Born May 27, 1945; raised in Ottawa, Canada; divorced; children: one daughter. Education: Attended Berklee School of Music, Boston, MA. Addresses: Home-- Toronto, Canada. Manager-- Bernie Finkelstein, 151 John St., Suite 301, Toronto, Canada MSV 2T2. Record company-- Columbia, 1801 Century Park West, Los Angeles, CA 90067.
Canadian singer-songwriter and virtuoso guitarist Bruce Cockburn is, according to Maclean's writer Nicholas Jennings, "a rocker with a mission--a troubadour for the common man." For more than two decades he has written articulate, insightful songs that point out the political and social injustices and inadequacies of the world. "To his credit," remarked Darren Ressler in Pulse!, "[Cockburn's] public visage has remained enigmatic as he eschews trends and flash-in-the-pan pop fashionability."
Critics have tried to pigeonhole Cockburn with such labels as folksinger, mystic, and environmentalist prophet. But he has defied definition, just as he has resisted the pressure to make his music conform to popular demand. By sticking uncompromisingly to his own inner truth throughout two decades of recording, by refusing to dilute his angry lyrics and--perhaps costlier in today's pop-rock world--his Christianity, Cockburn has developed an intensely loyal following and great respect within the music industry. But for most of his career he has stood stubbornly on the outskirts of fame.
A dedicated political activist, Cockburn is beginning to reap the rewards that many feel are his due from 20 years of sticking to his convictions. Worldwide sales of his more than 20 records total more than ten million, and his concerts in Australia, South America, and Europe usually draw sell-out crowds. His sudden rise in status, especially in Canada, must seem ironic after years of putting up with comparisons to popular American singers.
Cockburn, divorced, lives modestly in downtown Toronto with his one daughter. Born on May 27, 1945, he was raised in Ottawa, Ontario. After high school he traveled throughout Europe as a street musician, then studied at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Dropping out after a few years, Cockburn returned to Ottawa to play organ in a Top Forty cover band and harmonica in a blues band; he also began writing songs seriously. "About 1969," the singer recalled to Ressler, "I was in a state where I was so choked up with my songs that I just wanted to record them to forget them. When I hooked up with the means to do that, it didn't have the effect of allowing me to forget--people wanted to hear the songs that they liked from the album all of the time!"
Cockburn's writing, tending to the folky and romantic at first, has taken on an increasingly serious, often angry and militant quality over time. He is not only involved with political issues--frequently visiting Third World countries and speaking out on their behalf--but also with such environmental causes as stopping the destruction of tropical rain forests and cleaning the Exxon oil spill off the Alaskan coast. He has expressed that his activism was heightened after the birth of his daughter. "When my daughter was born, it sort of forced me to step back and look around," he told Ressler. "I mean, the first headline that you see is bound to threaten this precious life.... At the time, everything seemed very urgent and I started thinking about the world and the future. For me, that was really the beginning to take the need to act politically seriously."
Cockburn perhaps garnered the most attention for his four trips to Central America in the 1980s. After his first journey, during which he observed a Guatemalan military attack on a refugee camp in Mexico, the musician wrote one of his most popular, politically volatile anthems, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." Subsequent visits to such countries as Nicaragua and Guatemala prompted Cockburn's "growing disdain for U.S. policy in Central America," according to Jennings. In addition to meeting with a Canadian foreign affairs minister to discuss that country's Central American policies, Cockburn, whose Juno Awards--the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys--began accumulating, increasingly addressed political issues on his albums, including Stealing Fire of 1984 and World of Wonders of 1986.
But Cockburn can also show a gentler side in his music. When not outraged, he writes songs about the simple day-to-day experiences common among all people. Scott Alarik of the Boston Globe described this marriage of emotions: "The presence of topicality in his love songs, and of personal love in his political songs gives Cockburn's work a total vision rare among political songwriters.... Through it all is a raw anger ... the real anger of a feeling heart."
