Hejira host Jeff Spitzer-Resnick had a chance to catch up with Bruce Cockburn, who is coming to Madison on March 12th, while he was on tour. Here is a lightly edited transcript of the interview, revealing a lot of this talented singer-songwriter’s philosophy.
JSR: I’m here with Bruce Cockburn who is on the road, I believe in Maine.
Bruce Cockburn: Yes, Waterville, Maine.
JSR: And you’re coming to Madison soon on the 12th. I look forward to going to your show, Bruce, and I have a unique opportunity to interview you. I’ve certainly been following your music for, I don’t think quite 50 years, but maybe 40 plus.
I was actually a little surprised that you’ve got a greatest hits album that goes back longer than 50 years. So, first of all, tell me a little bit about the tour where you’re in Maine now. What’s it looking like?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, Maine is full of snow and ice, and it’s overcast. I mean, I’m seeing it from the inside of a tour bus right now.
But the tour’s been going well, actually, we did a leg on the west coast in December just before Christmas and that worked out well. We’re maybe four or five shows into this run and it’s working out well to see people are really happy with being out and being able to sit in a room together.
I think it probably almost doesn’t matter who’s on stage. It’s like everybody feels good.
JSR: I think it matters a little bit. I certainly am somewhat choosy about who I go see, especially during the pandemic. One of the things that I’ve noticed in your music, in addition to just musically enjoying it, is that you tend to have a lot of political commentary.
What do you see as your role as a musician when it comes to the political world, if you will?
Bruce Cockburn: It is one aspect of the human world, and that’s what artists do: distill what it is to be a person in the world as it comes to that artist, to the individual. And then try and share it with people. I mean, I think that’s the job. So that includes the political very much because the minute you start doing any aspect of people getting along with each other, you’re involved in politics or our relationship to the planet. If you try to address environmental issues, it becomes political immediately because everyone has different kinds of vested interests, and everyone has different opinions about these things.
So, it’s just part of the gig.
JSR: That explains why you speak to politics a lot in your music, but you certainly have your own personal bent on politics. It’s just not politics in general. I don’t know if you have a label for it. I don’t like to label people at all, but certainly there is an emphasis on human rights, and I would say the underdog, but I’d love to hear your political philosophy that you imbue into your music.
Bruce Cockburn: Most of what shows up in my songs is a result of trying to understand what I experienced in spiritual terms with respect to stuff like human rights or any kind of moral perspective for me, because I’m told my faith tells me I’m supposed to love my neighbor.
My neighbor is suffering, and I do nothing about it? That’s hardly an expression of love. There’s a lot of things that are happening in the world that none of us as individuals can do very much about, but I think we’ve got to do what we can. And so, I have feelings about these things and the feelings trigger songs, and then I get invited to talk about this stuff.
It’s really something that I kind of fall into without really intending to. I don’t consider myself an expert on anything particular, other than maybe playing the guitar, but I pay attention, you know, I do pay attention to what’s going on and I do care. So, you know, that reflects itself in the content of my music.
JSR: You mentioned spirituality and I’ve also noticed how more than a lot of musicians, especially if they’re not labeled Christian music, that you do imbue some religion into your music. Is that part of the spirituality you were just mentioning?
Bruce Cockburn: Absolutely. It’s a world view. I mean, I can articulate this stuff the way I do now at the age I’m at. I didn’t always understand this starting out, for sure. I didn’t understand anything starting out. I just did what I did, but over the years, I’ve come to kind of understand that more, and I feel that my prime directive as a human is to have a relationship with the divine and that relationship should express itself in every aspect of life. It doesn’t always, because I get in the way or other things get in the way, but that’s the ideal. So, if I’m looking at a beautiful scene in nature, I’m grateful for that.
Or if I’m looking at, or am a witness to some beautiful thing that people do, I’m grateful for that. You know that springs from the gratitude part of it, it has to do with that relationship with God. So, you can call it lots of things. People have different takes on this stuff.
My framework happens to be a Christian one, but I don’t think that’s the only possible way of having that relationship.
JSR: You’ve probably been asked this before, but I’ve been wondering about it, frankly, ever since the song came out. So here you are a man who speaks a lot about love, a lot about justice in the world or identifying when there’s injustice. And then there’s “If I Had A Rocket Launcher.” Maybe things have changed as you’ve grown older, and they certainly have for me. How do you kind of blend that love and spirituality with what could arguably be interpreted as you know, I’m going to blow them all away?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, that would be a misinterpretation, although it’s an understandable one. What I was trying to get at with the song was a couple of things. I was writing straight from the heart when I wrote that, and the heart had been severely impacted by the experience of spending a short period of time with these refugees in the south of Mexico who were recounting to us the kinds of the things they had fled from and as a backdrop to those stories, which were horrendous, was the sound of the helicopter, the military, patrolling the border, which was just a hundred yards away. So, the combination of things is what produced the song, but the poignancy of these very desperate straits, no food, no shelter, or they had some shelter because they managed to build themselves shelter, but they had no food and no medicine. I met about 8,000 people – not personally, obviously, I was there with them – and I was very much disturbed by all of this and I felt that this is very relevant-a sense of outrage, and that sense of outrage is what I wanted to express.
I almost didn’t record the song. I wrote it and then I knew if I put this on the record, people are gonna misunderstand it. And of course, that happened, but at the same time you can’t self-censor. Self-censorship is not a worthy past-time. So I thought, well, I’m going to put it out there and we’ll see what happens.
But I used to go to great lengths to explain where the song came from when I was performing it to the point where people would complain about the talking I was doing, but I wanted people to understand that point and it goes back and forth. There are people who only hear the outrage, or the rage as it translates to them. We all carry bags of rage around with us from birth. So I think the song got a big audience because it tapped into that feeling. The people were actually listening to the lyrics and heard what was being said.
One of the first conversations I had about the song outside of my immediate circle of friends was with a guy named Charlie Clements, who was a Quaker who had spent time with the guerrilla movement in El Salvador. (He was) a doctor, and a buddy, but as a Quaker, he was committed to a peaceful approach to things. And I expressed uncertainty about that song with him. And he said “you just said what we all feel, who’ve seen this stuff.”
JSR: I really appreciate that helping me to better understand, and hopefully our listeners as well. Just one more topic. I noticed in your tour list that you’re spending a lot of time in a variety of towns, often smaller theaters and clubs, and looking forward to you being here at the Barrymore, but here we are on community radio. How do you see, in your long career, the role of community radio in getting out music such as yours?
Bruce Cockburn: Well, anybody who’s not readily defined as pop has a hard time getting on the radio. So, any radio that plays us is a wonderful thing in my view. It’s true, whether you’re talking about jazz artists or singer songwriters or, you know, people who have things to say through their words, that there’s community radio forum for that kind of stuff, that isn’t out there in most other contexts or formats.
So, God bless you guys.
JSR: Thank you very much for that!
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