-- Songwriting/Influences: Political --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on how politics influence his songwriting.

  • Fall 1985 - Commenting on politics, social change, and the 60's, art and propaganda
    [Interviewer is John Virnile.]

    JV: Why have you recently taken to writing songs with social themes?

    BC: I wasn't always very interested in social themes although they've appeared here and there throughout the older work. For instance, an old song called Burn is a forerunner to the current Latin-American material. Other songs touched on social issues in passing, but wasn't writing about those things as such.

    Having a child was a turning point, the beginning of it I think. All of a sudden there is this infant who's going to inherit a world that, if not of my making, is at least one that I can exercise some influence. Therefore, it's important for me to do so because I don't want anymore of the garbage than I can help being handed on to her. I think everyone who has a kid must experience those kinds of feelings. That was one thing.

    The other was that becoming a Christian and having explored internally what that meant, found myself trying to understand what it meant to love my neighbor and to care about what happens to the people around me. The concern started to reflect itself more in the songs and resulted in a tendency to take social and political issues much more seriously than I did before.

    JV: Do you think music can effect social change?

    BC: I don't think music can bring about social change by itself. I think it can be a crystalizing agent for waves of feeling that move through all of us. A case in point being the response to our songs in the states. There was an obvious sense that we were offering a focused view of something many people had very strong feelings about, mainly frustrated feelings. They felt that they couldn't really act or that their actions wouldn't have any lasting effect.

    There's a funny curve to the ability of songs to influence events. In the 60's the whole trend of protest music started off being the cherished property of a few underground people. It then became much more popular and provided a rallying point for a whole lot of people. Finally, it reached a point where people were just cashing in and the way to make a buck was to write a protest song. This immediately caused the demise of protest music as a valid form of art, which it should be first and foremost. It became more like propaganda. There's no question that propaganda influences people, but that's another topic altogether.

    JV: Sounds like an interesting topic. What are your feelings about it?

    BC: Well, it's important to me because I've had to look at this question for myself. It's very important to make a distinction between art and propaganda. What makes a difference between the two and has value to me is that if one considers oneself an artist, one has to present something like truth. That's a bit weird, but I think it's necessary to try and approach something like truth as closely as possible in one's work. Obviously, the truth is going to be somewhat subjective, everyone's truth is.

    Each of us has individual experiences, but we also are the product of the circumstances in which we live. Therefore, there's a connection that exists between any one person and every other person. In that way the experiences of anyone parallel that of everyone else. The trick is to articulate those things in such a way so they become accessible or so other people can relate to them.

    When you start sloganizing things, you start removing the element of reality from them. There's no question that sloganizing is probably more effective in rallying people than trying to present more sides of an issue, but what we're left with after everyone gets rallied is a very dangerous situation. In the end it just leads to more repetition of the same old thing.

    That was one of the things wrong with the 60's. People got swept away on the image of peace and love and so on without looking at the reality of what that might mean or how they might bring that into being in the world. It then became very disillusioning because it didn't work of course, the world doesn't run on peace and love.
    -- from "Interview: Bruce Cockburn" by John Vernile. Written by Mary Anne Devine. From the WUSB 90.1 FM Program Guide, Fall 1985. Copyright 1985, 1996, WUSB 90.1 FM.

  • 18 March 1988 - Commenting on the reluctance to file his lyrics under the heading Protest Songs

    "Some of the songs are obviously that," he admits, "but no. I write songs because I've got an urge to write songs, and I write them about whatever moves me. Beyond that, there's a certain amount of maneuvering and what-not, the juggling of words to make sure they say what I want them to say, and that they're intelligible and all.

    "I don't see it as selling messages, particularly. After the fact. yeah. 'Rocket Launcher' is about the situation in Guatemala and my feelings about the refugee camps; the song Nicaragua is about Nicaragua. When you sing it, it becomes a message because it's being sung to people. But it didn't start out as a propaganda piece or anything.

    "I have an abhorrence of getting into propaganda writing," he adds, "and I try to make sure that what I write is not that or is not too likely to be construed as that. Inevitably, there's going to be someone who will; there was a reviewer in L.A. who obviously didn't like the politics, and he had nice things to say about the music but he referred to the lyrics of the songs as 'knee-jerk leftist rhetoric,' which I don't think it is."

    Still, Cockburn believes that "most of the people who come appreciate the difference between somebody who's making a comment on something that they've felt and seen, and who's just trying to influence opinions."
    -- from "The Social Commentaries of Bruce Cockburn" by J.D. Considine, Sun Pop Music Critic, Baltimore Sun, March 18, 1988.

