Bruce Cockburn Sings “Call Me Rose”

A_Small_Source_of_Comfort_coverListen to this track by politically minded singer-songwriter with an eye for the ironic Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call Me Rose”, the second song as taken from his 2011 album Small Source Of Comfort. Being known mainly for a song about reflecting on what would happen to sons of bitches should Cockburn ever procure a rocket launcher, he’s not generally known for writing songs with a sense of levity. Yet, even that is a misconception. This is the guy who covered Eric Idle’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life” remember, arguably in reaction to his (unearned) reputation for being a bit too earnest. An opening line like “My name was Richard Nixon, only now I’m a girl” might be a bit jarring for many in any case.

On this song, Cockburn really hasn’t strayed from his main songwriting patch which has been about commenting on socio-economic inequity in the world. On this song though, there is a unique shift in perspective that has Cockburn voicing a character, rather than a usual narrative in his own voice. Instead of tales of Nicaraguan villagers making the best of things during a period of political upheaval, or ones about fleeing Guatemalan refugees at the mercy of machine gunners in helicopters (the sons of bitches referred to earlier), we meet a mother called Rose with two little kids living in the projects. The twist is that in a previous life, she had been the aforementioned former President of the United States. How’s that for socio-economic inequity?

But what is Cockburn trying to say here, other than “karma’s a bitch”? Well, I think it has to do with how we as a culture view the idea of power and how it relates to empathy. Read more

Bruce Cockburn Sings “Let Us Go Laughing”

high winds white skyListen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.

This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.

But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.

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Bruce Cockburn Sings “Call It Democracy”

Bruce Cockburn World Of WondersListen to this track by politically motivated globetrotting singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Call it Democracy”, a song as taken from his 1986 album World Of Wonders.

Cockburn had spent the 1980s making albums and writing songs while also making personal trips to points on the map where the negative effects of Western economic policy was making the most impact in that era. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund continued their “aid” to Third World countries, lending them the funds to manage their economies effectively (read: in line with Western corporate agendas) in exchange for turning over their right to self determination in support of private interests. This was, and is today, generally done by way of huge rates of interest on loans that are designed to never be paid off. Certain people might say this is nothing less than economic imperialism. People like me, say.

Heavy stuff, I know.

So, how does Cockburn make this into a compelling song, and not just an over-earnest polemic? Because when it comes to writing political songs, this is what separates the big dogs from the furry fashion accessories. Read more

Bruce Cockburn Performs “Dialogue With The Devil (Live Version)”

Listen to this track by one-time mystic-folky singer-songwriter, later to turn political and social commentator, Bruce Cockburn. It’s the live version of  “Dialogue With The Devil”, a highlight from his 1977 live record Circles in the Stream.  The original version appears on Sunwheel Dance released five years earlier.

The song taps into where Cockburn was at during the earliest part of his career as a solo artist, writing songs with a sort of C.S Lewis meets Mississippi John Hurt approach. Not many artists have hooked into that kind of vibe, of course.

But, Cockburn was interested in the nature of spirituality, how it’s manifest in human experience, and what symbols and stories, particularly those couched in natural imagery, helped to reveal it. I think he was also interested in how American rural blues playing and English folk styles converged, which is certainly revealed in his work at the time, with this song being among the greatest examples

As far as this song goes, the scene is one we’re familiar with. It’s a variation on the story in the Gospels of a meeting between Jesus and the Devil in a remote location, with a tempting offer from the latter; no less than fame and fortune in exchange for surrender. But, in Cockburn’s story, what is the nature of that dialogue, and what is the temptation?  More importantly, does it have any bearing on where Cockburn would turn as an artist? Read more

Bruce Cockburn Performs ‘Tibetan Side of Town’

Bruce Cockburn Big CircumstanceListen to this song by Ottawa-born guitarist’s guitarist and impressionistic, socially-conscious, and very well-traveled songwriter Bruce Cockburn.  It’s “Tibetan Side of Town” as taken from his 1988 album Big Circumstance, a song written after his visit to that country when historic tensions in that country with applied pressure on it from neighbouring China drawing international attention.

When Cockburn set out as a solo act by the end of the 60s, his music was largely the result of an inward looking observational style as opposed to outward and engaged involvement resulting in a songwriting process.

