-- Songwriting/Influences: Literary --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on literary influences on his songwriting.

  • March 1977 - Commenting on the song Vagabondage
    [Interviewwer is Hugh Richards]

    HR: "Vagabondage" is all sung in French...

    BC: ...sort of French, yeah.

    HR: Your albums have French translations, but this is the first you've ever sung in that language.

    BC: Well, I would have done it sooner if I could have, but that's just the first time that I've been able to write in French. Not that my ench has improved so much, but it's the exposure to the work on the translations over the years with Marcel Mousette. But for that particular lyric, if you'll notice, there's a little credit for a guy named Blaise Cendrars who's a French poet from around the turn of the century and the early twentieth century. A contemporary of Hemingway, and people like that -- sort of the 1918 Paris scene. He was one of the Vagabond poets, only a modern-day one, and he write some really fantastic stuff. I came across a book of his things, with the French on one side and the English on the other. They were good translations done by competent poets. I didn't actually steal whole lines, or that, but I took enough out of it -- imagery out of his poetry -- that it became necessary to include his name on it.

    HR: The translation, "Drifting," somehow lacks something when it's not in French. The word "drifting" is only part of what the word "Vagabondage" represents.

    BC: Vagabondage. Well it means "bumming" but I didn't like the word "bumming," you know, in that context. I just ended up with that word because I couldn't think of anything better.

    HR: You said you captured images from Blaise Cendrars.

    BC: Partly because of the Blaise Cendrars poetry. The images were there, a lot but not all, but it started me. Sometimes with images, well, you look at a French word and if you translate it into English it comes out as an incredibly beautiful image. Like in "Vagabondage" for instance, "compass card" which is "rose de vents," in French meaning rose of the wind. What a beautiful image, but you have no way of knowing the fact that it's beautiful in English makes it also sound beautiful in French. So that's what has to be checked out. I've had some real clunkers that way.
    -- from An interview by Hugh Richards "Cheap Thrills" March 1977. Submitted by Dave Hedenstrom.

  • 2 November 1981 - On the writer Charles Williams, whose ideas became part of Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws, and other Christian writers

    Q: Can I ask a follow up question to that? On Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws in the liner notes, you mentioned a writer...

    BC: Charles Williams...

    Q: Yeah, who influenced the content of that album. Who was he and what does he write about.

    BC: It's hard to describe succinctly what he writes about, but he was a friend of... well, quite a major influence on C.S. Lewis and somewhat less of an influence on J.R. Tolkein. He wrote an awful lot of work, but what is available now is seven novels and a book of poems and one theological book.

    Q: What kind of influence did that have on the album?

    BC: Nothing really direct in that I took his ideas and used them on the album, but he has a really interesting... well, I'm inclined to say unique, but I'm not sure that's so... an apparently unique view of life and his ability to describe sort of transcending his experiences in very vivid terms is really something.

    Q: Which could be said about Dancing In The Dragon's Jaws...

    BC: Well, if you're going to say that, that's a great compliment. It's that aspect of Williams that really affected me.

    Q: Follow up on that: what are some other religious writers that have influenced you and your work?

    BC: Thomas Merton... C.S. Lewis... some old guys who I don't even remember all the names... sort of a sketchy survey of early Christian writings...

    Q: A lot of people have been talking about a lot of musical influences and other writers. I've noticed that in your lyrics, you're really careful with your lyrics, they're really poetic. I'm wondering if there are any poetic influences or what your background is writing? How important is that to your music?

    BC: It's quite important, actually. There's a lot of that. I've gotten more directed... from poets more than from songwriters. Initially I listened to people like Dylan and John Lennon, and that was a big source of motivation to get writing in the first place, but ever since I discovered T.S. Elliot in high school I think I've been wired to poetry. Elliot would be one... sort of as an original influence... But really, a lot of different people, again. Alan Ginsburg is one, William Burroughs, even though he's not a poet... the whole beat scene had a profound effect on me, actually... at a formative stage in my life.

