Cockburn’s songs an antidote for troubled times

Published May 1, 2003


“What’s been done in the name of Jesus
What’s been done in the name of Buddha
What’s been done in the name of Islam
What’s been done in the name of man
What’s been done in the name of liberation
And in the name of civilization
And in the name of race
And in the name of peace!
Everybody loves to see justice done on somebody else.”

– “Justice” by Bruce Cockburn

I have been thinking a lot about world peace lately, which is not surprising in this time of war.

I’ve thought about how this war has happened. Where should I stand on this issue?

After teetering on my own ethical, decision-making precipice in recent weeks, I have gotten some clarity, thanks to Bruce Cockburn.

Cockburn is one of my favourite musical artists. However, the recent arrival of six of his earlier albums – In The Falling Dark (1976), Further Adventures Of (1978), Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws (1979), Inner City Front (1981), The Trouble With Normal (1983), and Bruce Cockburn Live (1990) – in beautiful reissues with booklets and bonus tracks reminds me of what makes him so very special.

So, that is what I have been doing for the last while – rediscovering these gems – many of which I have not listened to since “vinyl times.” I am again struck by the intertwined gifts of his song craft. For more than 30 years, he has combined the four key skills of a great musician – powerful lyrics, a distinctive voice, tuneful melody-writing craft, and true virtuosity on his instrument – like few others.

That he does so with an articulate and fervent faith in God is a true bonus for the Christian listener.

It is a neat flashback to hear him as acoustic folkie of the mid-1970s, his worldwide hit Wondering Where The Lions Are from 1979 and his music of the early 1980s when, as a university student, I truly first discovered him. The real gem is his live album which I listened to regularly in its original form even before this half-dozen CD treasure pack arrived in my mailbox.

[pullquote]However, more than anything else, I have been reminded of what Bruce Cockburn’s music does for me: it makes me think and it makes me feel.

Lots of people, things and stimuli can make you think. Similarly, there are people, things and stimuli that can make you feel. Cockburn and his music can make you do both on a very deep level – and that is his rarity and his great worth to humanity.

Of course, one would assume that Cockburn’s politically charged work of the mid-1980s would be the catalyst to thinking about the current world climate.

However, only one of these six deluxe reissues is from that period. (To be fair, though, the live 1990 album does contain such tracks as Call It Democracy, Nicaragua, and If I Had A Rocket Launcher.) Rather, the whole Cockburn canon includes songs which make one reflect on world peace, assert the dignity and worth of every human being, lament war, and indict warmongers.

Back on the infamous 9/11, a terrorist attack took the lives of thousands of innocent people; it was a tragedy no matter how you look at it. However, it gave rise to a righteous indignation in the west that has caused some questionable leaps of logic and blaming. Anger against a small fundamentalist politico-religious movement was the reason for attacking the entire country of Afghanistan. Now, the sphere has broadened, and Iraq is the target of the day. Furthermore, several countries – ours included – seemed to have been grudgingly brought into the quarrel.

What is wrong with this picture?

On the title track of one of the albums I received, Cockburn sings, “What did they think the politics of panic would invite” Person in the street shrugs “Security comes first.” But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.? He still sings the song regularly in concerts today, and he introduced it in a summer 2002 concert by saying, “This is an old song that seemed timely when I wrote it and unfortunately it still does.”

Again, Bruce Cockburn has made me think, and he has made me feel. He has given me clarity in my convictions, and spurred me on to love more deeply, pray more earnestly, and speak out more boldly. I thank him, yet again.

Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain and Biology Lecturer at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University. He regularly writes on popular music and religion for The Daily Gleaner.


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