Interview with Bruce Cockburn (1996)

Bruce Cockburn’s first ten albums were issued with clockwork regularity between 1970 and 1979–one per year whether we needed it or not, each one built around Cockburn’s spirited and spiritual songwriting, each one flecked with occasional political colorings. In 1980 Cockburn reversed his thematic emphasis with the landmark album Humans; aggressively political material moved to the fore, while his more spiritual songs now provided the human perspective needed to properly frame the immensity of the horrors associated with supra-human institutions running amok. Cockburn also tailed back his prolific studio album release patterns after 1980; not because his creative wells ran dry (quite the contrary) but because he spent more time living his socio-political convictions than writing about them.

Cockburn will appear at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall tonight, where he’ll be stage-honing new material for a follow-up to his lovely 1994 album Dart to the Heart. Since Dart’s release, Cockburn has kept himself busy by (among other things) performing on The Columbia Records Radio Hour, acting as honorary chairman for the Canadian chapter of Friends of the Earth and performing at a Voters for Choice Benefit with Bonnie Raitt last January.

During a phone interview last week, I asked Cockburn if U.S. audiences have had difficulty reconciling the deep Christian spirituality of his material with his very left leaning social views–since we usually hear such views espoused from opposite ends of the debate table.

“Those views may be diametrically opposed in the media,” Cockburn responded, “but I don’t think they are diametrically opposed in real life. There is a certain degree of polarization on [reproductive] issues to be sure, not just in the Christian community, but in the world at large–and it’s only an easy issue for the most callous individuals, who are governed by their own self-interests as far as I can see.”

Cockburn put reactions to this issue into a broader personal perspective, “My public pronouncements on any number of issues have caused some people discomfort while other people have applauded them, so I just kind of do what seems right to me. If people don’t agree, hopefully they will at least be tolerant.”

Cockburn has also pronounced vociferously as an international spokesman for groups striving to end land-mine manufacture and deployment; he toured mine-laden Mozambique last September to help focus attention on the issue. Since Cockburn had previously travelled to Mozambique in 1988 (at the height of their civil war) I asked him how the cessation of hostilities and Mozambique’s fledgling democracy were impacting life there. Cockburn did not paint a hopeful picture.

“From the point of view of someone living in Mozambique things are about as bad as they can get,” he noted, “and the only good thing is that they aren’t actively fighting each other. After 500 years of colonialism and 25 years of war we’re seeing the beginning of a new Mozambique, but unfortunately it’s turning into a case-in-point of third world re-colonization… by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other comparable agencies and interests. Instead of going in with military superiority we’re now going in with financial superiority–and because things are so chaotic there, opportunities for corruption are rife. You can see that certain outside interests are taking advantage of that, many of them the same Portuguese and South African elements that Mozambique fought a revolution to get rid of.”

On a homier front, I asked Cockburn how he felt (as an English-speaking Canadian) about Quebec’s separatist efforts. “Separatism has been an issue really since the English took Canada away from the French”, Cockburn replied, “It’s kind of an anomaly in America today that we have this large pocket of culture that is very self-aware and is not the product of other cultures mating. English Canada looks around going ‘Who are we? Where are we? How did we get here?’ while Quebec doesn’t have to ask those questions.” I mentioned that many U.S. political pundits have opined that if or when Quebec does finally secede, some Provinces (particularly the economically beleaguered Maritimes) might find it advantageous to apply for U.S. statehood.

Cockburn sighed, “There are almost times I wish that would happen, because we are already so influenced by you. We get to watch your presidential elections and know that whatever happens, it’s going to have a tremendous influence on everything we do… but we can’t vote!”

Since the early 1970’s, Canada has stanched one small facet of U.S. influence by having Canadian Content Regulations, i.e. requiring radio stations to devote certain percentages of air-time to home grown music. I asked Cockburn whether such regulations were likely to wither in a post-NAFTA era. Cockburn didn’t see radical change in this regard as “the original agreements between the US and Canada exempted cultural issues from free trade, because we insisted on having some control over that. The trade-off was that you guys get to take all of our water if you want it! One could argue that a culture is not of much value if you don’t have anything to drink, but really if we don’t have some protection then we won’t have a culture. I don’t know… I just somehow prefer the variety. The more we can keep something of our own the better off everyone is, I think.”

So after almost thirty years as a sociopolitical and musical ambassador, does Bruce Cockburn ever have the desire to just put his feet up and rest on his laurels? He laughed, “There’s not enough laurels for me to rest on for more than five minutes… so I can’t really do that now, can I?”

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