The other Bruce

Springsteen wasn’t the only important singer/songwriter named Bruce to emerge in the 1970s and continue making music to this day. 

Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose debut album was released in 1970, recently released his 33rd album. “Bone on Bone” (True North), Cockburn’s first in six years, is a welcome return for an artist who has managed effortlessly to balance the personal, the political and the spiritual throughout his lengthy career. Additionally, in 2016, Cockburn added author to his list of achievements with the publication of his memoir, “Rumours of Glory.” I spoke with Cockburn in advance of his latest North American concert tour, which will bring him to Daryl’s House in Pawling, next month:

Allmusic.com calls you “Canada’s best-kept secret.” How do you feel about that?

“It’s an old thing. Millennium Records, who was the U.S. company that put out (my album) ‘Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws’ in 1979 used that as an advertising slogan. These things never go away. I don’t think it applies anymore. At that time, it kind of did. Like any advertising slogan, it suffers from a certain glibness. It kind of had some significance then, but I don’t think it does now. There are areas of the U.S. where I’m not particularly visible or audible, but there are a lot of areas where I am.”

Six years passed between the release of your new album “Bone on Bone” and its predecessor “Small Source of Comfort.” In the “Bone on Bone” CD booklet, you list the years and cities in which each of the 10 songs was written. 

“I’ve done that on all my albums. There was a long hiatus between albums, because I wrote a book. All of the energy that would have gone into songwriting, the creative juice all went into the book. There was that three-year period and then the year or so after the release of ‘Small Source of Comfort,’ where I was touring all the time. There was about four years where I didn’t write anything. At the end of that four years, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’m a songwriter, maybe I’m not.’ It was a question of waiting to see if the book ‘distraction’ was out of the way, if the song ideas would come and they did, so we have a new album.”

The marvelous Mary Gauthier sings with you on “40 Years in the Wilderness.” How did that come to pass?

“We asked her and she said yes (laughs). That kind of overdub was done at (producer) Colin Linden’s studio in Nashville and Mary lives in Nashville. She happened to be there at the right time. We had a nice afternoon having her.”

The song “Stab At Matter,” which features the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus, is a play on words on the title of the medieval Roman Catholic hymn “Stabat Mater.” 

“I don’t even know when it started, but at some point I got this bug in my head thinking that the Latin phrase ‘stabat mater,’ which is ‘stand there, Mother’ …means a whole different thing (in English). There seemed to be an invitation in the English to make something out of it. It has this juicy quality to it. The spiritual side of things has always been a focus for me and I wanted to keep it in that realm. It’s not intended as a heavy philosophical statement, but we kind of (make an) exciting thing out of the notion of stabbing at matter. 

“When one friend of mine first heard it, he thought it was kind of apocalyptic, because it talks about walls coming down, the seal being broken, the trumpet sounds. These are images we associate with the biblical apocalypse. I was thinking more in personal terms, one’s own spiritual state. It’s been my experience that whether you think of it in psychological or spiritual terms or a combination as I guess I do, we’re always invited to break down the structures that we build. If we refuse or ignore that invitation, they will be broken down sooner or later. If they’re not broken down with your complicity, it’s usually traumatic (laughs). ‘Stabbing At Matter’ was ‘Let’s get this sh– out of the way, let’s get down to it.’”

Poets aren’t often the subject of songs, but you pay tribute to Canadian poet Al Purdy in the song “3 Al Purdys.” 

“That was actually the first of the bunch of songs to be written (for the album). I was waiting around for a good idea. I got an invitation from people in Canada, who were making a documentary film about Al Purdy, to contribute a song to the film. I didn’t have an existing song that would be appropriate. I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll say ‘yes’ and, if I get it together, then I do and if I don’t, then I guess I’ll prove to myself that I’m not a songwriter.’ 

“I don’t mean to make it sound so dire, but maybe there were other things I should be looking at. I wasn’t that familiar with Purdy’s work. He’s one of the great Canadian poets and I was aware of his existence. He died in 2000. He spent his youth, in the ’30s, riding the rails back and forth through Canada and became a more settled figure after that. He was a traveler with a sharp eye and a great gift for putting things into words. I was looking at this stuff and I got this image of this homeless guy who was obsessed with Al Purdy. The phrase, ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a $20 bill’ came into my head. I pictured this guy ranting Purdy poems on the street with his cup out. I thought, ‘What else would he say besides Purdy poems?’ That’s what became the song.”

It’s been almost 35 years since the release of your songs “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” and we are still living in a dangerous time. As an artist and activist, what are your hopes for the future?

“Oh, boy. (laughs) I hope I survive until my natural death at least. And I hope that my daughters and grandchildren survive. It’s really down to that. Survive in a way that’s recognizable. We can live like cockroaches, or we can have the lives of relative comfort and relative freedom that you and I have grown up with. These are things that should be treasured. It’s not a given to me that our descendants will be able to continue that for long. I hope they do. That’s what we should be thinking about. It blows my mind… the climate change deniers and the business-first mentality…make wild choices based on poor scientific information. Do the science and get it right and then take it seriously. We all need money. We all need to eat. You need to have an economy of sorts in the world, but an economy that’s based on, ‘It’s my right to get everything I want and screw you,’ which is what it is currently, is wrong. That’s self-defeating. 

“You’re not just saying, ‘Screw you’ to your neighbor, who might not be as lucky as you. You’re saying it to future generations, as well. That makes no sense to me. I look at those things and I worry. But I also think there are grounds for hope. If somebody asks me where I get my hope from, I get it from a faith in God and life. I don’t think the God part’s misplaced, but the life part might be (laughs). But I have it anyway. We just have to pay attention, do what we can and then hope after that.”

Bruce Cockburn performs April 26 at Daryl’s House in Pawling. For more, visit darylshouseclub.com.

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