But what about those songs that didn’t make the top ten albums? Are there any gems in those other albums that you might want to listen to? Well, as a matter of fact there is.
Once again I am joined by my good friend Peter Heath.
Peter: Even though I have always appreciated Bruce Cockburn’s work and count him as an influence in my own attempts at songwriting, to be honest it has been a while since I really dug into his catalogue. Working with Mike on these blog posts has challenged me to review his catalogue in depth – the parts that have always resonated with me as well as portions that I haven’t paid as much attention to. In particular, I have been digging into his 21st century albums with more intentionality than ever before. And so, lest we think of the man only as a historical figure, I would like to shine a light on some worthy songs from the last 30 years of his career (let’s pause and consider how mind blowing that statement is). But that said, I first want to visit three songs from the first 20 years.
Dweller By A Dark Stream (Mummy Dust 1981)
Dweller is Cockburn’s clearest articulation of his faith in Christ, and for that reason it is one of my favourites. Musically it is pretty straightforward (not to be confused with being boring or poor quality) and fits well with the electric direction he embarked on in the early 80s. Lyrically, the first verse stakes out his theme with almost unusual clarity.
It could have been me put the thorns in your crown
Rooted as I am in a violent ground
How many times have I turned your promise down
Still you pour out your love, pour out your love
Those lines wouldn’t be out of place in any contemporary Praise and Worship song, which is kind of surprising for Cockburn. But then the chorus pivots into a unique way of expressing our lostness without Christ and the gift we have:
I was a dweller by a dark stream
A crying heart hooked on a dark dream
In my convict soul I saw your love gleam
And you showed me what you’ve done
Jesus, thank-you joyous Son
All The Diamonds (Salt, Sun and Time 1974 )
Diamonds is another clear articulation of faith, but this time Cockburn brings all the power of his poetic capabilities to the task. This song is full of metaphor and marine imagery describing a life left behind. So what changed? The “gull chased ship” has got to be symbolic, right? He then departs his nautical theme for a single couplet that drives home the point with as much clarity as this crafty songwriter wants to provide, if you want to follow:
Two thousand years and half a world away
Dying trees still grow greener when you pray
What a fascinating way to describe the New Life.
Musically, this may be the single most elegant, delicate (but not weak) and beautiful song in Cockburn’s entire catalogue. The guitar work alone could make you weep.
Stolen Land (Waiting For A Miracle 1987)
The original was a funky number (what? Bruce Cockburn funky?) that bore the musical influence of Hugh Marsh, Cockburn friend and collaborator on multiple albums. (Check out the violin solo at the end of Loner, that is Marsh at his best.) And it was good and you could actually dance to it, but then Cockburn went on a solo tour in 1999 and figured out how to play this song with nothing but a bodhran (a Celtic drum) and a Bo Diddley beat. There is no way this should have worked, but it ended being better than the original. Lyrically, Cockburn tackles First Nations land claims and pulls no punches on what has happened and where we are now (“Stolen land — but it’s all we’ve got; Stolen land — and there’s no going back … So now we’ve all discovered the world wasn’t only made for whites, What step are you gonna take to try and set things right”). This issue is real and it is more complex than I thought it was 30 years ago. But that last question in the lyrics is still something to ask ourselves.
Mike: Well before you continue on with the rest of your song list, let me jump in with a couple of observations.
Dweller by a Dark Stream and All the Diamonds were both at the top of my list of songs not on the top ten albums. Both would also be on my top ten list of all Cockburn songs if I had one.
Stolen Land didn’t grab me the way it grabbed you though I agree that the message is important. The glacial pace of land claims settlements has been atrocious. Some have dragged on for over 100 years. (I am speaking of the Canadian experience here as that is what I am most familiar with.) Let me tell you about a similarly themed song that did grab me.
Red Brother Red Sister (Circles in the Stream 1977)
This song resonated with me much more as to the plight of the First Nations in Canada for a couple of reasons: Musically Cockburn was able to weave in a native chant into the song which really carries the song along. The lyrics are quite biting and he doesn’t hide his disgust that Christianity, and the name of his Saviour was used to propagate injustice.
