-- Songwriting/Influences: Early Years --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the early years of his songwriting.

  • Circa 1991 - Commenting on early influences and the continued focus of his music

    "What made me want to play music was the original rock-n-roll and it was Dwayne Eddy, Buddy Holly, The Ventures and Elvis at that time. Once I started playing and taking a lot of lessons I discovered a lot of other things I hadn't thought of like Jazz and Blues and Country."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man," by Michael Case, Umbrella Magazine, circa 1991.

  • 3 April 1992 - Commenting on his early influences and progression of musical career

    "I liked rock 'n' roll from the very first moment I heard Elvis Presley," he is quoted as saying in his Columbia Records press biography. "It caught me in a big way."

    Cockburn had tried playing trumpet and clarinet, but now began taking guitar lessons and playing the piano. "I started out playing guitar because I wanted to play rock 'n' roll, basically," he said in a recent interview. Cockburn played in Top 40 bands in high school and "fell in with some folkies." In the 60's, he was a street musician in Paris, but also picked up formal training by attending the Berklee School of Music in Boston, studying composition and arranging. "The guitar style I've been using ever since developed from all these influences," he said.

    At the same time, his musical tastes continued to expand. "I discovered other kinds of music, jazz and what-not," he recalled, "and I thought I might want to do that, but when I actually got down to studying it, I discovered I didn't really want to work that hard, and in the meantime I'd been learning to fingerpick, playing ragtime, country blues and stuff."

    The major rock artists of the 60's influenced Cockburn's lyrical bent. "I always loved the poetic use of words," he said. "When I first heard Bob Dylan and John Lennon, it was revealed to me that you could put poetic words with music."

    After Berklee, Cockburn returned to Ottawa, where he played in a succession of rock bands, such as the Esquires and the Children. No released recordings resulted from these associations, though there were some attempts made.

    "There were some demos, but nothing that was ever intended for release," Cockburn said. "Probably all the bands I was in, with maybe one exception had demo tapes made. One of them even tried to get a gig doing a commercial for Salada tea, without success. But we had a song called 'Tea Freaks Blues' that we used to do that was written for this tea ad campaign that was far too weird for Salada tea. Which is just as well, 'cause I don't think I wanted to get into the advertising world anyway."

    At the same time, Cockburn was beginning to gain a reputation as a songwriter, leading to at least one recording of his work that he could recall. "There's an album that was recorded by a Canadian group called Three's A Crowd, I believe on Fantasy Records, but I'm not absolutely certain of that," Cockburn said. "It was produced by Mama Cass, and it had at least two of my songs on it and some co-written with another guy named Bill Hawkins that I used to work with in Ottawa at the time. They did a song of mine called Bird Without Wings. There's also a song that's erroneously credited to me that Bill Hawkins wrote, which I think was 'Cotton Candyman.' This was '68, around that time, and the album would be a very obscure addition to anyone's collection at this stage."

    Soon enough, Cockburn himself turned to the idea of recording, though not in the rock band format. "By '67 I had a little body of work that I'd written, some of which was specific to the various bands, but some of which transcended the limitations of those bands and stood on their own," he explained, "and I discovered that I liked all those songs better when I just played them by myself."

    The move toward a solo, acoustic approach was in keeping with the temper of the times at the end of the 60's, which saw such performers as Neil Young and James Taylor turning away from playing in bands to make folkish music.

    "There was a general feeling of exhaustion in the air anyway, with the psychedelic scene and all that, which I felt, the same as a lot of other people did," Cockburn said. "And I thought, 'Betcha there's a lot of people that would like to hear songs with just voice and guitar right about now.' So, I went solo, and it took me another year or so to extricate myself from the band involvements. I had been doing the odd solo thing through that period anyway, and started concentrating on that in earnest, and it wasn't all that long before I got an opportunity to record.

    "Initially, I wanted to record because I wanted to forget those songs. I felt choked up. I'd written all these songs, and I wanted to put them out in front of people and then get on to writing other ones, naively, of course, because I didn't have any idea that once you recorded a song that's what people wanted to hear then, but I found it out quick enough."

    Cockburn got the "opportunity to record" through a combination of associates in Toronto in 1969. "It was a fortuitous circumstance that around the time I was getting really desperate to record I ran into a guy that I'd known from another rock band that was playing in bands the same time I was, named Gene Martynec. We started talking about doing this. The band he'd been in had broken up, and he was interested in getting into other things, and he wanted to try producing records. So, we started talking about that, and he knew Bernie Finkelstein, who wanted to start a record company. So, the three of us got together with converging intent, and that was the first album, and the beginning of True North records. True North is still the label I am officially connected to; everything else is a distribution deal of one sort or another."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest" by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine, April 3, 1992.

  • 6 October 1995 - On wanting to be a Rock 'N' Roller, being inspired by Dylan & the Beatles, then getting into writing songs in the 60's

    "I wanted to play rock and roll when I started playing. Nobody at that time ever thought about songwriting. You sang songs, that's all. You sang other people's songs. That's all there were."

    Then toward the end of his high-school days, he was whomped up the side of the head by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

    "I'd always loved poetry and I'd always loved writing music and composing music, but I hadn't thought of putting the two together until around that time.

    "The second half of the '60s really was a kind of learning period, in terms of writing, for me. I did a lot of writing for a lot of different kinds of bands that I was in and out of during those five years and... that left me with a little body of songs that I liked better when I played alone, so I ended up going out solo and very soon... made my first album."
    -- from "Cockburn's Convictions Bring Him to Verde Fest as Well," by Salvatore Caputo, Staff writer, The Arizona Republic, October 6, 1995, Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.

