-- Personal: Human Rights/Politics --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on his personal political views and human rights.

  • 19 October 1984 - This is the Stealing Fire era and he's referring to writers noting his political stance

    It means they're taking note of what's being said," Cockburn says calmly. "It also suggests they weren't really taking notice of what was being said before, because there was a lot of political content in the earlier songs. though I have to admit the emphasis was different. I was more concerned with the interior workings and the effect of those things on the person. Now its the other way around-what can you do about those things?

    Referring to the writing of Rocket Launcher

    Aside from airing my own experience, which is where the songs always start, if we're ever going to find a solution for this ongoing passion for wasting each other, we have to start with the rage that knows no impediments, an uncivilized rage that says it's okay to go out and shoot some one."

    Referring to his personal attitude

    We've got to have hope. Otherwise you really won't survive very well, though each of us has to find our own thing to hope in. I hope in God, and as a result of being in Nicaragua, there's hope, or at least there's the possibility, that people can accomplish something-not anything perfect, but workable. For the first time in that country, I witnessed virtually a whole nation of people working together to better their situation, willing]y and in a spirit of commitment, a positive spirit.
    -- from "The Long March of Bruce Cockburn: From Folkie to Rocker, Singing About Injustice" by Richard Harrington, Washington Post, October 19, 1984.

  • 23 May 1985 - Commenting on the refugee camps

    Observing the horrors of refugee camps along the Guatemalan-Mexican border, he went back to his hotel room and cried and wrote in his notebook, "I understand now why people want to kill." Then he wrote "If I Had A Rocket Launcher".

    "The universe will continue to unfold regardless of what happens to the Sandinistas, or me and you, or Russia and the States," he says. "I also think that death isn't such a horrifying experience. It's like the ecstatic experiences - I think life is like that underneath it all. It's just too bad the rest of it keeps getting in the way."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn Launches a Hit - Fired by Christian pacifism, the Canadian singer targets new, worldwide success" by Steve Pond, Rolling Stone, May 23, 1985.

  • January/February 1985 - Commenting on putting his faith and political concerns together
    [Interviewer is Eunice Amarantides]

    EA: How did Christian faith and political concerns come together for you? Being a baby boomer, did you have your political proclivities established before your conversion?

    BC: No, not really. In fact, my baby boomer background made me uncomfortable and suspicious of political movements. I went to a few demonstrations but that was more out of curiosity than any kind of commitment. Although I agreed with the sentiments being expressed, the demonstrations didn't seem like they would have much to do with anything. Of course, time proved that they did change things.

    I saw that especially after going to Central America. The sixties had a ripple effect that showed people you could change the world. At least there was the possibility that people could accomplish something -- not anything perfect, but something workable.

    But personally I didn't get interested in politics until I started looking at what it meant to love my neighbor. I had always been a loner, and the concept of loving the people around me was a novel one. I'm still not sure I know what that actually means. But that was partly why I ended up moving to Toronto four years ago instead of living in a smaller town or in the country.

    In Toronto, I've made a deliberate effort to immerse myself in human society, a society I've never really felt a part of. And I've found a lot of good stuff. Part of that whole process has involved becoming more concerned about what is happening to the people around me.

    The trip to Nicaragua really clinched that. In Nicaragua I witnessed a whole nation of people working together to better their situation. In contrast, the Guatemalan refugees are the terrible but obvious outcome of a society where people don't have a voice. Seeing this made me realize why we had politics at all -- and why this is really worth working at.
    -- from "Singing in a Dangerous Time" by Eunice Amarantides, TheOtherSide,p.68, January/February 1985.

  • 1991 - Commenting on the aftermath of Chernobyl.

    "I arrived in Germany three days after Chernobyl happened, I had wrestled with myself about going to Europe at this moment but it seemed like it wouldn't matter, that stuff will get to you sooner or later. It was a very interesting experience and quite frightening in some respects - funny in others. The extremes governments went to in order to kind of suppress peoples anxiety about the whole thing became ridiculous. At first they're saying it's no problem those stupid Russians made a mistake but we've got it together. The next day they would say, well there's a little bit of a problem - don't let your kids play in the dirt. Then the next day - or a week later they would say, if you're a mechanic changing air filters in a car you should wear protective clothing and if you're a pedestrian, hold your breath when cars go by - because of the dust. It just went from the horrific to the ridiculous."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man" by Michael Case, Umbrella,1991, Umbrella Magazine.

  • 12 January 1992 - Commenting on visits to Guatemala refugee camps and Mozambique

    .. He recalls visiting the Guatemalan refugee camps in southeast Mexico in 1983, and how the villagers would scatter, fearing for their lives, at the sound of helicopter blades rising behind the lush forests.

