Acclaimed singer-songwriter and Canadian music icon Bruce Cockburn is many things.
A skilled guitarist. A natural wordsmith and prolific lyricist. An experimenter of folk, rock, pop and jazz. A spiritually minded creative.
But if you ask the Ottawa-raised performer, he’ll likely tell you he’s merely a vessel: a man with a guitar trying his best to convey the human experience one melody at a time.
“An artist’s job is to distil what you can grasp from life into some communicable form and then share it with people; and life includes all of these different things: sex and politics and violence and love and the divine,” Cockburn said in a recent interview.
“I mean, it’s all in there, so why not sing about it?”
Now marking 50-plus years in the industry with an anniversary tour in Canada and the U.S. — including a stop at Peterborough’s Showplace Performance Centre on Tuesday — Cockburn is reflecting on his decades of work and his celebrated catalogue.
It all started with an old guitar.
At the age of 14, Cockburn discovered the stringed instrument in his grandmother’s attic.
He was transfixed.
Already enamoured with early rock and roll, the avid sci-fi reader and lover of poetry put down his clarinet and picked up the guitar.
“I understood that whatever my life was going to be about, it was going to revolve heavily around the guitar,” Cockburn said.
His parents supported his dreams — with a few conditions: take lessons and don’t grow sideburns or wear a leather jacket.
“I didn’t know if I had a knack for it or not. I just knew I wanted to do it and, in taking lessons, I progressed. By the end of high school, there was nothing else I wanted to do with my life except play guitar,” Cockburn recalled.
Immersing himself in his early musical influences — from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to Mississippi John Hurt, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry — Cockburn went on to join a string of bands in Ottawa and later Toronto before releasing his debut self-titled album in 1970 — marking the beginning of his illustrious, genre-bending career.
He went on to release a slew of albums that decade — continuing to explore themes of spirituality while shifting to politically-charged songwriting and a fuller sound with tracks like “It’s Going Down Slow” on his third album, Sunwheel Dance — culminating in the watershed 1979 album “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.” The album featured Cockburn’s breakthrough song “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” which saw his popularity surge south of the border.
“I never thought of what I do as a career and I’ve never made plans around it. So when something like that comes along, I’m grateful for it, but it’s not like ‘finally, I’ve got to where I needed to go.’” I just never think about it.”
With the release of “Stealing Fire” in 1984, Cockburn put out two of his most beloved and well-known songs, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and the politically driven “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”
Cockburn recalls having second thoughts about releasing Rocket Launcher, a track he penned after being shaken by the turmoil faced by Guatemalan refugees in southern Mexico.
“I thought it would be misunderstood. I thought people would hear it as something that was an incitement to violence and I didn’t want to put that out.”
But Cockburn understands the lasting impact of the song — despite “never being that interested in protest songs” — and how music is interpreted with the passing of time.
“When I sing it now, I know people are hearing it in light of what’s going on in Ukraine. I don’t want to promote that kind of feeling particularly although I feel it too,” Cockburn said.
“What’s going on there is horrible and it should never have happened and the people responsible for it should be held to account. But we’ve got to get over the knee-jerk response that goes with violence and we have to get off that train somehow.”
Looking back, Cockburn says his exploration and progression as an artist has allowed him to avoid being placed in a genre-specific box.
“People would say, ‘oh yeah, he’s a Christian singer, oh yeah, he’s a political singer, and then after a while I think most people have given up now because they don’t know what to call me because it’s all over the place.”
Peterborough concertgoers attending Cockburn’s 50th anniversary tour can expect a mix of fan-favourite staples and newer material, including tracks from his 2019 instrumental album, “Crowing Ignites.”
As for what’s next for Cockburn, he already has close to an album’s worth of new songs that he hopes to record soon.
“I don’t take it for granted. I don’t assume that the ideas are going to keep coming. But as long as they do, I hope I can keep on making use of them.”
Brendan Burke is a staff reporter at the Examiner. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brendan Burke, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Peterborough Examiner