Bruce Cockburn: Still Wondering Where the Lions Are

Thursday 30th October 2003

Mike Rimmer had a good heart-to-heart with seasoned Canadian troubadour BRUCE COCKBURN.

Photo by Ron Mertiny
Photo by Ron Mertiny

I have been trying to explain to friends of mine that interviewing Bruce Cockburn is like interviewing Bob Dylan. Both have huge back catalogues, spirituality which is difficult to fathom and a reputation for sometimes giving journalists a hard time. As part of my research I discover an intriguing fact in the American published Encyclopaedia Of CCM. And it's with this rather unusual fact that I begin my conversation with Cockburn. His response isn't encouraging. "Is it true that I what?" Ermmm. I repeat feebly, "Sang 'Wondering Where The Lions Are' with the Muppets?" I am beginning to wonder whether I can rely on the encyclopaedia! "No. It must have been somebody else," he says simply. Good start Mike!

Bruce Cockburn is an intriguing songwriter. Having embraced the Christian faith in the '70s, he found himself uncomfortable with some of the right wing baggage that comes with faith in North America. Like CS Lewis, it would probably be most accurate to call him a reluctant convert. "I didn't experience a great bowling over, like Paul on the road to Damascus or something. I was lead through a series of moves toward a place where I realised I was a Christian in every way, except my acknowledgement of that fact. And so I began to call myself a Christian. But it didn't stop there, it's a continual process. My own understanding of what it means to be in contact with God has changed continually over the years and I presume will continue to do so. But there was a point where I was reading the Bible and I was looking at the whole world in Christian terms. And partly, under the influence of CS Lewis and other writers, it just became necessary for the sake of truth to call myself a Christian."

When it comes to translating that faith into his songs, he sings about the things he sees. "My job is to translate what I understand of the human experience into some sort of communicable form, that then becomes a vehicle for the sharing of experience with whoever is interested enough to listen. So that allows the field to be extremely broad. Although there are some songs that deal directly with spiritual experiences, most of what I write is an observation, informed by my particular interest in spirituality."

In the '80s Bruce's writing became much more politicised and at the time he linked that development with his commitment to Christianity. He explains, "I realised there was a direct connection between loving your neighbour and political involvement." However where the majority of Christian music artists in the USA would align themselves with the political right and Republican politics, Cockburn embraced Christianity and then joined the wrong side.

He laughs at my suggestion but admits, "I was already on the wrong side before I joined the Church! I was on the side of trying to see things how they are, and I remain on that side. I don't see myself as a leftist. There's so much power for ill built into the political structures of the world so if we're going to deal with trying to fix those problems, we find ourselves in opposition to the systems themselves. I think if you're an artist, you're immediately put in a position of opposition to mainstream society, because you are trying to tell the truth."

That talent for creating art has been a continued feature of Cockburn's work through classic songs like "If I Had A Rocket Launcher" and "Call It Democracy" and it continues on his most recent release, 'You've Never Seen Everything' where he attacks the politics of greed on "Trickledown". When considering the American right wing he says, "What I see operating is a kind of an extreme degree of self-interest, often coloured by the language of faith or until the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the language of 'saving the world for democracy'. But it's transparently hypocrisy. These are people who claim that their faith is NOT political! But they're out there wrecking the world for a lot of other people, or supporting those actions on the part of their chosen leaders. I didn't do very well trying to be a fundamentalist."

But he has done a very effective job of commenting on issues and shining a light into some grubby places. But he has approached everything in a personal way. He explains, "Having reached the point where I recognised the relationship between faith and action, it just became necessary to talk about the things that I was moved by, and am moved by. I don't necessarily think of these things as political issues, but if you try to fix things in the world and alleviate the burdens that your neighbours are carrying, you invariably find yourself up against political processes. There's a reason why people are in the situation that they're in, and that's usually about someone else's money! So that brings politics into it."

If politics tries to dehumanise suffering by painting situations in broad impersonal terms, Cockburn's personal songs are an attempt to remind his listeners about the realities of human struggles. He explains, "Obviously my reactions to things are personal. The truth that I can offer in my songs is MY truth, MY understanding of what it is I encounter. If I try to go at it secondhand, or third-hand from something, it's not going to be as truthful because the experience is less direct. So with that in mind, everything becomes a personal issue. That's the value of offering songs about these kinds of things, that it is personal. I'm not interested in writing anthems for causes. I'm interested in communicating whatever is real. So if it's Guatemalan refugees, or landmines, Native American issues or whatever other things I've been involved with over the years, my involvement is personal and therefore, it gets reflected in the songs in a personal way. It's just to say, 'Hey look, this is how I see it. How do you see it? Think about it.' If people already feel a certain way about the issue, and the song reflects that, they'll embrace the song."