  • 3 April 1992 - Commenting on Central America and political messages in his songs

    "When the Central American thing was what people were noticing about my songs and I was called upon to talk about that a lot, a lot of journalists, particularly the mainstream news variety especially, tended to go, 'You're just playing to an audience of the converted. The people who are coming, buying your records, they already like those damn Sandinistas anyway,' or whatever," Cockburn recalled. "There was this kind of attitude and cynicism, and I thought, I don't think that's true, because, first of all, more people bought that record than had bought most of the previous records.

    "If I Had A Rocket Launcher, I still hear about that, 'cause it had a video, it got shown a lot and it was kind of noticeable as a song. It stood out from the rest of what was on the radio, and there's all kinds of people that-- truck drivers'll go by and recognize me on the side of the road and go, [derisively] 'Eh, where's your rocket launcher?' or this kind of thing. But it's in a good-natured way, they're making a joke, and it's okay, those people heard that song.

    "Whether they really paid attention to what it was about or not, they heard it, and some of them actually liked it, and some of them went out and bought the record, because I do hear from that end of the social spectrum a lot, especially [because] where I live now is out in the country, and that's who's around, is farmers and truckers and general working people. And none of them are very far to the left and a lot of them know some of my songs. Some of them even have a couple of albums.

    "I don't have any desire whatever to preach to the converted or to preach to anyone else, for that matter. I mean, when I write these songs I'm not trying to sermonize to anyone. I'm mad or I'm hurt or I'm happy, or whatever the case may be, and I want to share it. I want to just put it out there for people to see, and of course after that fact I hope that by doing that it may produce an effect, but it's not the purpose in writing the song in the first place. They're not propaganda pieces, and perhaps people sense that, they don't feel propagandized to, for the most part. Once in a while somebody does, but most of the time not."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn-A Burning Light and All the Rest" by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine, April 3, 1992, 1992 Krause Publications.

  • September-October 1994 - BC cautions about taking the role of "political spokesperson" too seriously

    "Soon people start saying, 'Hey, we went to the Sting or Cockburn concert, we've done our bit for the rain forest!'"

    Commenting on Bono's song, (sung with U2), Bullet in the Blue Sky

    "Well, I don't think Bono was very clear on that song," Bruce says with characteristic bluntness. "All the same, I don't think you can do anything on a mass level that is effective. If Bono did not hit that song quite right (that is just my opinion; it certainly isn't his, I imagine), at least he's trying to do something with serious intent and get deep with his songs."

    "Like I said earlier, we just have to accept that there is a lot of unwillingness out there to listen for something, to be surprised. Look at Springsteen's "Born in the USA". It is a bitter, bitter song, but when he performs it the crowd is pumping their fists, Rah, rah, rah, America!"
    -- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion", by David Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.

  • 7 September 1996 - Commenting on defining moments in his career
    [Interviewer is Nora Young]

    NY: Are there any real defining moments in your career when you look over 30 years of playing music?

    BC: Yeah. The answer to that would probably change with each day I was asked it but there was a big turning point when I started to travel outside of North America a lot and especailly in the early '80's when I got involved with Central America and so on. That was a pretty big eye opener in lots of ways. One, it was the first time that I was able to encounter, face to face, what a refugee camp consisted of, for instance. Or what life in the real Third World means when you're not a tourist and you're not looking at it from a tourist's perspective. As well as unlearning the prejudice I had about mixing music and politics. Because I had previously felt that the two should be kept apart. That politics would taint art if you got them too close together and I was made to realize that my view of politics was a very narrow one in making that kind of distinction. That it may be true that if I were to join the Conservative Party that it would interfere with my art. But it certainly is not true that art shouldn't address the kinds of issues that we think of as political.
    -- from "Definitely Not the Opera", CBC Radio, by Nora Young, September 7, 1996, 1996 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

  • July 1999 - Responding to the question whether a period has begun of a less critical Bruce Cockburn he says

    "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.

  • 9 February 2000 - Commenting upon political issues appearing in his songs

    "Putting an issue in a song invites whoever hears the song to consider that issue, but it doesn't hit them over the head. They can turn off the song if they don't want to hear about it, or they can just listen to the music. But if they want to hear it, it may inform some people, and it may provide a rallying point for others."
    -- from "Sun Shines on Cockburn's Breakfast", Vancouver Courier, February 9, 2000, by Jennifer Van Evra. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

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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.