But, by the 1980s, he was very involved in international social concerns. And his keen observational eye served him just as well, really adding dimension to what would be a very politicized body of work.

Among other parts of the world, Cockburn traveled to Tibet himself a number of times at the end of the 80s, a country which had been culturally bullied by China since the 50s, although with a history of tension between the two cultures stretching back even further.  This song was the result of what he saw while in the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu.

Despite all of the political injustice that created circumstances where destitute refugees were commonplace,  this song is not the po-faced polemic it might have been in the hands of a lesser songwriter. Instead, this song is about embracing the culture in which he found himself. The song celebrates the joy of a culture otherwise under pressure.  It really is about drinking!

The drink in question is tungba, which is a millet-based beverage that is served hot, with the millet fermenting at the bottom of the vessel as you drink.  The longer you drink, the stronger the tungba gets.  And the more fun you begin to realize you’re having.

The vital contrast in this song is between the political unrest hinted at, and what is basically a narrative about getting together with friends and getting drunk. In short, Cockburn’s written a song about an oppressed part of the world that humanizes the issues that lay behind that oppression. This is a song with a real sense of perspective as well as a social conscience.  His travelogue style captures a snapshot of that time and place for us as listeners, to the point that it’s the people we see in the song, not just the issues that affect them.

For more information about Bruce Cockburn, check out


Bruce Cockburn Performs Christmas Song “Riu Riu Chiu”

Listen to this song by superlative singer-songwriter-guitarist and major Christmas fan Bruce Cockburn. It’s  “Riu Riu Chiu”, as taken from his album Christmas.  The song is sung in an archaic form of Spanish, telling the tale of an Almighty being who creates a woman, who then creates him in return.  Hmm.  That sounds kind of familiar.

Bruce Cockburn released his Christmas record in 1993, and even though I’m a big fan, when I heard about it I thought the worst.  I imagined folk-pop versions of  “Up on the House Top” and a cover with Cockburn in a sweater, basically.  Well, I needn’t have worried.  Cockburn had been planning this record since the early ’70s, the beginning of his career in fact.  He had loved Christmas music, more to the point the more spiritually oriented material, since childhood.  His dad had given him a homemade booklet of Christmas songs while he was a child.  He’d kept the booklet of course, which served as the album’s basis.

The record is no seasonal knock-off, and it’s clear that Cockburn threw himself into it.  As mentioned, this song is sung in Old Spanish.  But other songs are sung in Latin, French, and even in the Huron language, on which an expert, John Steckly, was consulted on phrasing and pronunciation.   A project like this might come off as kind of pretentious in the hands of a lesser talent, it seems to me.  Yet, what comes through is Cockburn’s enthusiasm for delivering music he’s clearly in love with.  He was clearly committed to it, and I’d argue that it is one of his best efforts overall.

There is a wintry, organic atmosphere to the record as a whole, and to “Riu Riu Chiu” in particular.  The song  is traditionally sung acapella. But, Cockburn uses a repeated descending guitar riff in tandem with Hugh Marsh’s violin lines, which really pushes it along without being intrusive. So, he’s added his own imprint to it, as well as presenting an old tale in the truest sense of the folk song tradition.  It comes off as reverent, but also kind of spooky too.  And strangely, there is an impulse to move to it, just because it’s so rhythmic.

Who ever thought an ancient tale of the Christmas story sung in archaic Spanish would be so funky?

Check out news, tour dates, releases and more on the new fangled site.


Bruce Cockburn Performs His 1981 Song “Loner”

Here’s a clip of Bruce Cockburn’s “Loner”, as taken from his Toronto-centric, jazz-rock seasoned 1981 disc Inner City Front. This song is something of a jigsaw piece to the writer’s own emotional state-of-being at the time, and something of a reflection of the scarier side of falling in love.

Cockburn’s marriage dissolved in 1979, an event partially outlined in his 1980 album Humans.  By the next year he was living alone in Toronto, far removed from his old life, and on the road to pursuing new relationships and a new musical direction.  For Cockburn, the one shift greatly affects the other and it’s on Inner City Front where this is illustrated best.  From his first album, geography is of particular importance to how Cockburn’s music comes out.  This album, and its kindred spirit in the stand-alone track “The Coldest Night of the Year” released around the same time and added as a bonus track on the album’s re-issue, practically makes Toronto a main character.

