HomeMusicBruce Cockburn, Canada's Forgotten Singer-Songwriter

Bruce Cockburn, Canada’s Forgotten Singer-Songwriter


When the singer-songwriter faculty took form on the shut of the Sixties, two expatriate Canadians, Joni Mitchell and Neil Younger, rose to the top of the category. Attempt to title one other Canadian from the singer-songwriter motion. You could provide you with Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot. If you’re an precise Canadian, you could even keep in mind Bruce Cockburn.

It isn’t that American listeners do not know Cockburn. They do, principally as an impassioned, Reagan-era peacenik. He broke by means of in 1979 with “Questioning The place the Lions Are,” a reggae-inflected slab of campfire music that reached No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. The attendant album, Dancing within the Dragon’s Jaws, hit No. 45 on the album chart. Cockburn’s different massive hit got here 5 years later with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” a starkly political track that redefined him as a musical activist.

Within the States, at the least, Cockburn bloomed remarkably late. Dragon’s Jaws was his ninth studio album, launched practically a decade into his solo profession. The primary eight offered properly in Canada however barely registered beneath the border. A few of his greatest early works noticed no U.S. launch till the late Nineteen Eighties. “There have been one or two radio stations within the States that had been enjoying my stuff, regardless that it wasn’t out within the States,” Cockburn advised AllMusic. “One was within the Denver space, one was in Santa Rosa, one was up round Seattle. The place they had been enjoying the information, individuals responded to them.”

However these individuals had been few. Right here, then, is an outline of 5 basic Cockburn albums, beginning at the start and ending together with his industrial breakthrough.


Bruce Cockburn, 1970.Bruce Cockburn

Cockburn’s solo debut arrived within the heady yr of Tea for the Tillerman and Candy Child James. It’s a typical artifact of its time, most of it recorded within the dude-plus-guitar format as a easy songwriting showcase.

Born and raised in and round Ottawa, the Canadian capital, Cockburn “spent the second half of the ’60s, mainly, out and in of a bunch of various bands,” enjoying lead guitar and keyboards, singing principally backup. “The bands went from being type of people rock-like to being R&B to being psychedelic,” he recalled. “We opened for Wilson Pickett, we opened for Cream, we opened for Jimi Hendrix. I needed to kind of be like Frank Zappa. It by no means actually fairly gelled.”

By the point Cockburn left the final of the bands, he recalled, “I might in all probability written 100 songs. Of that hundred, there have been possibly twenty that had been price singing in entrance of individuals. I discovered that I preferred them extra enjoying them alone.” The opening monitor on Bruce Cockburn, “Going to the Nation,” established Cockburn as a songwriter able to McCartney-caliber melodicism. It is a good looking, fingerstyle efficiency, harking back to early Donovan and the quieter bits on The White Album.

“Ideas on a Wet Afternoon” is a beautiful, waltz-tempo track, deceptively easy, but revealing a depth of compositional talent and instrumental virtuosity: Cockburn briefly studied at Berklee College of Music. He knew jazz chords. “Man of a Thousand Faces” and “thirteenth Mountain” present Cockburn already experimenting with world-music hues, planting delicate melodies atop ringing, open chords, sounding alternately medieval and modernist.

“I made a aware effort to keep away from listening to different singer-songwriters altogether,” Cockburn recalled, “as a result of I did not need to sound like every of them.” He made an exception for Joni Mitchell, queen of the realm. Epic Information launched Cockburn’s debut within the States to little fanfare. “Somebody held it out the window and dropped it,” he recalled. Unique U.S. copies gave the album’s title as True North, which was, in reality, the title of Cockburn’s Canadian label. It did not promote beneath both title.


Excessive Winds, White Sky, 1971.High Winds White Skies

Nobody bothered to launch Cockburn’s second LP within the States. It was even higher than the debut, a rare show of songcraft. “One Day I Stroll,” the only, rivals “Going to the Nation” as an ideal melodic confection, as beautiful as something on McCartney’s better-selling album of that yr, Ram.

The title track and “You Level to the Sky” invoke basic British people. “Love Music” and “Pleased Good Morning Blues” are heat, virtuosic hearth songs. “Let Us Go Laughing” unfolds like slightly guitar symphony, virtually acoustic prog.

On this period, Cockburn recalled, “I listened to Renaissance music and ethnic music from all around the world. I used to justify it by way of rising up Canadian. English Canada does not have any custom. It has a hodgepodge of different individuals’s issues.”


Sunwheel Dance, 1972.

Sunwheel Dance

Cockburn’s second and third solo albums mark his singer-songwriter peak. To belabor the Joni Mitchell analogy, they’re his Blue and For the Roses. Any severe fan of the style ought to personal them each.

The duvet of Sunwheel Dance footage the artist with John Lennon glasses, shoulder-length hair and maybe a month’s price of beard, meditating on his fingernails in a darkish room. “I am sitting within the kitchen of my dad and mom’ farm,” he recalled.

Cockburn opens the album with “My Girl and My Lord,” one other fingerpicked marvel that Macca might need written, had he adopted the careers of Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy slightly extra intently.