    "These people were dealing with this fear every day -- Guatemalan helicopters would fly over the camps, maybe drop a bomb on them, or some soldiers would kidnap some of the refugees, take them into the woods and chop them up," says Mr. Cockburn. "You know the scene at the end of the movie 'Apocalypse Now?' That's nothing compared to what I saw."

    His experience in war-torn Mozambique inspired the same anger years later. "I was so enraged by what I saw there," he says. "You never knew where the Renamo guys (the principal insurgents in the country) were going to turn up next; they were vicious, vicious guys. The people were suffering so much. They were short of truck drivers and everything, and couldn't move anything over land. I was just mad enough to go, 'OK, give me an AK (assault rifle), and I'll ride shotgun for somebody.' But it was sort of a naive idea, really..."

    "It was a very sad, very beautiful country. And it's still just like that."
    -- from "A RISING NORTHERN STAR- Canadian Bruce Cockburn Wins More U.S. Converts" by Brad Buchholz, Dallas Morning News, January 12, 1992.

  • 3 April 1992 - Commenting on war, violence, and politics

    Had Cockburn been tempted, like Rimbaud, to put down the guitar and actually take up the rocket launcher?

    "No, actually," Cockburn said. "Whatever temptation I feel to be involved with that has more to do with fascination than frustration. The frustration I feel is the more honest -- well, not more honest, it's the more useful feeling, and that says to me that the solutions like the kind of response that 'Rocket Launcher' talks about are not the way to get things done. I mean, sometimes they're inescapable, but it's not a principle on which to act, really, for me, especially because it's not natural to me to do that. I'd just be another honky trying to get in on something, trying to give my life meaning, if I went and did that, and I don't have to resort to that to give my life meaning. But I have [supported] and will again support people in those kinds of positions who are doing that kind of thing because I don't think they have much choice sometimes.

    "But there is also something very attractive and fascinating about a war situation. That's why journalists become war junkies and why some military people become mercenaries when the war's over, because things are just so intense and immediate in the presence of that much death. The life that's going on around you becomes really intense and special in a way that normally is not. When I came back from Nicaragua the first time, and somebody was asking me about what it was like to come back from that -- I mean, not that I experienced anything so drastic and dramatic, but I was there where stuff was happening, had happened, would happen again, and surrounded by people to whom it was happening. It was just like coming from color to black and white to come back home after that. Things just didn't look the same. Nothing was the same after that. And when I went to Mozambique [in 1988], it was like that.

    "It isn't only the presence of potential violence, it's also the novelty of a situation that makes it like that, that sense of being on the edge, and the fear that nags at you. I've never been in a situation where I was directly threatened from extinction from bullets or anything, but I've been close enough to it where you have to go around with a certain edge of fear -- 'What's around the next corner?' And I guess that's the big thing that really heightens everything, that extra little shot of adrenalin that you live with all the time. Plus the fact that you know that the emotional contacts you make with people may be very short-lived. Everybody feels that in those kinds of situations, and there's kind of a shared warmth. It's like a massive shipboard romance.

    "All the other stuff just seems kind of unimportant, and whoever you're with at the time is -- I'm not speaking of sexual things, just of any human contact, just who you're with at the moment becomes very important to you, that contact is very important and immediate, and that's very attractive. So, if I were to go off and become a guerrilla, it might be falling prey to that kind of temptation more than the failure of reason."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest" , Goldmine, by William Ruhlmann, April 3, 1992, 1992 Krause Publications.

  • 22 November 1994 - Commenting on future political concerns

    It's tempting to try to make a generalization about it," he said. "I'm too inside my own thing to be that objective. But when you've been involved in (political themes) for a certain time, other things have been left unsaid. You address those (personal and inner concerns), and that will produce a little vacuum (of political expression) that has to be filled later on.

    Ten or 20 years from now the Cold War is going to look like a picnic," he said. "There are other ways it can go, but given the usual way we carry things off as human beings, it doesn't look very hopeful to me. It may not be too long before we see the fruit of the plutonium-smuggling trade. We may be in for some hair-raising times.
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: Interior Motive" by Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times, p.F-1, November 22, 1994.

  • September 1994 - Commenting on his faith and politics

    To me, politics is an external expression of something that people carry round in their hearts. The songs I wrote in the Eighties touched on issues because they had touched me personally, not because I had an axe to grind or an ideology. The songs in support of the aspirations of the Nicaraguan people, for example, were written because I was there and the situation touched me emotionally in a very personal way. There's no great difference between the mechanics for songs like that and for love songs.

