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Hugh Wesley

Wayfaring spirit

Bruce Cockburn’s musical career spans 40 years and 26 albums. But his quest for deeper meaning is lifelong.

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Bruce Cockburn undercuts his trademark folksiness with a subtle militant edge. He still sports his perennial round-shaped spectacles and a Peruvian indigenous wristband among other curios. But these days, Cockburn also flaunts black lace-up boots, cargo pants and a long-sleeved camouflage shirt, as well as a pair of gold-studded skull-and-crossbones earrings.

The iconic Canadian singer-songwriter appears as many things to many people: a deep-hearted mystic, a wayfaring spirit, a Christian rocker, a strident political activist. To some, his music is at times angry and militant. To the United Church-affiliated Queen’s Theological College in Kingston, Ont., his ability to “reach across the secular-religious divide” was worthy of an honorary doctorate in divinity.

However others may see him, Cockburn, at 63, manages to stay politically and culturally ahead of the curve. His 26 albums are an exploration of what it means to be alive, to throw off the shackles of expectations, to traverse the world, to lead an exceptional life. They are also a brooding and revelatory journey, marked by unflinching observations about human cruelty and survival through faith. Cleary, he’s come a long way since recording his first album almost 40 years ago, but as Cockburn will tell you, he still has a way to go.

It all started for him in Ottawa,  with early stop-offs at Westboro United, where the organist helped nurture a budding artistic talent. “Truthfully, when I was old enough to complain about having to wear gray flannels on Sunday, I stopped attending services altogether,” Cockburn says. But his attraction to spirituality didn’t end. As he matured, he began to get at it through different avenues, namely Beat writings and Buddhism.

And, for a time, the occult. “In the 1960s, there were a lot of pot-smoking witches around,” he says. He also flirted with black magic and psychedelic drugs, “but I never got involved in trying to cast spells like other people I knew. . . . They were mostly posers or spiritual seekers, like me, who were trying anything but the orthodoxy that was around us.”

By the mid-1970s, Cockburn had drifted back to Christianity. “It didn’t happen overnight. It wasn’t like a bolt from the blue,” he recalls. His religious experiences felt more like little pokes and whispers.

Cockburn’s early work is full of holistic imagery and biblical metaphors. His references to Christianity include the Holy Grail imagery of 20th-century Christian poet Charles Williams and the ideas of liberation theologian Harvey Cox. The spiritual side of his songwriting won him enthusiastic followers among progressive Christians here and in the United States. Magazines, such as the American Christian journal Sojourners, have long acknowledged the way Cockburn’s activism connects with audiences. His storytelling has been described by the magazine as “giving voice to the hearts and consciences of those who care about the fate of their planet and fellow human beings.”

Just don’t call Cockburn a “Christian singer.” Says Cockburn: “I had slight qualms about the Christian label because I’m not sure it ever applied to me. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. Praise musicians use the musical genres of folk, rock, punk — whatever — as propaganda. These particular musicians are supposed to be embarking on the greatest adventure available to people, and yet their music doesn’t express any adventure at all. They’re not explorers.”

Still, his discography is a testament to how his faith has informed his worldview. Often, you don’t need to look any further than his album titles to discern a Christian sensibility: Salt, Sun and Time (1974), Joy Will Find a Way (1975), Nothing but a Burning Light (1991) and The Charity of Night (1996).

His 1984 protest song If I Had a Rocket Launcher, about Nicaragua’s U.S.-backed contra war, received more mainstream radio play than any Cockburn song to date, but led many Christian fans in the United States to renounce him. Undeterred, he followed up with Call It Democracy, as good a manifesto against globalization as rock music has ever produced. “See the loaded eyes of the children trying to make the best of it the way kids do,” he sings. “One day, you’re going to rise from your habitual feast to find yourself staring down the throat of the beast they call the revolution.”

His songwriting continues to come down hard on American foreign policy, assailing it as “utterly toxic” and responsible for many of the world’s ills, from wars to environmental degradation. In the 2006 single, This Is Baghdad, Cockburn laments: “Everything’s broken in the birthplace of law /As Generation Two tries on his tragic flaw /America’s might under desert sun /I saw her frightened eyes behind the muzzle of her gun /Uranium dust and the smell of decay/Sewage in the street where the kids run and play.”

“I’m going to fall back on my own clichés here,” he says with a rueful smile. “There is a satanic grip on the world. There has been overwhelming death and destruction. If anyone has anything to offer, now is the time to get up and offer it.”

Justice-minded people in church pews will find a kindred spirit not only in Cockburn but also in the causes he embraces, such as the worldwide effort to ban landmines, peace in Mozambique and Cambodia, protection of the Amazon rainforest and global food security.

“Bruce has been very generous with his own time and spirit,” says Bernie Finkelstein, Cockburn’s longtime manager. “But he will often talk about how inactive he feels. He’s very hard on himself that way. He has a greater deal of admiration for those who work with non-governmental organizations.”

Finkelstein describes Cockburn as a prophet — a modern-day Jeremiah. “This is a guy who wrote If a Tree Falls more than 20 years ago, before most people got onto environmentalism. . . . He just writes about the world he sees instead of trying to compose the perfect pop song.”

Maybe not perfect, but his acoustic singles, especially, have been highly regarded nevertheless. In March 2001, Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the following year was named an officer of the Order of Canada. He still tours, but more recently the venues are less auspicious, such as high school auditoriums and church sanctuaries in small cities. This past June, he performed in a benefit concert for jailed Native activist Bob Lovelace at Sydenham Street United in Kingston, Ont., where he currently lives. Cockburn also recently joined Senator Roméo Dallaire, the retired Canadian general who commanded the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, for an evening of song and spoken word in Victoria to support Child Soldiers No More.

Says Finkelstein, “Bruce lives everywhere in the world — in his own mind — although he remains every bit Canadian.”

Cockburn distrusts labels, but if there’s one he can live with, “Canadian” is it. “That actually means something to me. I feel I’m a part of this landscape and it’s a part of me. And if my songs are paid any attention at all — in that light — that’s a good thing.”

“Churchgoer” certainly doesn’t stick, yet Cockburn remains very much a spiritual seeker. “If you go out there shining with the light of God and brimming with love, it will be noticed,” he told the 2007 graduating class at Queen’s Theological College. “A door will be opened for the Spirit to walk through. Whether that Spirit gets discussed in Christian terms or not is not really material. It’s being awake to its presence that counts.”

Leaning awkwardly on a metal folding chair inside Finkelstein’s downtown Toronto office, Cockburn muses on the future. “The quest goes on,” he says. “If I’m to be honest, I really don’t know where my journey is going to lead me, but I do feel it’s going somewhere good.” 

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