And because of this, the folky wistfulness of the past has morphed into a sound that is more urbane. In leaving the acoustic textures of his 70s work a little further behind, Cockburn steps up the jazz-rock influence which had always been a part of his sound.  Here, we get Bruce’s acoustic and electric guitar, but also synths and sax.  Usually this is bad news for 70s artists moving into the 80s, where these ingredients are common. But, this album rests on the strength of the songs and a premium level of musicianship from a new, jazz-oriented backing band.  And “Loner” is my favourite song on this record.

Once again on this track, we get to hear 80s Cockburn stalwart Hugh Marsh on electric violin.   Marsh had added important texture to Humans, and would continue to do so on subsequent releases.  But this is Marsh’s masterpiece performance on a Cockburn record, the perfect sound of the wordless inner turmoil that the lyrics only suggest, with a magical interplay between the two that makes this tune both subtle and intense at the same time.

There is something in this tune which really resonates with me; a sorrow of things gone wrong in the past, a hope that there is a possibility that happiness with another is within reach, and the murky unpredictability that simmers in the soul as it sits in between the two poles.  This is a love song that presents itself without artifice –  hair disheveled, clothing tattered, and still nursing old wounds.  It is the anthem of love’s observer who is more than terrified of getting into the game again himself.  “Loner” documents that uneasy feeling at the beginning of a new love, when shades of an old one have not yet passed.

For more music, check out the Bruce Cockburn MySpace page.

And while you’re at it, get ye to the Hugh Marsh MySpace page too.


Bruce Cockburn and Toumani Diabate Perform “World of Wonders”

Here’s a clip of Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn playing a version of his 1986 song “World of Wonders” with Malian master of the kora, Toumani Diabate.

Bruce Cockburn and Toumani Diabate

The clip is taken from the documentary River of Sand, which is narrated by Cockburn and is concerned with the environmental issue of the expanding desert, and the efforts of the people of Mali to counteract it. Along the way, we get to know the people and their culture, particularly their music and key proponents of it, like Diabate and guitarist Ali Farka Toure.


While in Mali filming the documentary, Cockburn met with a number of musicians with whom he would jam informally, and who would eventually find their way onto his recording Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu, as well as later recordings. Toumani Diabate was one such luminary, a musician with a growing worldwide reputation for his dexterity on the kora, a 21-stringed instrument made from a gourd and animal skins.

I really love this version of the Cockburn song, which on the original album by the same name, World of Wonders, is a bit dated by 80s production values. Here, it’s organic and sort of ghostly, largely due to Diabate’s contribution. The sound of the kora is something of a cross between a harp and a mandolin to my ears – delicate, yet grand too. It suits the song, which is about the beauty found in a world that is also marked by oppression and unjustice. On the African continent, there are striking examples of both, which makes the playing of this song quite a potent choice.

For more information about Mali and attempts to irrigate the desert, visit Oxfam.

To hear more music, visit the Toumani Diabate MySpace Page and the Bruce Cockburn MySpace page.


Records I have known: ‘Humans’ by Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn HumansBruce Cockburn had built a body of work which centred around mystical spiritual imagery, and intricate, dexterous, acoustic guitar-driven folk-jazz which was definitely pastoral in nature. One of the elements of his songwriting approach was the tendency for him to write as an uninvolved observer. With a few exceptions, even Cockburn’s most spiritual tunes from the Mississippi John Hurt meets C.S Lewis ‘Dialogue With The Devil’, to the sublime and metaphor-rich ‘All the Diamonds In the World’ and onto ‘Lord of the Starfields’ the lyrics of which read more like one of the psalms than a modern-day song, Cockburn’s own presence was largely missing in his own songs. His song ‘Laughter’ from his album Further Adventures Of… is particularly telling in this regard, in which the songwriter laughs at the absurdities of the modern world from the comfort of his own insular one.

All of that changed with 1980’s Humans, when the world at large crashed violently in on the safety of Cockburn’s own personal songwriting duck blind.

Faced with the end of his marriage, and the helplessness, rage, sadness, despair, and a whole range of emotions that went along with it, Cockburn turned to an approach to songwriting that put him right in the picture, that presented himself warts and all. As a result, it became his most engaging release to date, and continues to hold few rivals for those who know it.

