Many communities have people whose lives encapsulate the values that they hold most dearly. The Greenbelt Festival has had a few and the most recent to visit is Canadian singer-songwriter, Bruce Cockburn.
His integrity is what most endears him to the festival’s faithful, both artistically and spiritually. Driven by faith, he knows how to write about justice in a way that connects, rather than sounding preachy.
He has visited occasionally since the early ‘80s. I was stewarding at the time and remember his set, particularly for his intricate guitar work. Behind the scenes, we heard that Bono wanted to watch him and would be disguised as a steward.
“He came backstage,” Cockburn recalled, as we spoke at this year’s event. “He came in a baseball cap and a parking monitor’s badge. It was fun. They snuck him in and were all excited, ‘We snuck bono into the tent without anybody knowing!’”
That Bono should be so keen to see the Canadian says something of Cockburn’s influence and Bono remains a fan today. This year, Canadian TV showed a film made during his Slice o’Life tour. As the film opens, Bono looks at the camera, talking the words to Cockburn’s visceral “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”. He ends with the jealous line, “If I had a rocket launcher, he wouldn’t have written those songs!”
The timing of that backstage meeting intrigued me. Cockburn had been playing songs from his Stealing Fire album, largely inspired by visiting Central America when the Sandinista movement was trying to rebuild El Salvador. Ideologically unhappy with their efforts, the American government accused them of being communist and attacked them with military power.
“Rocket Launcher” was a direct response to what Cockburn saw of such bullying. The Sandinistas were encouraging education for the poor and supporting real development. To have that crushed by fighter planes attacking innocent villages enraged Cockburn to the extent that the song exclaims how, had he the firepower, “I’d make somebody pay!”
A couple of years later, when U2 released The Joshua Tree, inspired by visiting America, their song “Bullet the Blue Sky” shared that territory. Speaking of corruption, military deals and “fighter planes across the mud huts as children sleep,” the song ends with the line, “See the sky ripped open / See the rain coming through the gaping wound / Howlin’ the women and children who run into the arms of America.”
What arms – welcoming or military? The latter is the only way I can read that song and I had to wonder whether that Greenbelt night was the root of one of U2’s most iconic tracks.
Cockburn does not know. “We talked about stuff that we were thinking about – which included that – but I wouldn’t know whether I had influenced the song or not.”
Central America was just one of many tours around the globe, visiting ordinary people, often in rural communities. The songs written on those travels are highly personal and act as a window into the lives of those affected by the world’s richer nations and corporations.
Corporate greed is a regular target, but Cockburn is no blind dogmatist on the issue. “As corporatism has expanded, everybody gets caught in the idea that if somebody over there has this x, y or z, then I should be able to have it too.
“To me the picture is very large and complex, but it really comes down to two faces of a similar issue, which is: how we treat each other and how we treat the planet. If we exploit each other, there’s a good chance that at the same time, we’re also exploiting the planet in a way that’s not healthy. So very often you find the same bad guys related to every issue.”
The same mix of support and wariness marks his views on the Occupy movement.
“I have the same reservations about the effectiveness of that movement as I have about my own mouthing off,” he commented wryly. “But I think it’s really worthwhile to get out there and try. It’s like the Hippocratic Oath: first, don’t hurt anybody, then fix them if you can. We should have the same attitude: don’t hurt anybody, but fix it if you can. The Occupy movement is a flawed, but important attempt to do that.”
The “mouthing off” that he so self-deprecatingly speaks of is the ethical side of his songwriting.
“I think you have to suspend any expectation of an outcome, when you get involved in issues of any kind,” he observed. “My own experience has taught me this over the years: if you go into it thinking you’re going to see the difference you make, you’re going to burn out fast. It’s better to just trust, because eventually, if there is enough popular will around a certain issue, it will change – but you may not live to see it. It’s important to do the work anyway, because if you don’t keep plugging away at it, everything gets worse.
“So for people in the public eye, one of the things we can do is mouth off and be heard. Where people take that is not really in our control.”
He does occasionally get response from listeners. Speaking of the “great blessing” of “touching testimonies” when people tell him of the effect songs have had on them as they grew up, he added dryly, “It always baffles me when I hear young people say they grew up with my music, because growing up with my parents’ music didn’t inspire me want to go out and buy a Rex Harrison record!”
A bigger delight in his life at the moment is his year-old daughter. Often, as people get older, they get more easy-going about the state of the world. Does he feel that way, or has fresh fatherhood given him a renewed concern for where we are headed?
“I look around at the things that are going on and think, all you can do is pray and trust, because there is so much crap headed for the fan. Much of it has already hit, but there’s more coming. What she grows up into, if I want to go there, can be quite terrifying. What can I do about that? Well, I can keep doing the same thing I’ve been doing all along, but not much more, because that’s all I know how to do.”
Mouthing off aside, his current release, Small Source of Comfort, probably has more instrumentals than any new album he has made. I wondered if this was a shift in his music-making…
“Unless I think of really good words!” he replied. “It’s too soon to know if it’s a pattern to look forward to in the future, but the older I get, the more songs I’ve written, the more I’ve said what I’ve had to say in words and the more appealing it becomes to just play notes that aren’t attached to a specific idea.”
Despite the quantity of music he has already put out, Small Source of Comfort must be among his best collections since that Stealing Fire release. Has he learned to perfect his trade or is it coincidence?
Naming another of his albums, he called it “Big circumstance, which is what I think of when I think of coincidence. It just is what it is, but I’m glad I got the songs I got. I don’t take it for granted – I never have. Any album I’ve made could have been the last one. So I’m just happy if I’m able to keep going.”
In his recent music, he seems to have placed less emphasis on his faith, which may have something to do with the churches he has met across the years.
“I don’t feel the same need for a church that I once did,” he admitted. ”When I first started thinking of myself as a Christian, I started going to an Anglican church, because it was the church I got married in, and I liked the priest. That became my church in Ottawa.
“But when I left Ottawa at the end of the ‘70s, I never found another place where I felt as in touch with the Spirit. It began to feel to me like if I was going to be in touch with the Spirit, it didn’t require a particular place; it was something that’s supposed to have happened all the time and I’m still in pursuit of that. So I kind of drifted away from church – although I miss communion.”
Unwelcoming churches, making him feel like he did not belong, were much of the problem. They were particularly insensitive to the needs of a travelling musician. “I would go down on a Sunday morning to the service. I’d get people looking at me like, ‘What are you doing here, you son of a bitch?’ Seriously, it was that bad sometimes!
“Other times, it was more welcoming, but I never felt that there was a community there for me, compared to what I’d experienced in Ottawa. Partly, that’s just familiarity, but when you’re a traveller, you don’t get to be very familiar with any given place. For most of my life, home has been base camp, so the idea of being part of a community at home is not viable.”
What keeps him going is the sense of his relationship with God, something in which he feels no different to any other human.
“The real calling that we all have as human beings is to make ourselves available to that relationship with God and do whatever that steers us toward.”
Then ending with a chuckle, he said, “That’s a recipe for anarchy, but so be it!”