Cockburn sticks to causes for 'The Charity of Night'
August 25, 1997
Web posted at: 11:04 p.m. EDT (0304 GMT)
By Jon Matsumoto
It's not always easy being a politically oriented singer-
songwriter. Just ask Bruce Cockburn, the veteran Canadian
artist best known for socially conscious songs, including "If
I Had a Rocket Launcher," "If a Tree Falls" and "Call It
Over the past three decades, Cockburn's political songs have
inspired and moved countless listeners worldwide. But his
left-leaning material has also caused others to dismiss the
52-year-old Toronto native as an annoying and humorless
symbol of political correctness.
In Canada, Cockburn and his St. Bruce image have even become
targets of a television comedy troupe called This Hour Has 22
Minutes, seen on a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. show with the
"The comedy stuff doesn't bother me," Cockburn says. "It's
kind of like, 'Where did they get that from?' I've seen (the
television spoof) once or twice. I don't know if I get as
much of a belly laugh out of it as other people. But it's not
"It does bother me when (criticism) comes out in the form of
media comments. Like people disregard what I have to say
because of this or that stereotype. Nobody likes being
reduced to a stereotype, me included."
On the front lines
It's hard to doubt Cockburn's commitment to the causes he
champions. He's no arm-chair liberal. Liberation songs such
as "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and "Nicaragua" were penned
as a result of numerous trips the artist took to war-torn
areas in Central America during the '80s.
"The Mines of Mozambique," a new track from his latest, "The
Charity of Night" album (on Rykodisc), came about after
Cockburn witnessed firsthand the land-mine problem that's
plaguing the African nation. He's part of a Canadian
organization that's working toward a worldwide ban of the
sale of land mines, which also have taken a human toll in
strife-afflicted areas such as Cambodia.
"The Charity of Night" has a sharper political edge than his
"Dart to the Heart" album (1994), which ranks as one of
Cockburn's most personal and least topical efforts. But
Cockburn insists that all his songs reflect deeply personal
emotions and attitudes.
"I didn't sit down and read about land mines in a magazine
and go, 'OK, I think I better write a song about land
mines,'" he observes. "The song came from being in Mozambique
and feeling what I felt. It's every bit as personal as (songs
viewed as nonpolitical). They're all (about) things I've been
touched by directly in one way or another. The things that
people think are political diatribes are my reactions to what
I'm encountering. It's the same as a love song."
More to the artist
Cockburn is a far more complex artist than his more visible
political profile might suggest. His 23 albums are sometimes
heavy with songs exploring romantic, spiritual or
philosophical issues. For example, the new track "Pacing the
Cage" is a melancholy number that seems to be about artistic
frustration as well as a larger disenchantment with life in
general: "Sometimes you feel like you've lived too long/Days
drip slowly on the page/You catch yourself/Pacing the cage."
His religious beliefs also have caused some listeners to
misinterpret who Cockburn is and what he stands for. A
leftist Christian who smokes cigarettes and is involved in
recreational firearms, the itinerant troubadour seems
unafraid to march to his own beat.
"Fundamentalist types who hear one or two songs and think I'm
suitable material (for them) get awakened," he says. "They
(eventually) hear me cussing in the songs, taking positions
they don't share. Then there's a tendency by some people to
write me off as a religious songwriter of some sort."
A mostly reflective work with heavy folk and jazz elements,
the 67-minute "The Charity of Night" finds Cockburn
collaborating with a number of noteworthy artists. Patty
Larkin and Jonatha Brooke sing background vocals on a handful
of tracks; Bonnie Raitt contributes some sensual slide guitar
work to the contemplative "The Whole Night Sky"; and Bob Weir
and Maria Muldaur can be heard harmonizing.
His core band of drummer Gary Craig, bassist Rob Wasserman
and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton provides both sturdy
support and musical invention. Burton, in particular, brings
a sense of cool drama to the album's noir-ish soundscape.
DiFranco lends voice
Cockburn was particularly eager to get acclaimed folk
iconoclast Ani DiFranco involved with the project. DiFranco
was willing to participate but was unsure whether she would
be able to find the time to sing on the album. By sheer luck,
the two artists ran into each other while Cockburn was mixing
"The Charity of Night" in New Orleans.
Co-producer Colin Linden, engineer John Whynot and Cockburn
"decided to take a break, and we went to this little coffee
shop in the French Quarter," Cockburn recalls. "We were
sitting there, and Ani walks in. She was on her way back to
New York from Austin and decided on a whim to go to New
Orleans. Once we got over laughing at each other, she came
over and sang on (a) track. She said, 'I guess I'm supposed
to be on this record.'"
Because of the devout fans surfing Cockburn sites on the
Internet, the musician says, he's learned to vary his shows
from night to night. "It's challenging because I do use some
of the same lines" in between songs during concerts, says
Cockburn, who does not own a computer. "I get self-conscious
about using them on consecutive nights. You become very aware
that (some fans) are sharing this information (on the
Internet). You try to keep the show from being exactly the
same. There's always a slight variation in the songs we play
for that reason."
(c) 1997, Jon Matsumoto. Distributed by Los Angeles Times