Sunwheel Dance brims with musical ambition. The second minimize, “Ft Fall on the Highway,” begins as a lilting fingerpicker, then opens up right into a rhythmic folk-raga jam. “Fall,” a mystical waltz, brings a fascinating Center-Earth stoner vibe, the kind of sound Led Zeppelin might need attained, had they ever slowed down. The title track is a finger-picked tour de power.

(Cockburn’s vocal and instrumental melodies appear largely interchangeable: His instrumental leads are strikingly melodic, whereas his vocals typically counsel the rhythmic cadence of a guitar.)

Cockburn explores the slide guitar in “Up on the Hillside,” British people with “Life Will Open” and “When the Solar Falls,” and full-tilt American rock with “It is Going Down Sluggish,” an early foray into politics. He revisits the campfire with “He Got here from the Mountain,” constructing as much as a climactic spiritual-folk epic, “Dialog with the Satan.”


Within the Falling Darkish, 1976.In the Falling Dark

Cockburn’s fourth LP, Evening Imaginative and prescient (1973), exhibits additional musical evolution and does not fall far in need of the primary three in songcraft. It is extra playful, too: Take a look at “Mama Simply Desires to Barrelhouse All Evening Lengthy.”

Not till 1974 did Cockburn draw his first, transient protection in Rolling Stone, the bible of American rock. He wasn’t touring the States, had launched solely two U.S. albums and remained just about unknown. But, he was persistently promoting 30,000 to 40,000 copies of every album in Canada, sufficient to qualify for the occasional gold document.

Cockburn lastly cracked the border in 1976 with Within the Falling Darkish, ringing up important U.S. gross sales. The document accomplished his transition to a full band. The opener, “Lord of the Starfields,” is a wonderful slice of non secular pop: Cockburn got here out as a Christian round this time. It ought to have been successful. “Within the Falling Darkish” is a plodding rock epic, the kind of track that may now be dubbed slowcore. “Water into Wine” is a sometimes melodic instrumental. “Silver Wheels” is one other radio-friendly pop confection, a tour-bus travelogue that evolves from a easy fingerpicked guitar determine right into a polyrhythmic jam, full with a free-jazz trumpet solo. It would match properly in a playlist with Merle Haggard‘s “Silver Wings.”


Dancing within the Dragon’s Jaws, 1979.Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws

I hesitate to suggest Dragon’s Jaws, which charted strongly within the States, over Additional Adventures Of (1978), which did not. Dragon’s Jaws is the higher album, however Adventures options a number of killer songs: “Rainfall,” a spiraling acoustic masterpiece; “Laughter,” a good looking meditation on love and a “kid’s first cry”; “Feast of Fools,” one other slow-cooking epic; and “Can I Go together with You,” one other non secular pop hit that wasn’t.

Dragon’s Jaws could also be Cockburn’s greatest album. It is actually the songwriting equal of Excessive Winds and Sunwheel Dance. It sounds just like the work of a distinct artist.

Cockburn had launched a stay album, Circles within the Stream (1977), to leverage his new continental forex. Circles “was a recording of my first tour with a band as myself,” he recalled. “I put that band collectively as a result of I used to be getting bored with my very own firm. I needed enter. I needed the vitality of different individuals on stage. As soon as I had the band, it kind of modified the final course of issues.”

For Dragon’s Jaws, Cockburn wrote a full album of polyrhythmic acoustic songs and offered them with a band, his sinewy solo figures dancing atop a virtuosic ensemble, equal elements pop, jazz, people and reggae.

“I had been listening to Bob Marley and actually loving reggae within the ’70s,” he recalled. Cockburn had began listening to pop music once more, primarily “the Intercourse Pistols and reggae.”

Eventually, Cockburn had a very good document deal within the States and an business champion, Don Ienner at Millenium Information. “And he was going round chumming as much as the deejays and resorting to methods,” Cockburn recalled.

“They went to a radio station within the Midwest, rented a lion, confirmed up on the station with the lion on a leash, and scared the bejesus out of everyone there.”

“Questioning The place the Lions Are” was successful. It did not sound that far faraway from the rhythmic acoustic pop Cockburn had been recording over the prior decade: however this time, radio listeners heard it. The singalong refrain was irresistible.

Elsewhere on the album, Cockburn flirts with precise dance music on “Creation Dream.” On “Badlands Flashback,” he turns in one other fingerpicking masterclass – in French, no much less. “Northern Lights” picks up the tempo, even breaking into double-time on the bridge. On “Incandescent Blue,” a sympathetic backing band places good accents on Cockburn’s acoustic rhythms.

Dragon’s Jaws turned the start line for many of Cockburn’s U.S. listeners, which explains why few of them regard him as a singer-songwriter.


I personally found Cockburn within the late ’80s through the double-disc compilation Ready for a Miracle, which collected his singles from 1970 on. For weeks after the acquisition, I reveled in a way of discovery, enjoying and replaying acoustic gems I by some means hadn’t heard earlier than. I by no means actually obtained previous the primary disc.

As we speak, Cockburn qualifies as a forgotten hero of the singer-songwriter period. When it comes to U.S. album gross sales (virtually none), he ranks with such uncared for greats as Judee Sill and Nick Drake. In contrast to them, Cockburn and his works have but to seed a dramatic rediscovery, the sort that evokes field units and documentaries.

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