    When I first came back from Central America, the media attention was quite intense. All of a sudden I was some sort of authority, because I was somebody outside the system who had stood up and said they had been there and seen what was going on. One acquaintance of mine was in favour of the dictator of Guatemala, who professed to be a born-again Christian and would deliver sermons on Sunday mornings exhorting the youth of the nation to behave themselves, practise chastity and what not. In the meantime, his troops were out in the bush slaughtering and torturing people by the thousands and doing unbelievable things. I had met several thousand of the victims of those things and knew damn well they were going on.

    But my acquaintance believed the hype that this was a good man supported by Christian groups. I explained what the guy was really doing, and the best he could come up with was: "Well, we have to stop Communism." Where is Christ in that? What a pathetic little god those people believe in that think he needs to be protected like that.

    I started losing some of my hardcore fundamentalist fans around the Humans album, which had a couple of cuss-words on it. I got some angry and disappointed letters asking, 'How can a Christian say that?' I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There's no response to that.
    -- from "Faith in Practice- Holding on to the Mystery of Love" by Bruce Cockburn (as told to Cole Morton), Third Way, p.15, September 1994.

  • 20 May 1996 - Commenting on politics in Guatemala

    You may try to be apolitical in Guatemala, but the politics is liable to come around in the night with a machete and take pieces off your body.

    Some of those (politically aware) people are a little disappointed, perhaps, with the current album," Cockburn admits. "But the things people call political'... were very personal statements.
    -- from "Cockburn's Quiet Passion", Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1996.

  • Fall 1997 - Commenting on music and politics
    [Interviewer is Bob Duran]

    Bob Duran: At the ceremony when you got your degree you gave a speech. I ran across it today on the Internet. You said, "I believed then and for a long time after, that music was somehow above politics, that art could be held separately from the rest of human affairs and we wouldn't be touched by the mundane machinations of government." What changed that opinion?

    BC: Well, life. The speech alludes to that too. Of course it's a whole bunch of things, mostly to do with experience. You see things and eventually even for the thickest of us, it sinks in after a while. You make connections. The point I was trying to make in the speech is that you can ignore whatever you want to ignore, but it will go on without you and will have an effect on you. The case in point I gave in the speech was: we could ignore Viet Nam and write of the actions of SDS and that sort of stuff as springing from a paranoid mentality, but in the end it effected people's lives whether you paid attention to it or not, like the guy (his bass player friend) who had to leave music school to enroll in barber college so he wouldn't get drafted. The war changed his life even though he didn't go to it.

    The point is that you have to pay attention. I learned that over time. You have to decide whether you want to take a stand or not. To me it's a legitimate decision if you decide to take a stance of non-involvement, but you it has to be a deliberate choice and you must realize the implications.

    For me, having a child, much later on of course, was a big step away from non-involvement because suddenly you have this kid that you've thrust into the world. And what kind of world is that? And what's it going to do to them? You start to notice, you know.

    My concerns (back then) were more internal and spiritual, in fact they still are, but I've learned that I have to also pay attention to what's going on in the world.

    BD: Do you feel a responsibility as a musician to include political content in your music?

    BC: I feel a responsibility as a human being to be aware of as much of the human experience as I can and to share as much of it as I can.
    -- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.

  • July 1999 - Responding to the question whether a period has begun of a less critical Bruce Cockburn he says
    [Interviewer is Gerard Vos]

    "For me it's important to remain sceptical towards human institutions, whether they are religious or political. It's extremely important to pay attention to the political arena. To pay attention to what people initiate together, this is the essence of politics. Politics is as much part of life as other things. The emphasis only changes from time to time. In writing, this emphasis changes in relation to my own experiences, depending on what I'm confronted with.

    Concerning songwriting, politics is less important, but this does not hold true in my daily life. I just came back from Cambodia and Vietnam in relation to the landmine issue. After all those years there are still landmines. These are ongoing issues that mean a lot to me.

    When I travelled around Central America, I continuously saw the disastrous effects of the Western monetary way on people. This produced the song Call It Democracy. I wrote that song to criticise the Western exploitation, and -- on the other hand -- to excuse myself from the enormous complicity and frustration.

    But that was then, I cannot continue to write the same songs. That same situation still exists, perhaps worsened".

  • Cockburn is animated, his face speaks of war. Has this involvement and anger cost a lot of energy?

    "Yes, anger can be effective when it is focused in an effective way on a certain goal. Otherwise it's a waste of time. Some say it's no use walking around angry, but I don't share that opinion. Even though I spend a lot of time in my life being angry, it works better for me if it means something.

    You only have to read the newspaper, on every page there is something which makes you angry."