Went to a pow wow, red brother
Felt the people’s love/joy flow around
It left me crying just thinking about it
How they used my saviour’s name to keep you down
I had to think. Does injustice bring me to tears? If not, why not? What am I doing about it?
I really appreciate how Steve Bell has taken up the torch in speaking up for indigenous people?
Before you move on to some of Bruce’s later works, I had a few other favourites of my own from his earlier days that I wanted to mention.
Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon (Album: Bruce Cockburn 1970)
This is a song that has really resonated with me throughout the years. Hard to believe that Bruce’s self titled first Album was launched 50 years ago. The refrain is a prayer “Oh Jesus, don’t let Toronto/Tomorrow take my love away.” It is a simple song that any young student of guitar could play, which is maybe what drew me to it in the first place. I liked the classic descending bass line, perhaps the only time that Bruce used one is his vast discography. And for a time, that prayer became my own.
Joy Will Find A Way (Album: Joy Will Find A Way 1975)
Along with Festival of Friends, this is another song I would like played at my funeral/memorial service. It is a short song about dying, but the refrain “joy will find a way, joy will find a way” is a reminder to me that we have a hope that extends beyond this mortal coil. I know that I can be a downer at times as I “kick against the darkness”, but ultimately I would like to be known as a person of joy. I am just not sure that I am quite there yet.
Coldest Night Of The Year (Album: Mummy Dust 1981)
Mummy Dust was his first compilation album, and Coldest Night of the Year was one of two new songs on the Album. The Album is highly recommended if you want to get a sense of some of Bruce’s earlier works. It didn’t make our Top Ten album list simply because we excluded compilation albums. Coldest night of the year is another song that reflects back on his marriage breakup.
I was up all night, socializing
Trying to keep the latent depression from crystalizing
Now the sun is lurking just behind the Scarborough horizon
And you’re not even here
On the coldest night of the year.
Scarborough was the municipality that the other parts of Toronto turned their noses up at, and nicknamed it Scarberia. Using Scarborough in conjunction with “coldest night of the year” conjures up an image of desolation. But he isn’t talking about physical temperature here, he is talking about the coldness of a missing relationship. Ironically, Scarborough contains one of the prettiest parts of the city. Walking along the Scarborough bluffs overlooking Lake Ontario is a wonderful way to spend a summer afternoon. If you were wondering about the significance of the picture accompanying this post, well, now you know.
Santiago Dawn (Album: World Of Wonders 1986)
Santiago Dawn was another song that I found absolutely mesmerizing, and I played it on repeat over and over. Bruce sets aside his guitar in favour of a Charango, a small mandolin sized instrument traditionally made in South America from the shell of an Armadillo. I find that Cockburn is at his best when he is telling a story, and this song is no exception. Here he writes about the Chilean death squads that had been terrorizing the country since 1973
Something moves in the still dark hours
Sunday in a shanty town
Eyelids open two by two
But not a single light goes on
Tension builds as the only sound
Is the quiet clash of metal and boots
And now and then an order barked
At the bullies in the drab green suits
Military thugs with their dogs and clubs
Spreading through the poblacion
Hunting whoever still has a voice
Sure that everyone will run…
The interplay of the higher pitched Chirango, representing the hopes and dreams of those living in the shanty town, with the thump of the bass drum, representing the oppressors, is extremely powerful. Written at the same time as the Stealing Fire Album, this song is different in that it resolves with hope for an end to the tyranny.
I got a dream and I’m not alone
Darkness dead and gone
All the people marching home
Kissing the rush of dawn
I know that Santiago Dawn makes your list of top songs as well Peter. I think you are a little more familiar than I am with his more recent albums, so why don’t you tell us what has stood out to you that hasn’t already been mentioned.
