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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 Democracy."

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 same title.

"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 really disturbing.

"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 Syndicate

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