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Bruce Cockburn

One of Canada's greatest singer/songwriters, Bruce Cockburn has won international acclaim for his insightful songs of emotional honesty and social significance in a career that's lasted well over five decades. While usually lumped in with the contemporary folk and singer/songwriter communities, Cockburn's sound encompassed elements of blues and world music on early efforts like 1971's High Winds White Sky and 1973's Night Vision, and the gentle blend of folk and jazz on Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws won him his first significant audience outside his homeland. Cockburn's progressive politics came to the fore on 1984's Stealing Fire with songs like "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," as well as a stronger rock influence, and these themes would become a major part of his work, extending to 2003's You've Never Seen Everything and 2011's Small Source of Comfort. Cockburn is also celebrated for his skill as a guitarist, and he's matured into an éminence grise of Canadian music. 2023's O Sun O Moon shows that he hasn't stopped writing graceful, challenging songs of the heart, the soul, and the conscience. Bruce Cockburn was born on May 27, 1945 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where his father was a doctor specializing in radiology. He grew up in the suburbs of Westboro, and in 1959 he rescued an old guitar from his grandmother's attic and began teaching himself to play, strumming along to songs on the radio. When he started taking guitar lessons, his instructor told him his old instrument was severely lacking, and Cockburn moved up to a Kay archtop. Eager to know more about music, he took lessons from the organist at his church, who taught him to play keyboards and introduced him to basic music theory. Cockburn developed an interest in jazz and composition, and after he completed high school, he spent some time in Europe, supporting himself as a busker. Between 1964 and 1966, Cockburn studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, but after three semesters he dropped out and returned to Ottawa, where he joined a band called the Children. He drifted in and out of several bands between 1967 and 1969, including the Esquires, the Flying Circus, and 3's a Crowd, while also playing folk clubs as a solo act. In 1969, he struck out on his own as a full-time solo artist, and booked a main stage appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival, Canada's most prestigious folk event. In 1970, a new Canadian label, True North Records, released Cockburn's self-titled debut album. That same year, he wrote and performed three songs and the instrumental score for the film Goin' Down the Road, a landmark drama which was named one of the Ten Best Canadian Films of All Time in a Toronto Film Festival poll. 1971's High Winds, White Sky, 1972's Sunwheel Dance, and 1973's Night Vision followed in quick succession, and Cockburn won the Juno Award for Best Folksinger three consecutive years, from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, Cockburn experienced a spiritual awakening and became a Christian, and spiritual and ethical themes would become increasingly common in his work, as well as the concept of social action (in particular on the issues of human rights and environmentalism), though he avoided writing about the specifics of his faith. After years of being little more than a cult figure in the United States, Cockburn enjoyed a breakthrough with 1979's Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws; it included the song "Wondering Where the Lions Are," which became a hit single in the U.S., peaking at number 21 on the pop singles chart. The success of the tune helped earn him a spot as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in May 1980. Cockburn's next album, 1980's Humans, was informed in part by a painful divorce, and saw him taking a more aggressive, rock-oriented musical approach. He reinforced this creative shift on 1981's Inner City Front, and after visiting Central America as part of the international humanitarian aid organization Oxfam, he became an outspoken advocate for the Third World. Political themes were a major part of 1984's Stealing Fire, which produced the single "If I Had A Rocket Launcher," which became a hit despite its uncompromising themes. The complexity of both politics and love informed 1986's World of Wonders, and after struggling with a case of writer's block, he rebounded in the early 1990s. Producer and songwriter T-Bone Burnett, who shared many of Cockburn's spiritual views and political concerns, was at the controls for two albums, 1991's Nothing But a Burning Light and 1994's Dart to the Heart. A number of noted Canadian artists paid homage to Cockburn on the 1991 tribute album Kick in the Darkness: Songs of Bruce Cockburn. The opening track was a cover of "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" by Barenaked Ladies, which became a hit in Canada, reaching No. 16 on the pop singles chart. And in between the two albums with Burnett, Cockburn issued a seasonal album, 1993's Christmas, which became a Yuletide classic, going on to go platinum six times over in Canada. Cockburn eased back on the rock-oriented sounds of his work of the 1980s and early '90s on 1997's The Charity of Night, which included guest appearances from Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco, Jonatha Brooke, and Patty Larkin. His next studio effort, 1999's Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu, produced another Canadian hit with the song "Last Night of the World." In 2001, Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, with another iconic songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, presenting him with the honors. Emmylou Harris, Sam Phillips, and Jackson Browne made guest appearances on 2003's You've Never Seen Everything, and 2005's Speechless was an all-instrumental set that gave Cockburn a chance to show off his gifts as a guitarist. 2006's Life Short Call Now was an elaborately orchestrated collection of songs produced by John Goldsmith, while his next studio project, 2011's Small Source of Comfort, was an all-acoustic LP, featuring a small group led by producer Colin Linden. In 2014, Cockburn published his autobiography, Rumours of Glory, and concurrent with its arrival, True North released an epic-scale, career-spanning box set, also called Rumours of Glory, which featured 117 songs on eight CDs along with a DVD of Cockburn live on stage. Writing his memoirs left Cockburn with another case of writer's block, and it wasn't until 2017 that he completed his next studio album, Bone on Bone; inspired in part by the celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy, the sessions were once again produced by Colin Linden. Shortly after its release, Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside fellow tunesmiths Neil Young, Stephane Venne, and the members of the rock band Beau Dommage. Cockburn revisited the Speechless album with 2019's Crowing Ignites, another instrumental album focusing on his stellar guitar work. 2023's O Sun O Moon was an intimate and contemplative effort divided between personal and political themes; Shawn Colvin, Sarah Jarosz, Buddy Miller, and Allison Russell contributed guest vocals.
© Mark Deming /TiVo


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