  • Circa 1999 - Regarding his beginnings in the field of music

    "My interests moved around a lot in the early days, covering all kinds of genres." He adds, "The Bobs – Dylan and Marley both - really had an impact on me. And before that, I was listening to a lot of jazz, like Coltrane, I looked to John Lennon, and blues artists like Mississippi John Hurt. As far as the guitar goes, the first Elvis records really got me going. It’s so hard to name off artists who’ve inspired me to push forward, I never know what to say. And the answers always change because in different periods of my life, I was listening to all types of music. I like everything from the Talking Heads to the Pistols to Keith Jarrett."

    But where did all that inspiration come from?

    "I would definitely say that the mentor that made the most impact on me, at a young age, was a man that I worked with in private study," revealed Cockburn. "He was an organist at a local church. His name was Peter Hall. We used to listen to jazz records and he would encourage me to explore more music. I had listened to jazz some before that, but he really introduced me to some more obscure, and deeply affected music. Lyrically, I would have to say Bill Hawkins, a poet. He was sort of like an invisible partner on my earlier work."
    -- from "Walking the Line With Bruce Cockburn",, circa 1999, by Heidi Drockelman.

  • 26 January 2002 - Commenting on the influence of writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in adolescence

    "I liked that alternative world-view and the way in which those writers were both ostracized and yet a part of mainstream society. I kind of wanted to be like that. Then I got into mysticism."
    -- from "The journey is what I'm interested in", The Globe and Mail 26 January 2002, by Sarah Hampson.

  • September 2003 - Commenting on the language of Jazz

    Acoustic Guitar: Did you learn the language of jazz, the theoretical side of it?

    Bruce Cockburn: I studied it. That's what I was doing at Berklee, among other things, because I thought I wanted to compose jazz music for big bands. I studied as much theory as they were able to pack into the couple years I was there, but in the end it wasn't where I wanted to go. I just never related to ii—V's. The kind of harmonies and harmonic structures I was learning were interesting, but they weren't absorbing. What drew me was a kind of harmonic structure that relied less on chord motion and more on, well, the way Indian music relates to the tonality. In Indian music, everything is measured according to its distance from the tonic, and I understood that far better than how to make chords out of scale tones. I learned that, but it didn't touch my heart the way that other, more linear music did.

    AG: Did you ever feel that you had to unlearn jazz theory in order to write the songs you wanted to write?

    Cockburn: I never felt like I had to unlearn anything because I never felt like it made that much of an imposition. I valued what I absorbed from Berklee mostly for the spirit of music there, partly because of the school and its courses and partly—maybe more so—because of the company I was keeping and the fact that everywhere you went, you heard music all the time. If I walked down the alleys, I'd hear people practicing. The jazz guys were exploring Eastern music for the first time, and that captivated me right away. And that was when Hendrix came along. He was obviously listening to some of that too, so there was an immediate kinship with what he was doing, and aspiration of course, because I wasn't doing anything nearly as interesting.

    AG: What led to your collaboration with pianist Andy Milne for the two songs on the new record [You've Never Seen Everything]?

    Cockburn: My friend [violinist] Hugh Marsh, who is very much in evidence on this record and who played with me a lot through the '80s, called up one day and said, "There's this guy Andy Milne, and he's doing pretty neat stuff and wants to meet you." Soon after that we went to New York and Andy came to the gig and introduced himself, gave me a couple of CDs, and said he was interested in collaborating on some songs. The stuff he gave me was amazing. I'd been having this big, long dry spell, and I thought, "This is a gift, a chance to try something I've never done to a significant degree—collaborate with somebody else as a songwriter—and this is going to break the dry spell." We got together, and I had some lyrics that ended up becoming "Trickle Down," but the first thing we worked on was "Everywhere Dance," which we just started from scratch. Andy had a lyric idea, I just started writing stuff, and it immediately went left from where his idea was going, so there's not really a trace of his lyric idea left in the song. He put music to it, and that was it.

    AG: So the harmonies on that came from piano; they don't sound like something a guitarist would come up with.

    Cockburn: No, but it works great on the guitar. This is the wonderful discovery, because when I first heard it, I thought, "This is a song that I co-wrote that I'm never going to be able to play!" But in fact those harmonies fall naturally on the guitar. It was an interesting experience working with him. He's a very talented guy, and his band [Dapp Theory] is so different from anything I've ever worked with. They don't play anything in 4/4 time—everything is in five or seven or 11.

    "We did do a version of my song "Let the Bad Air Out," which they kindly did in four so I could play it. But it was a great learning curve. His band consisted of the standard rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums, plus a female vocalist; a harmonica player, Grégoire Maret; and a rapper named Kokayi. Kokayi improvised parts to Trickle Down," that don't appear on my record—his presence didn't really work with my approach to the tune. In the original version [for Dapp Theory's CD Y'all Just Don't Know], it's half me singing and half Kokayi rapping. []

    AG: Grégoire Maret's harmonica parts are so light and beautiful on this record. They remind me of Wayne Shorter's playing with Joni Mitchell.

    Cockburn: He is a beautiful player. He's got incredible ears. He just listens and finds the right place to go in with these not necessarily obvious notes. He sort of is to Toots Thielemans what Wayne Shorter is to Ben Webster. He's got that command of the harmonica, but he plays in a much more modern way than bebop style.

    -- from "Traveling Light Bruce Cockburn enlivens his new songs with forays into electronica and modern jazz," Acoustic Guitar, September 2003, by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers.

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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.