20 September 2019 - Bruce Cockburn’s 34th album, “Crowing Ignites,” comes out Friday, a few days before he performs Tuesday at Goshen College.
His longtime fans may be surprised, however, to learn that it’s his second instrumental album, following 2005’s “Speechless,” because now would seem to be the perfect moment for a Cockburn album with lyrics.
The Canadian guitarist and singer-songwriter, after all, has written some of the most searing, poetic and incisive topical songs of the last five decades.
That includes three of his most popular songs: “Call It Democracy,” about the International Monetary Fund and how it creates insupportable debt in the Third World; “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” about military attacks on Guatemalan refugees; and “If a Tree Falls,” about the destruction of the Amazon.
But Cockburn has chosen, for now, not to use his music to address Donald Trump’s presidency or the general, global rightward shift away from democratic ideals.
“There’s so much blather out there that I’m not sure more words are the point,” he says by phone from San Francisco, where he has lived for the last several years. “What we need to find from a societal point of view is some bonding agent, whether it’s more words or something else. I could get up there and say all the bad things I feel about Donald Trump, but what’s the point?”
Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn) makes it clear, however, that he’s taken that position for himself, not everyone.
“That’s not to say people shouldn’t write great songs about whatever gets their attention,” he says. “It’s just not me right now.”
But he isn’t entirely “speechless” on the subject of current events when asked.
With the Amazon being ravaged by fires this summer, Cockburn acknowledges that “If a Tree Falls” is relevant again 32 years after its release, and that time is running out to protect the environment.
“I feel like we’re getting pretty close to that wall, not Trump’s wall, the real wall,” he says. “I’ve got a young daughter and grandkids. I’ve got a vested interested in this. … I’ll probably be gone when the (excrement) really hits the fan, but my daughter and grandkids will be here. It’s a daunting prospect.”
And Cockburn, who became a Christian in the early 1970s, says evangelical Christians who support Trump are “extremely misguided,” while the people who call the shots in the evangelical community “feed off power.”
“The world doesn’t need a theocracy,” he says. “It didn’t need one before, and it doesn’t now. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put God at the center of our lives; we should, but that’s personal. … I think any one-issue campaign is dangerous, no matter what the issue is, because it ignores a lot of other things.”
Cockburn has ignored little around him in his music career, and because of that, he’s never been easy to categorize.
A finger-picker, he has moved seamlessly through a number of genres, including folk, blues, world music, reggae, jazz, rock and pop.
His lyrics have been just as restless in their subject matter, including — but not limited to — love and romance, pastoral descriptions of nature, war and war zones, the environment, poetry and music, Native people’s rights, refugees, land mines, and general slices of life. Sometimes, he delivers them in French, rather than English.
After Cockburn became a Christian soon after the 1970 release of his eponymous debut album, Christian themes and imagery then became a hallmark of his lyrics — never in a dogmatic, preachy or proselytizing way but as an interrogation of faith and ethics.
As a result, he hasn’t enjoyed much commercial success in the United States — just one single, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” has made it into the Top 40, peaking at No. 21. “Call It Democracy” reached No. 88. That’s it for “hits” here.
But his concerts tend to sell out, because his fan base is devoted.
“I love them,” he says about his audiences. “I don’t have any problem. There’s no artifice. I’m grateful they’re there. I love the interchange of energy.”
Cockburn turned 74 in May, and he says playing guitar has gotten more difficult.
“I’m getting away with it so far,” he says. “But sooner or later, that’s another wall. It’s not here yet, but I have to play a lot. I used to be able to not pick up a guitar for four or five days and be just the same as the last time I held one. It takes hours of playing to get back to where I was if I take time off.”
And yet “Crowing Ignites” shows no diminution of his beguiling skills or his musical curiosity across its 12 songs.
Although primarily an acoustic guitar album, “Crowing Ignites” includes such other instruments as chimes, dulcimer, singing bowls and kalimba.
The music ranges from the jaunty, upbeat “Sweetness and Light” to the traditional Scottish-inflected style of “Pibroch: the Wind in the Valley,” from the electric jazz combo of “The Mt. Lefroy Waltz” with its yearning cornet solo by Ron Miles to the blues of “Blind Willie,” named for and in the style of Blind Willie Johnson, one of Cockburn’s main influences on guitar.
When he decided to make the new album, he thought it would be “Speechless 2” — an album of instrumental versions of previous songs with lyrics and a few new compositions.
Instead, it’s entirely new.
“There was lots left over from ‘Speechless,’ and lots of instrumental stuff had been recorded since ‘Speechless,’” he says. “Then I would write some new stuff, but I wound up with so much new stuff, that it just became its own album.”
For the “Crowing Ignites” tour, Cockburn has his nephew, John Aaron Cockburn, with him on accordion and guitar — he also had played in Cockburn’s band for the 2017-18 “Bone on Bone” tour. Together, they’ll play songs from the new album, as well lyric songs from throughout Cockburn’s career.
“I love the band, but I’m quite happy to be doing this scaled-down thing, because it’s different,” he says. “The relationship with the audience is different.”
The duo arrangement also is different for him.
“I’m not sure how this will feel,” Cockburn says. “But, generally, the less flashy the show is, the more the people get into the music and there’s more focus on the songs. I don’t know if this will be true with the duo, but there’s a feeling of more of one-on-one with the audience in a solo show.”
The album takes its title from the Latin motto on the Cockburn family’s Scottish crest: “Accendit Cantu.”
“I think the person who came up with it probably intended it to mean something like ‘Music excites,’” he says. “This is conjecture, but I think what they meant was the rush of martial blood that bagpipes have on people of Scottish descent. The pipes have a visceral effect on me. People who aren’t horrified by them find them to be quite beautiful.”
Of course, Cockburn says, there may be another, simpler interpretation: “Maybe the guy just liked to dance, swill that whiskey and cavort.”
~from South Bend Tribune