Bruce Cockburn: Rediscovering His Muse

by Steve Houk

After wondering if he’d ever write a song again, one of the most enduring and contemplative singer-songwriters of our time delivers more brilliant music.

Even the word “prolific” is an understatement for rare artists like Bruce Cockburn.

The thoughtful, brilliant Canadian singer/songwriter just released his thirty-third record, Bone On Bone, another superb piece in a magnificent career that has spanned fifty-plus years. And at the age of 72, Cockburn — who was just inducted into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame this past September alongside Neil Young – shows no signs of burning out or fading away.

But a few years ago in a rare twist of almost-tragic fate, Cockburn found that writing songs for a new record, which would be his first in seven years, wasn’t coming so easy. His mightily abundant supply of songwriting chops went momentarily dry after he exhaustively poured all of his creativity and energy into his 2014 memoir, “Rumours Of Glory.” Stunningly, he wasn’t even sure he would write another song.

“When I came out of writing my book, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna write anymore songs because it had been so long,” Cockburn said as he embarks on an extensive US tour which brings him to The Birchmere on Tuesday, November 14. “It had been four years since I wrote a song, so I wondered if I still knew how to do it. [Writing the memoir] was more work than I expected, and all the creative juice I had went into the book, I wasn’t prepared for it. So at the end of all that, it was like, ‘Well, maybe I’m gonna be a songwriter again, maybe I won’t.’ I was hoping I would be, I was hoping that I would write more songs, ‘cuz in my gut I didn’t feel like that was over. But I also wondered if it’s really meant to be that I should be doing something else. It wasn’t a negative feeling, really, it was just kind of a question.”

Cockburn credits inspiration from an unlikely source, in the form of a surprising request from a legendary fellow Canadian, for getting him back in gear.

“I got an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary film that was being made about [Canadian poet] Al Purdy,” Cockburn said. “It just seemed like a gift. Here’s this guy who wants me to write a song, and I don’t even know him. And over the years I’ve done very little writing on demand like that, because it’s the opposite of how I normally operate, but in this case, the idea of writing about Al Purdy seemed like a good thing. The offer was wide open, it was like, ‘Well, you can take Purdy’s poems and set them to music,’ which would be very difficult because they’re not that kind of poetry. Right away, I got the idea, the image came to me, of this homeless guy who is obsessed with Al Purdy and rants his poems out on the street. The song just went from there. It was like, ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a 20 dollar bill.’ And what would this homeless guy be saying when he wasn’t ranting Purdy poetry? So ultimately, it’s a question of looking around for things.”

And given Cockburn’s lifelong passion for activism, it was also the new regime in the U.S. that helped rejuvenate his need to express himself through song.

“I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with anyone in the past year that didn’t mention Donald Trump. Right now, as a nation, the U.S. is polarized and so fragmented. Everybody’s just in shock, ya know? But when I write, it’s not that intentional…or deliberate…I just react. When I write a song, its because I got this idea. An idea comes, and I think I can run with it, and that’s what I try to do. So, it’s not like I sit around thinking, ‘How do I express how disturbed I am at what’s going on in the United States?’ But once the ball was rolling, it just kept rolling.”

The songs from Bone On Bone have that extraordinary depth and thought and complexity that are staples of Cockburn’s work. Take the breakdown of his process for writing the catchy but startling “Stab At Matter,” for example. It’s a description which opens a window into how Cockburn often comes up with themes for his often miraculous music.

“The original Stabat Mater is a Latin hymn from the 1300s or earlier, maybe the 1100s, it’s ancient,” Cockburn passionately describes. “In Latin, ‘Stabat Mater’ means basically that the ‘Mother is standing’ or ‘stand there, Mother.’ It’s really about Mary standing at the foot of the cross, watching her son die. It intrigued me, so I started obsessing over the phrase ‘stab at matter’. It just seemed to offer all kinds of possibilities and what came out was what you hear. It’s the destruction of ego, or the inevitable destruction of the stuff we surround ourselves with, depending on how you wanna look at it. It’s based on the notion that you don’t grow very far spiritually without getting your ego heavily in check. You waste a lot of energy, we all do, when being attached to things that do get destroyed. Or that just have their deaths built in. So it’s kinda getting free of all that. I don’t know why it took that musical form, the words just seemed to want that.”

Cockburn credits the intense experience of writing his memoir for providing the basis for “States I’m In” which, along with a nod towards his disdain for the current administration, is also deeply personal.

“I don’t think there would have been a song like ‘States I’m In’ without having written a book. You’re standing back, taking stock, and it gave me a sort of perspective on things. In a certain way, ‘States I’m In’ is a sort of encapsulation of the whole book. The song itself is not entirely autobiographical, I’ve never been a card shark. But it represents places I’ve been in myself and in the exterior world also. From being in war zones to watching beautiful sunsets over the Pacific. The sun going down in the West, over the ocean, is perhaps the most current thing in there. The sense of the divine creeping up at the end, welling up. The whisper that has all that power at the end of the song. You could see the song as a depiction of the dark night of the soul, in a metaphoric way. It starts with sunset and ends with dawn.”

And as far as his induction into the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame, Cockburn was ushered in with a memorable speech by fellow CSHOF member, the legendary Buffy Saint Marie. “Buffy made the most lovely introduction to me that appeared to be just off the cuff and went on at some length longer than I thought she would, but she was great. It felt good to hear all that, and to have her do that.” Being who he is, Cockburn is typically humbled with the honor, but admittedly also very thankful for the welcome affirmation of his exceptional five decades of musical masterpieces.

“It means very little to me that I actually have an award per se. I don’t collect those things on purpose. But the best thing about it is that it’s a measure of how much attention people have paid to what I do, and I really care about that. That’s really the compliment in there. That’s the positive reinforcement, which is very strong. I really appreciate that people have been listening and have attached importance to what I do. Not every artist gets that. So I’m grateful for that.”

Bruce Cockburn performs Tuesday, November 14 at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets, click here.

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