Bruce Cockburn: An Appreciation
I don’t know Bruce Cockburn, but I’ve been listening to his music religiously since about 1984, have heard him in concert at least half a dozen times, and exchanged awkward pleasantries with him after the last concert when he was signing his latest CD for me. I’m sure I’ve read dozens of reviews and interviews, subscribed to the “Humans” list-serve, and consider him a dear, if very distant, friend, with whom I feel a great kinship.
I discovered Bruce after reading a review of one of his performances in the Chicago Reader and was intrigued enough to go out and look for recordings at a local record store. All I could find was a cassette copy of Stealing Fire. I was hooked by the first notes of Lover’s in a Dangerous Time and was mesmerized by the entire album. Obviously, I was drawn to the Anti-Imperialist fervor, the humanity, the poetry, and the strong music holding it all together. I picked up a copy of Trouble with Normal soon after and I have followed Bruce, album by album, ever since.
I did not immediately go back and get copies of everything that Bruce had ever done. So, my knowledge of his earlier work was somewhat sketchy, filled in now and then by an occasional purchase such as In the Falling Dark or the retrospectives and re-releases, like Waiting for a Miracle and Circles in the Stream. Over the last several years, I have collected all, or almost all of the rest and have spent many hours listening to these songs.
From time to time on the Humans group (Yahoo.com), a long simmering debate flares up related to Bruce’s Christianity and its importance or relevance to understanding his work, a debate which sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Coming to Bruce’s work starting in the 1980’s, during his anti-Imperialist phase, and because I am not a Christian, I have tended to downplay that aspect of his work, which was easy to do given my long focus on his post-70’s work. I certainly accept that he has professed to be a committed Christian and it was a significant aspect of his work, particularly in the mid to late 70’s, but I could not say one way or another whether he still considers himself a Christian. Certainly, Paul Simon’s most recent album So Beautiful or So What contains more overtly Christian themes and imagery than any of Bruce’s most recent albums. And Richard Thompson is supposedly a devout Sufi Muslim, but I’d be hard pressed to see how that would help me understand his songs Beeswing or ’52 Vincent.
The debate is likely to rage again with the publication of Brian Walsh’s book Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination although that book is so far garnering negative reviews on the Humans group.
Bruce Cockburn is, first and foremost, a visionary artist; engaging and probing songwriter, spiritual seeker, truth teller, and extraordinary guitarist. He is a songwriter’s songwriter and musician’s musician. If you measure success in album sales, or chart position, or merchandise sales, or mentions in People Magazine or Rolling Stone, then Bruce is not for you. While he has failed to scale the mountain of popular adoration, he has nonetheless had an extraordinary career as a solo artist.
There are very few musicians who have recorded for more than 40 years, putting out consistently good records every couple of years, with few, if any, significant artistic misfires. He has continued to gain in popularity and plays to packed venues across Canada, the United States, and Europe, with occasional forays to Japan and the Far East.
He has traveled to war-torn locations like Central America, Africa, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The songs that have resulted from these journeys celebrate the resilience of the human spirit, chide the powerful and greedy, and turn a spotlight on corruption and injustice. He would most likely bristle at these thoughts, preferring to consider his successes a matter of luck, or simply the result of dogged persistence or even stubbornness.
The First Three Albums
After his year at the Berklee School of Music and a number of years playing in moderately successful bands in and around Toronto, Bruce struck out on his own. Bruce said later that he was “trying to leave behind the years of bad rock bands, trying to clear out psychedelic decadence that was itself a reaction to institutional decadence. Looking for purity in nature. Looking for connections behind things..." (World of Wonders Tour Program, posted on www.thecockburnproject.net) Those years also “left [him] with a little body of songs that [he] liked better when [he] played alone” (from "Singer Follows 'Morality' to Success" by Salvatore Caputo, The Arizona Republic, 6 October 1995. Posted on www.thecockburnproject.net) so he ended up going solo.
