Bruce Cockburn

Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse
All Night Long
Circles In The Stream
Wondering Where The Lions AreBruce Cockburn Live
Lovers In A Dangerous TimeStealing Fire
Call It DemocracyBruce Cockburn Live
If A Tree FallsBig Circumstance
A Dream Like MineNothing But A Burning Light
Somebody Touched MeNothing But A Burning Light
Night TrainThe Charity Of Night
Pacing The CageSlice O Life
Put It In Your HeartYou've Never Seen Everything



Contributor: Andrew Shields

In the forty four years since the release of his first album, Bruce Cockburn, in 1970, Cockburn (who is one in a long line of fine Canadian songwriters going back to Hank Snow in the 1950s) has built up a remarkable body of work which establishes him, in my opinion, as one of the best songwriters of recent times. Throughout his career, Cockburn has also shown an enviable capacity to reinvent himself and to reinvigorate his music through drawing on an extremely diverse range of influences.

In his early career, his primary influences included folk, country, jazz and blues. My first selection here, Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long, with its Bessie Smithesque feel, is heavily influenced by the last two of these. Although it first appeared on Cockburn’s 1973 album, Night Vision, the version I have chosen to include comes from his excellent live album, Circles In The Stream, released in 1977. I have always liked the ‘late-night’ feel of this version and it also serves as an excellent showcase for Cockburn’s superb guitar playing. The song was also covered to very good effect by the Irish singer, Mary Coughlan, on her debut album, Tired & Emotional, in 1989.

My second choice, Wondering Where The Lions Are, was the first Cockburn single to graze the American charts. It was also an early indication of what might be described as the ‘spiritual’ dimension to his songwriting, a feature which was to become more pronounced in his later work. Unlike some other ‘Christian’ songwriters, however, Cockburn’s work lacked any trace of sanctimoniousness and he has always retained a keen sympathy for human frailty, in all its forms. Cockburn had also reflected on his embracing of Christianity in one of the best of his early songs, All The Diamonds, which first appeared on the album, Salt Sun and Time, released in 1974 and which I would have liked to have included here.

My next pick, Lovers In A Dangerous Time, is one of my favourite Cockburn songs. It also features, perhaps, the finest lyric that he has ever written. The album on which it appeared, Stealing Fire, was also an important turning point in his career. Unusually for a rock songwriter, he had always been deeply concerned with ethical issues and it was on this album that he began to apply these to political affairs on a broad scale.

Unlike many other North American Christians, however, Cockburn’s religious beliefs have inspired him to become involved in campaigns on broad issues – such as ones relating to social injustice, political inequality and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples around the world – rather than to focus on narrower questions of personal morality. Cockburn’s savage indignation against the injustices suffered by people in the developing world was, perhaps, best expressed in two of his most powerful songs. I have included the first of these, Call It Democracy, here. It is a devastating critique of the International Monetary Fund and is, perhaps, even more topical today than when it was first written. It is also the best (and, perhaps, the only) song about the IMF that I know of. The second of these songs, If I Had A Rocket Launcher, was written after he’d visited a camp for Guatemalan refugees who had fled to Mexico to escape the repressive military regime there. It is one of the angriest songs that Cockburn has written and it also reflected his frustrations with the lack of interest in the refugee’s plight in the West. Although I find it a very powerful song, it does lack some of the subtlety of his very best work and that is why (after a lot of consideration) I have not included it.

The song also reflected an unusual aspect to Cockburn’s songwriting – his keen interest in the histories and cultures of those countries that he visited and the sharp and observant eye that he brought to the songs that he wrote about them. Among the best examples of these types of songs were ones like Tokyo from his 1989 album, Humans, and The Mines Of Mozambique from The Charity Of Night CD, which was first released in 1996.

At this time, he also began to take a keen interest in environmental affairs (developing a close friendship with the Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki) and his fine song If A Tree Falls brilliantly expressed his concerns about the current state of the planet. It also deals with his pessimism in relation to the prospects of our changing course before this environmental damage becomes irreversible.In this period, Cockburn’s music also became looser and more experimental. He also began to draw on a wider range of musical influences, incorporating elements derived from reggae, African and Middle Eastern music into his work. At the same time, he also experimented with unusual rhythms (often jazz-influenced) and this aspect of his work can be seen here in songs like Night Train (which features some superb bass playing by Rob Wasserman) and A Dream Like Mine.