    Q: Have you ever read any William Everson?

    BC: No, I know that name.

    Q: He was Brother Antonius, who was a part of the beat scene...

    BC: All those French Poets, Rambeau and a guy named Blaison Dryer* was a fantastic influence. He's not as well known...

    *Editor's note: It should be noted that the name "Blaison Dryer", which appears in other Internet incarnations of the Wolff interview, is probably a mistranscription. Wolff noted in his introductory comments that it was difficult to hear at times, so it follows Bruce was most likely referring to Blaise Cendrars, an easy mistake to make, if you try saying the two aloud. Thanks to Dave Hedenstrom for submitting the quote that cleared this one up.
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn Interview, Old Waldorf, San Francisco," transcribed by Charles Wolff, from a tape of an interview with Bruce Cockburn on November 2, 1981 at The Old Waldorf, San Francisco, CA.

  • Circa 1986 - Commenting on writer Charles Williams

    "Expanded horizons- first tours outside of Canada - Japan, small club circuit in Northeastern U.S. Was told I must be the reincarnation of Kenji Miyazawa, a fine Japanese poet. Sounds good from my end, but what bad things did he do to deserve me? Also was introduced to the work of "Christian" writer Charles Williams, a contemporary of and influence on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. These influences are all over the albums from this time."
    -- from World Of Wonders Tour Program, circa 1986. Submitted by Rob Caldwell.

  • 12 January 1992 - Commenting on the occult and writer Charles Williams

    "My experience with the occult (in the late 1960s) was a transitory flirtation", says Mr. Cockburn. He was strongly influenced by the spiritual imagery and insights of evil provided by novelist Charles Williams, a member of an English writers' circle that included C.S. Lewis. "But after a couple of years, I sort of decided I'd had enough of that. I just didn't like what it did to people. It was kind of like cocaine for the spirit."

    "It wasn't all worthless. It wasn't all negative. But it was very unhealthy spiritually, I think."
    -- from "A RISING NORTHERN STAR-Canadian Bruce Cockburn Wins More U.S. Converts" by Brad Buchholz, Dallas Morning News, January 12, 1992.

  • March 2001

    Q: Archibald Lampman never got to you?

    BC: The light went on with poetry for me in grade six when we had to memorize a poem and I remember looking through the book -- whatever the textbook was -- and there was a poem by Archibald MacLeish called Ars Poetica. Thatís the one I picked to memorize and it blew me away. This big light went on because it was a totally abstract, almost, I donít know what the literary term would be, almost a cubist poem.

    Intellectual light only, or a sense that this is a direction for me? It was more than intellectual, it was a visceral response to this use of language. From that point on I suppose I was in some way in love with poetry, but of a certain type, not all poetry: Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot and people like that, people we studied in school, who were more, well, itís hard to call people like T.S. Eliot left field, but at least it was less literal and more challenging poetry that appealed to me.

    Q: Did you feel at the time you were studying with Bill Hawkins that songwriting was as close as you could get to poetry?

    BC: Well, it didnít invite comparisons with these great poets. You could use language poetically in a song without some reviewer going: "Well, this guy writes good poetry. Who is this bozo to produce this stuff?" I just felt like I was taking on less, you know, because I valued poetry so highly I didnít want to be guilty of being a crappy poet. Iíd rather be an independent songwriter and create my own scale on which to be measured.

    So thatís music -- not to be too pretentious -- thatís music with a mask. I suppose, although itís been a pretty workable mask. I mean, the songs I was writing in those days were embarrassingly simple and far more embarrassingly unfocused. But it was the start of something, and where I moved to from there was this understanding of a song as a way of combining words and music with almost any kind of emphasis and almost any kind of shape. And itís interesting to me that you could explore those different kinds of shapes and ways of bringing those things together.
    -- from "The Cockburn Transcripts", Saturday Night-Online, March 2001.

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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.