stats on this, it wouldn’t surprise me if the death toll in the current gang culture, to which the wars of the ’70s and ’80s gave birth, is not even greater, especially in Honduras.
With the attention paid to that album, and the song If I Had A Rocket Launcher in particular, I acquired the reputation of being a “political” singer. Before that the music business pigeon-holers were prone to calling me a “Christian” singer, or things like “the Canadian John Denver”, on account of my round glasses.
The fact is though, the writing I did started from the premise that I’m supposed to distill what I encounter of the human experience into something that can be communicated, shared. I’ve never been interested in protest for its own sake, or in ideological polemicizing. Just f***ing tell it like you see it and feel it. If you don’t see it and feel it, write about something else. Songs need to come from the heart or they don’t count for much.
That isolation and silencing of dissent as practiced in the Reagan era has, with the growth of social media, kind of swung 180 degrees, to where the cacophony of mostly anonymous personal voices, each attached to its own conspiracy theory, tends to shatter truth into kaleidoscopic fragments, reality buried in the resulting avalanche. My truth. Your truth. Alternate facts…what a fertile medium in which to grow a public tolerance for totalitarianism!
This is not lost on those whose narcissism and maybe testosterone level give them the notion that it’s their right and duty to tell the rest of us how to live. Ok… all politicians, all human beings, operate from mixed motives. It’s always tempting to think that what’s good for me is good for you too. That’s why we need to have dialogue, debate, respect for each others’ opinions and feelings. Especially if you want to run a democracy, you must value the expression of these things. Based on that, it seems evident that the current administration is not much interested in democracy. I don’t know, maybe their supporters are tired of the responsibility… but somewhere in the steaming ocean of bullshit they’re creating is a place for, a definite need for, truth.
They are trying to stifle opposition across the board by a range of means. Looks to me like they’re just getting started. Who will end up being the last line in the defense of truth? Maybe you and me…
Doesn’t mean we can’t sing love songs, but if you think you can keep your head down and ignore the political side of things, it’s liable to be waiting for you with a blackjack in the alley, when you come out the stage door.
And what truth are we best in a position to encourage? Obviously communication: community. The specific content of a given song is of less consequence than the way in which that song can be a focal point for collective energy. This is an antidote to the echo chambers, the isolation, the false friendships that characterize the online landscape.
We could be in for a rough couple of years. We may get tired, but we have to keep singing! Keep sharing!
Thank you Folk Alliance for noticing my work. Thank you USA, for the hospitality!
Thank you all for listening !