Despite the serious message of Cockburn's songs, they are written in the easygoing manner of a storyteller. The Washington Post' s Geoffrey Himes noted, "Without any overt pleas for sympathy, he simply sets a scene, tells a story and lets listeners draw their own conclusions.... Cockburn's songs are marked by a powerful sense of place. In a few verses, he draws a vivid picture of a muddy road through the Amazon, a crowded street in Tibet or a bird-laden jungle as he weaves Asian, Latin and Dixieland motifs into his propulsive folk-rock."
Cockburn feels that songs can be a catalyst for social change. "What's important to remember," he expressed to Andrew Watt of Australia's In Press, "is that [as a singer/song-writer] you're either doing something to change the status quo, or you're reinforcing the status quo and as a human being it's your choice to make." Cockburn, who indicated to Ressler that "change is the theme that runs through all of my albums," has worked tirelessly to promote reform through his music.
Two years after touring to promote his 1989 album Big Circumstance-- a work filled with songs contemplating such topics as rain forest depletion, Central American violence, and the Chernobyl nuclear accident in the former Soviet Union--Cockburn released the acclaimed Nothing But a Burning Light. The singer had been wanting to record an album somewhere other than his hometown of Toronto and headed for Los Angeles, hooking up with producer T-Bone Burnett and organist Booker T. Jones. Cockburn commented on the content of the LP in Pulse!: "In some ways it's a return to a rootsier, more direct style of songwriting that's folksier than my last few albums.... The songs are much more concrete than ones I'd written back in the old days."
Richard C. Walls of Musician, pointing out Cockburn's tendency toward political and social preachiness, found Nothing But a Burning Light to be "still dripping slightly, from the slough of moral goopiness." Nevertheless the reviewer declared, "Cockburn demonstrates once again that he's an excellent guitarist." Labeling the musician "one of the undersung heroes in the fading art of the well-tuned song," Down Beat' s Josef Woodard found the album Cockburn's "most satisfying collection to date."
Although in the early 1990s Cockburn was concentrating more on songwriting than his political involvements, there is no doubt that the Canadian rock star will continue to play an activist role, giving voice to the hearts and consciences of those who care about the fate of their planet and fellow human beings. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of his activism and his music career, Cockburn told Ressler, "To me, all of my songs spring from the same place--they're the product of some kind of life experience."
by Heather Rhodes
Bruce Cockburn's Career
Solo recording artist, songwriter, and activist. Traveled throughout Europe as a street musician; played organ in a Top Forty cover band and harmonica in a blues band; made recording debut as a solo artist, 1970; has toured in Central America, Nepal, Mozambique, and other Third World countries.
Bruce Cockburn's Awards
Ten Juno Awards; eleven gold and two platinum records; member of the Order of Canada, 1983.
- Selective Works
- Bruce Cockburn Epic, 1970.
- High Winds White Sky 1971, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
- Sunwheel Dance Epic, 1972.
- Night Vision True North, 1973.
- Salt, Sun and Time 1974.
- Joy Will Find a Way 1975, reissued, 1988.
- In the Falling Dark Island, 1976, reissued, 1988.
- Circles in the Stream 1977.
- Further Adventures Of 1978.
- Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws Millenium, 1979, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
- Humans 1980, reissued, 1988.
- Mummy Dust 1981.
- Resume 1981.
- Inner City Front 1981, reissued, 1988.
- The Trouble With Normal 1983, reissued, Gold Castle, 1989.
- Stealing Fire 1984, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
- World of Wonders 1986.
- Waiting for a Miracle 1987, reissued, Gold Castle, 1989.
- Big Circumstance 1989, reissued, Columbia, 1991.
- Bruce Cockburn Live Gold Castle, 1990.
- Nothing But a Burning Light Columbia, 1991.
- Atlantic Journal, April 22, 1989.
- Boston Globe, March 4, 1989.
- Down Beat, February 1992.
- In Press, June 14, 1989.
- Kingston Whig Standard, May 26, 1990.
- Maclean's, February 27, 1989.
- Metropolis, January 26, 1989.
- Musician, December 1991; February 1992.
- Pulse!, December 1991.
- Sun-Times (Chicago), March 17, 1989.
- Washington Post, April 6, 1989.