In the past Cockburn has gone on record admitting that he doesn't feel he's able to be an evangelist but hopes that an audience would see that Christianity is an alternative. He expands, "T-Bone Burnett and I were talking about this at one point, when we were working on one of the two albums that we did together. In the context of the US, it almost seems as if Christians.REAL Christians.should just stop calling ourselves Christians, because the term is so corrupted. This was during the first Bush's administration. As ever is the case, religiousness was being trotted out as a justification for all sorts of atrocious behaviour. So it was around that time.or maybe just before that, that one of their flaky guys, a flaky 'Christian' evangelist, ran for Presidency. He didn't get too far but you'd hear the term, 'Oh yeah, he's a born-again Christian,' and it would be used by people who had no idea what that meant. Who didn't even want to have an idea what it meant. But secular journalists for example.I would get described as 'a Born- Again Christian' with capital letters, as if that meant membership in some sort of social/political club. So how do you avoid that? I think I know why Bono for instance, has generally been reluctant to discuss his faith in the press or media situations, because of exactly that sort of thing. The people who are asking the questions don't know what they're asking. And the way they write about it, is all about the social context and not about the experience. So in order to avoid becoming yet another voice for that social phenomenon that already has too much social power, one has to stand back from pronouncement of one's faith."

'You've Never Seen Everything' is Cockburn's 27th album by his reckoning and his first post September 11th. What are his reflections of life after the terrorist strike? "The people who were running things are still running things. For the average North American, the only way in which we know that things have changed is that the US border's a little more active than previously, in terms of what you're confronted with when you cross the border. But no, I don't think the world has changed. Maybe what threatens to happen in North America, I suspect this might be true in Britain as well, is that out of fear, people are showing a certain inclination to let go of hard earned civil liberties. Things like freedom of speech and the right to be whoever you are, and associate with people of likeminded interests or ethnic background or whatever. There's a right to expect a degree of privacy in life. Those things are being invaded in the name of national security and a lot of people are going along with it unfortunately. But again, I think that process is just getting started. We haven't seen how far that's likely to go yet."

Is there a theme for the album? "Not a conscious one," he responds. "It's the usual hotchpotch of stuff! I went to Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago in connection with the landmine issue. There's a piece on the record called "Postcards From Cambodia" that pertains partly to that. There is one song that was a result of the events of 9/11 but not so much the events themselves, as the response to the events. Days after, maybe even the next day, there was Jerry Falwell and some other similarly notorious TV evangelist and his company on the TV screen. Jerry was looking at the camera and saying, 'Well you know that this terrible tragedy was caused by all you people who've had abortions and all you gays and lesbians!' To me, this puts him in the very same camp as Osama Bin Laden! Whatever we think of abortion or homosexuality, it was such a gross bit of fear mongering on the part of Falwell's own interests. This is a classic example of the misuse of faith in my book. So the song "Put It In Your Heart" is an attempt to respond to the haste in which people seem to be reaching for an 'us and them' attitude toward this tragic event. And an unwillingness to try and look at the actual causes of it, other than the personal decisions on the part of the perpetrators of course, which is outside of anybody's sphere. What created the conditions for which an act like that could be carried off. A lot of people in North America and in the US in particular, are not so interested in looking at that. That was especially true in the beginning but it becomes more true as people get nervous about what Bush is going to get them into."

Bruce has called himself a Christian for 25 years now and talked about faith being a journey. So how does he describe where he's at now? "I'm now at a point where it's almost impossible to describe!" He pauses to consider, "In a way it's like being back at the beginning where I'm forced to rely on oblique imagery to get at the real things. The sense of walking with God but when I hear that phrase coming out of my mouth, I can't imagine that anyone else hearing it is going to know what I mean by it! It's really something that happens from moment to moment and is so much bigger than the basic ingredients of daily life, and so much richer in a way. I only get glimpses of it and those glimpses are strong and tantalising. The sense of being in the company of God is continually growing. and I like it!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.


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