  • About his own mindset Cockburn says

    "For me it's more important to see what anger comes to surface and to act accordingly. All those things which make you angry are also things that need healing. I always had the opinion that life is about learning and the growth in yourself. I don't feel I succeeded yet. It's an ongoing process. Sometimes nothing grows and at other times you feel it happen. This is one of those times that I feel it happen and I can say: it feels good".
    -- from "The Rage of Bruce Cockburn", by Gerard Vos, Platenblad, translated into English by Arjan El Fassed, July, 1999.

  • 10-17 February 2000 - Commenting on a series of landmine-ban concerts organized by Emmylou Harris he participated in

    "I believe each of us has a certain responsibility to make the world better than when we arrived in it. It's the old 'leave the camp-site cleaner than the way you found it' idea."
    -- from "The Good Fight, Politics, religion and music are a fine mix for Bruce Cockburn", Vancouver Sun, February 10-17, 2000. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • 3 August 2000 - Commenting that he's been happy to see growth in the progressive movement as expressed on the streets of Seattle, Washington, D.C., and now Philadelphia

    "It's overdue and welcome. The willingness to get out and be active is the most overdue and the welcome feature of all of that, regardless of point of view. The World Trade Organization stuff has made some strange bedfellows, but why not? It's a good thing whenever we recognize our common interests. The nicer thing would be if it works, and there's no evidence yet to say that it's working, but it's really necessary. There have to be some breaks on things."
    -- from "Canadian Singer/Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Inspired by 30-year Journey", by Pamela White, Colorado Daily, U. Colorado, August 3, 2000.

  • 16 October 2000 - Commenting on being called an "activist"

    "I'm honored to be asked to share the stage to help celebrate here," explained Cockburn, after being introduced, "In the media when I am interviewed they say I am an activist because I sing certain songs - that is if they are polite they call me an activist - sometimes they just call me an a**hole. To me an activist puts their life on the line or at least their livelihood on the line for what they believe in. I'm not an activist, I'm a songwriter. I get to sing songs about people and issues and human experience. That's where my songs are coming from..."
    -- from the Institute for Policy Studies', 24th Annual Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, 16 October, 2000. Transcribed by Ruth White.

  • 3 March 2001 - Commenting on the sudden realization that much of the world was skewed and cruel

    "Growing up in Ottawa there may have been Native kids in the school, but I didn't know them. There were people with feathers in the history books, but that's it. When I started travelling out West I started meeting these folks and hearing their stories and thinking, 'I don't want to be part of this. I don't want to be the inheritor of this history.' The other big factor at that time was the birth of my daughter, which caused me to look around at the world she had come into and think, 'It's not fair not to do anything about this.' "
    -- from "The Witness", Saturday Night Online, March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.

  • 26 January 2002 - When asked, What motivates you politically?

    "There's nothing wrong with living a comfortable life. But if you're going to live a comfortable life, we should allow our neighbours to live one as well. So, ethically, a lot of my songs kinda start someplace like that. What does it mean to love your neighbour? You can't really care about them if you watch them starve and bomb them."

    [Pressed, he says he feels] "..obliged to resist the need for orthodoxy in myself and in the world at large. Dogma sucks." [ he offers, with the first laugh of the afternoon.]

    "I don't have very high expectations of humanity. But I like to take a realistic view of what we're capable of in any direction, from human suffering and cruelty to incredible courage and loyalty. It's a big fluid jigsaw puzzle and being a part of that is endlessly interesting in itself."

    No melancholy ever?

    "Ah," he says with a little nod of his head. "I'm very attached to melancholy. I'm kind of a melancholy addict."
    -- from "The journey is what I'm interested in", The Globe and Mail 26 January 2002, by Sarah Hampson.

  • 27 March 2002 - Commenting on when he jumped on the political bandwagon

    vI wasn't that young. It was all around me in the '60s, protesting the (Vietnam) war. I went on one of the big marches on Washington in '65, I think. I went because my friends were going, I was extremely cynical."

    "I didn't think there was anything that could really be done about it. I thought the idea that the CIA was spying on students was paranoid raving, which history would, like so many things, prove true. Step one in my political education."

    Commenting on the influence of earning money

    "In the '70s I was travelling around Canada and started to make more money. In a funny way, it was the first big paycheque I got that turned me around.

    "I thought, 'I don't really need as much money as I've just been handed,' so my conscience told me to put that money somewhere useful."
    -- from "mouth that roared: Bruce Cockburn says he's not an activist but a concerned voice", Edmonton Sun, 27 March 2002, by Fish Griwkowsky.

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    Issues Index

    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.