The latter song is taken from Cockburn’s excellent album, Nothing But A Burning Light, which was produced by T Bone Burnett and was first released in 1991. It is also one of his most accessible albums and includes several superb tracks, including the sardonic anti-Western ballad, Kit Carson, his great version of Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul Of A Man, and the fine ballads, One Of The Best Ones and Child Of The Wind, which could easily have been included here. However, my favourite song from the album, and, indeed, one of the greatest that Bruce Cockburn has ever written, is the shimmering and delicate Somebody Touched Me. While this could be taken as a love song, it seems to me to be more likely to be about his conversion to Christianity. If so, it is one of the best songs about this experience since Al Green’s great song, Belle. The song also features some typically superb guitar playing by Cockburn, who is well supported here by the great Booker T. Jones on organ and by T Bone Burnett himself on acoustic guitar.

Since Nothing But A Burning Light, Cockburn has made a series of remarkably consistent albums and I have included a number of the best songs from them here. He also continues to be an engaged artist, in the best sense of that word; that is, he remains one who is deeply curious about the world around him and he continues to take his responsibilities as an artist and as an engaged citizen seriously. He combines this, however, with an innate musicality and a self-deprecating wit which prevents him (unlike some artists we could name) from appearing either sanctimonious or bombastic. Now in his fifth decade in the music business, and as his most recent CD, Small Source Of Comfort, amply demonstrates, Bruce Cockburn continues to be an excellent songwriter and is well deserving of a place among the finest artists of the last forty years.

Bruce Cockburn official site

The Cockburn Project

Bruce Cockburn biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #209


  1. David Lewis
    Feb 27, 2014

    If A Tree Falls was a big hit in Australia, and the album was extremely good. A great artist. Great article.

  2. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Feb 27, 2014

    We recently saw Bruce Cockburn perform at Butchart Gardens in Victoria. He was superb as usual and played alone. Saw him a few years ago with a band behind him and then many times years before that. This is a fine representation of a large body of work and it is difficult to select his finest work. His releases are consistently excellent since his early days in Ontario. Thank you for an excellent presentation here.
    It would be very remiss of me not to mention Bernie Finkelstein in this context. Bernie has been instrumental in the success of the careers of many True North artists. While Bruce Cockburn has been at the forefront, others like Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Stephen Fearing (and many others) were also the beneficiaries of his continued leadership and wisdom. And we cannot forget the production, often by Colin Linden, for many of Bruce Cockburn’s albums. The community which surrounds Bruce Cockburn are stories within themselves. I highly recommend the Bernie Finkelstein autobiography as an excellent read to understand True North Records and what it has meant to Canadian music.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Feb 28, 2014

    Thanks for these comments and Jerry, thanks for the tip about Bernie Finkelstein’s autobiography. I have already pre-ordered Bruce’s own autobiography (Pacing the Cage) which is due out in May.
    Colin Linden appears in the Video above as does another great Canadian musician, the late Richard Bell – both men have also, incidentally, worked with The Band…
    (Watch out for Jerry’s toppermost on Colin Linden, coming soon … Ed.)

  4. Peter Viney
    Feb 28, 2014

    Linden & Bell were why I bought the two albums I have. Bruce Cockburn is a guy where the most frequent collocation in Britain is probably “Under-rated”. He connects to the Blackie & The Rodeo Kings Toppermost frequently and appears on their High & Hurtin’. On 1994’s Dart To The Heart, Colin Linden is on every track and assists on vocals, and Richard Bell plays piano. Produced by T-Bone Burnett. Engineered by Glyn Johns. Colin Linden produced Breakfast in New Orleans, which again features Richard Bell, and Lucinda Williams on harmonies on four songs and Margo Timmins of The Cowboy Junkies on Mango and Blueberry Hill. What’s odd is that I got both of those because of the Bell / Linden connection, enjoyed both, and never explored backwards (or forwards).

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