Closer to the Light (Dart To The Heart 1994)
Peter: Thanks Mike. A few years after I discovered Bruce Cockburn I bumped into Mark Heard, an American folk-rock singer-songwriter-engineer-producer. He was the only songwriter I know of that can match Cockburn’s poetic abilities; Heard was also amazing on acoustic guitar and mandolin. (Dig up his albums Eye of the Storm and Second Hand.) Tragically, Heard died of a heart attack in 1992 at the age of 40. A lot of people were shocked and saddened at his passing, including Cockburn who composed Closer To The Light as his tribute. So, it comes as no surprise that this song appears on my list, but it is also a fantastic song giving voice to deep mourning while desperately holding onto a Hope that evidently didn’t feel hopeful at the time (“another step deeper into darkness, closer to the light”). The music and lyrics fit so well together, communicating the melancholy of that moment with depth and beauty. By the way, this song was covered by Steve Bell on his album My Dinner With Bruce – three of my favourite songwriters tied together in one song.
Last Night of the World (Breakfast in New Orleans 1999)
One of Cockburn’s gifts is taking a seemingly mundane moment in life, linking it with other moments that may or may not appear to be related and pulling out a thread of significance most of us would miss. Last Night Of The World is like that – a 3AM drink, a fruit fly, tires hitting potholes, bar-throb bass and laughter … a burden, a day when we’re pried loose … all building in a seemingly random way to the last verse:
I’ve seen the flame of hope among the hopeless
And that was truly the biggest heartbreak of all
That was the straw that broke me open
These lyrical considerations ride on top of an insistent, yet somehow playful acoustic guitar (note the thrumming on the low E string which is a common element in Cockburn’s playing)
The verses occupy a small range in Cockburn’s lower vocal range, then the chorus rises with both voice and guitar and the question, “If this were the last night of the world, what would I do, what would I do that was different?” The answer for Cockburn is a little surprising (make sure you check it out). But in many ways the question is enough. Isn’t that something we should all ask ourselves?
Open (You’ve Never Seen Everything 2003)
Most of my comments in these posts have focused on lyrics. And lyrics are a big deal, there are lots of popular songs (and popular people) that say many words without saying anything at all. Lyrics are most effective when they are carried well by the music, often focused on Cockburn’s guitar work (and rightly so). This song is a little different. The lyrics are great, offering a vision of openness of spirit in opposition to too much striving for balance. But I really enjoy the way the whole band builds the music together. The drums and bass advance and recede in perfect waves. Sarah Harmer’s backing vocals punctuate the message. Hugh Marsh’s violin sings in anticipation and continues in counterpoint that complements the melody superbly. A little triumph for teamwork here, especially for a “loner” like Cockburn.
See You Tomorrow (Life Short Call Now 2006)
Longing and expectation crash into each other at high speed in the propulsive second song of Life Short Call Now. So naturally, Cockburn starts this song relating a bizarre interaction with a gun runner in the 60s! The point of that is how he “liked the thought of living that guilt-free” which then runs headlong into the real point of the song – how you can handle the pains and restrictions of life when you know something amazing is just up ahead.
40 Years In The Wilderness (Bone On Bone 2017)
Starting off with deliberate thoughtfulness, this song finds Cockburn at another moment of decision. He cleverly plays with some key Biblical images of different people hitting decision points – Israel chooses fear and gets 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus chooses fasting for 40 days and nights before starting his public ministry, Esau tragically chooses his stomach, Philip chooses a random direction from an angel and helps birth the African church. Cockburn’s own decision? Play it safe, stick with what you know, or launch into something new. You get the sense from the song that he will choose the new, even at age 70. The musical setting is relatively simple, which matches the title and theme very well. The backing vocals are provided by some of the singers from his church in San Francisco; they lift the song into a loveliness that Cockburn’s own earnest singing cannot often attain.
Bardo Rush (Crowing Ignites 2019)
Finally, the lead song from Cockburn’s latest album Crowing Ignites which was released just last year. That means Bruce is north of 70 now and can still compose and play inventive, driving instrumentals like this one with just his acoustic guitar. In other words … dude still got chops!
Mike: Thanks for joining us Peter. It has been great to look back on all this music with you. I should mention that the thing that inspired this series was Peter nominating me in a Facebook post of his most influential albums. I declined, but it got the wheels churning, and I proposed this idea back to Peter. It has also certainly brought back memories of some of our own adventures together. A veritable cornucopia of “the best stories come from bad decisions!”
We will leave that for another day.
As always your thoughts and comments are welcome!