Bruce was hardly alone in going solo or acoustic. After the Summer of Love and the British Invasions, folk music and singer-songwriters were making a comeback in 1969 and 1970. The Beatles were breaking up. Crosby, Stills and Nash had released their first album. John Sebastian went solo at Woodstock. Joni Mitchell had released a couple of albums. The Band was playing their hippy, country tunes. Jorma and Jack formed Hot Tuna to play old blues and folk tunes. James Taylor burst on the scene. Dylan had reappeared after his seclusion and unplugged again and then went Country with Nashville Skyline. And, of course, Gordon Lightfoot was recording If You Could Read My Mind, while Glenn Campbell and Johnny Cash were on TV.
I mention these, not to necessarily draw specific comparisons between Bruce and any of these artists. But at the same time that loud rock & roll was reaching a crescendo, there was a resurgence of more introspective, acoustic-based music. These artists form part of the milieu that Bruce was becoming a part of.
Bruce’s first three albums (through Sunwheel Dance) considered together could be seen as part of his apprenticeship and growing mastery in his trade. From the start, his music is imbued with spiritual overtones drawing from a variety of religious traditions. Indeed, he said as much in 1995 about the first three albums:
"I think [the influence of Eastern philosophies] were there [in the first three albums]. Actually, I think they are still are. Somebody referred to Buddhists as 'great technicians of the sacred' which I think is true as it goes. I wasn't a Christian yet when I made those records although I was heading (being dragged by the nose might be better) that way. And I have been exposed to various aspects of Buddhist teaching, first through the Beat writers, then Merton, Chogyam Trungpa, the Sutras themselves, etc."
from answers by Bruce Cockburn to questions asked by the Humans discussion list. July-November 1995. www.cockburnproject.net album notes.
John McCurdy has done a very detailed exegesis of Bruce’s first album in his on-line biography, so I won’t go into great detail here. In my opinion, he goes overboard in some of his interpretations and the songs sometimes buckle under the weight of his insights. He feels that “Bruce is in search of an ecological or earth-centered Christianity” in Spring Song and characterizes the whole album as “eco-Christianity.” What is certainly true throughout Bruce’s long career is a restless searching that has carried him to the ends of the earth and that he has thought long and has an inquisitive mind.
The songs in this collection reveal many of the elements that appear throughout his work, although the lyrical content doesn’t have the emotional depth and clarity of his later works. The guitar playing and the musical composition are very sure-handed and mature, although the songs tend not to follow distinct or traditional forms with clearly demarcated verses and choruses. His characteristically fluid fingerpicking is evident throughout, as is his humor and thoughtfulness. Thematically, he has already begun to play with contrasting symbolism of light and darkness, and the sometimes dreary urban environment (“Toronto don’t take my song away”) versus the natural environment (Going to the Country is all Sunshine and happiness).
The songs are introspective and dreamlike. The world that they explore is a small, local world: a trip to the country; a rainy afternoon; a surreal and childlike bicycle trip; drinking and smoking and playing music with is musical friends; contemplating the changing seasons; being “together alone” with a lover; contemplating the sea and the “Thirteenth Mountain”. Solitude predominates and the cast of characters is small and they are little more than ciphers. Even the musical friends are barely described. The most distinct and memorable characters are the cows in Going to the Country.
As a point of comparison, James Taylor released Sweet Baby James the same year. JT was several years younger than Bruce. In terms of guitar playing, I might give a slight edge to Taylor, in that he displays a more fully formed personal style than Bruce. In terms of songwriting, nothing in Bruce’s release can come close to the emotional depth of Fire and Rain or the evocation of a real landscape like Going to Carolina in his previous release. None of his landscapes are as clear as the opening lines of Sweet Baby James. Fire and Rain is about a real, flesh and blood woman, even if she is barely described in the song.
To be fair to Bruce, Taylor seems to have burst upon the scene fully formed and never really scaled the same heights again. His guitar playing may have become more fluid and relaxed over time, but there are no real leaps in skill or dexterity over the course of his career. And in terms of emotional depth, Bruce didn’t suffer through mental illness and heroin addiction. To borrow a line from Taylor, Bruce’s first album left him, “with 10 miles behind him and 10,000 more to go…”
to be continued...