The title of the album, Humans, is very apt as we the listener hear each song, many of which detail Cockburn’s many emotional states. ‘More not More’ is a cry of anguish. “You Get Bigger As You Go’ is resignation and sadness. ‘What About the Bond’ is sanctimony. And ‘Fascist Architecture’ is admission and resolution, although it can be gathered that although Cockburn resolves not “to lock up his love again”, you get the feeling that such a resolution will serve him in the future, but not in his present situation. In the end, these songs track the reality of loss, not a hope for reconciliation. As such, this is a bittersweet album, one dealing with processes, not with neatly tied up conclusions. And it is this new chapter in his life which would drive Cockburn to switch gears musically as well as personally, even starting with tracks on this very album.

Bruce CockburnOne such shift is the distinctly rock approach, with urban jazz stylings and reggae flavours thrown in. This is made fairly easy by Cockburn’s own significant skill and versatility as a guitarist, as well as a change of scenery from the rural outskirts of Eastern Ontario to the heart of Toronto. Here Cockburn works with musicians with some grittier, more city-centric textures at their disposal- Hugh Marsh‘s insistant jazz violin, and Pat LaBarbera‘s exploratory tenor saxophone being two of the most obvious examples. “Rumours of Glory” is a standout track illustrating the embrace of reggae. The Canadian radio hit “Tokyo” is the picture of urban decay and alienation, its pulsing electric rhythm guitar inspired more by the Cars than by anyone in the folk traditions of the past.

Another major shift Cockburn makes on this album is a fully formed political conscience. This had been present in the past on songs like 1975’s “Burn”, and 1976’s “Gavin’s Woodpile”. But, here Cockburn is reaching for an even more empathetic stance, a stronger connection with the themes he evokes. Both “Grim Travelers” and “Guerilla Betrayed” paint pictures of the disenfranchised – “bitter little girls and boys from the Red Army underground” and “the politician’s tools” which are left to contend with a world which offers little hope for comfort, safety, or resolution. One gets the impression that Cockburn’s observational stance is over, and the seeds of connection and involvement with some of the issues about which he is writing is becoming intertwined with his own sense of spirituality.

The album’s closer “Rose Above the Sky” harkens back to early days of mystical imagery. Yet here, once again, he’s connected with his own emotions, his own state of being. While the universe unfolds in a great and wondrous mystery, Cockburn’s “gutless arrogance and rage/burn apart the best of tries”, sharing centre stage with “the light behind the sun” which “takes all”. The eternal is present as in the past, but this time so is Cockburn. And it will be this model of how he will go forward on subsequent albums, as well as a person. His political activism and the resulting songs coming out of travels to repressed and war torn areas such as Nicaragua, Tibet, and East Africa to name a few will later come to define his style, and his very identity.

Humans is Bruce Cockburn’s conversion album in a different way than his 1974 Salt Sun and Time album was. Where the latter was his conversion to Christianity, the former was his conversion to true engagement with his own emotions and with the world around him that required his attention.

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There’s a great overview of Bruce’s career and outlook on the True North Records site. Check it out!

Further Listening:

  • The 1977 live album Circles in the Stream, recorded at Massey Hall in Toronto (the same venue of the most recent Neil Young live album) is a great introduction to Cockburn’s early phase as a mystical folky. And it also showcases his skills as a guitar player, putting him in the same league as Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson.
  • 1988’s Big Circumstance is a logical next step after Humans, as it is the one which shows him hitting his stride as the writer of engaging, and politically infused travelogues, the seeds of which were planted with the earlier album. This said, 1984’s Stealing Fire does the same thing, with his most famous tracks ‘If I Had a Rocket Launcher’ and ‘Lovers in a Dangerous Time’, along with hidden gems ‘Nicaragua’ and ‘Dust and Diesel’.
  • Of his more recent releases, both 1997’s Charity of Night and 2003’s You’ve Never Seen Everything illustrate his songwriting maturity, his eloquence as a social commentator, as well as his continually stunning guitar chops which touch on rock, blues, jazz, Middle-Eastern, and a myriad of other styles.

To give you a taste of Cockburn’s guitar calibre , here’s a clip of his 1981 performance of his instrumental ‘Deer Dancing Around A Broken Mirror’ (first featured on the aforementioned Circles in the Stream album) with Triumph guitarist Rik Emmett.

Hover over the image and click the ‘play’ icon. To enlarge the window, click the magnifying glass icon. Enjoy!

Bruce Cockburn