-- Songwriting: Purpose --

Issues Index


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

  • 30 August 1979 - Commenting on artists responsibilities and the scriptures

    "Seems as though that I've always kind of felt that artists of any kind were saddled with a fairly serious responsibility to be fairly careful of what they put in their art in the sense has such a capacity for influencing people, in the subtle ways maybe not in obvious ways, like you don't, you know, change the world by writing songs or painting paintings but.... in a deep kind of subtle way it has an effect on large numbers of people. And therefore, an artist, especially an artist with religious convictions, has to pay kind of close attention to what it is they are saying in their art. What they are influencing people to do. The way that sort of manifests itself in the writing of songs for me is it.....well one way anyway is that I have to kind of look at the songs from the point of view, when they are done, you know, from the point of view of whether or not that what's being said is true. And true for me has a lot to do with whether it coincides, you know, at least in some subtle way, with scripture. I don't see myself as particularly involved with, writing gospel songs, as such. But when I do write a song I kind of look at it and go "well is that, it that right or isn't it?".
    -- transcribed from a live taping of a concert in Hastings Lake, Alberta, Canada, August 30, 1979. Transcribed by Doug Stacey.

  • 2 November 1981 - Commenting on writing being a recording of his life

    BC: What I find I'm primarily interested in doing is recording my life, which is more or less what I've been doing all along, and the fact that it's an attempt at... an attempted Christian life means that there's going to be a certain amount of Christian slant to the songs. Well, considerable... that's certainly what I see as my job is leaving a trail and if I go wrong then somebody else can see where I went wrong; if I go right then somebody else can see where I went right. Hopefully it will be of use to somebody.
    -- 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.

  • January 1982 - Commenting on awarness

    "My whole approach to writing is to tell about what I've been through and leave a trail as I go. Hopefully, that trail will be worth something to someone in the future."

    "I'm trying to get people to be aware of how much more there is to life than just what they see," he says. "For instance, you can walk around in disastrous circumstances and be feeling great, or go through wonderful circumstances feeling depressed."
    -- from "The Thinking Christian Man and His Music: Bruce Cockburn Goes a Little Deeper" Contemporary Christian Music, by Lori E. Pike, January 1982.

  • January/February 1985 - On whether Cockburn feels a responsibility to educate his audience about Central America

    Eunice Amarantides: During this tour, do you feel you have a responsibility to educate your audience about Central America? And do you ever wonder if they are really hearing your message?

    BC:I think every artist has the responsibility not necessarily to educate but at least to tell their audience how they see things. I feel strongly about Central American issues because I've been there. I felt close to the people. And I get frustrated and angry at the institutionalized misinformation that gets spread around North America.

    Whether or not the audience hears me. I'd rather have them listen to me than Ted Nugent! Whatever an audience gets out of my music comes down to a matter of trust. I've been given this that I can do. I can't make too much of it; it's just what I do. At the same time, things have been put in front of me in my life. I have to assume there is a reason for that and that the songs I sing will have an effect on somebody, even if it's just one person who I never meet and never hear from.
    -- from "Singing in a Dangerous Time," by Eunice Amarantides, TheOtherSide, January/February 1985, p.68.

  • Circa 1986 - Commenting on what is 'fair game' to use in a song

    "General concern became focused on Central America at this point, partly through reading (e.g. early poems of Ernesto Cardenal), then, most dramatically, as a result of travel to the region. Did I get "politicized"? There's an "-ism" and an "-ized" for everything, and none of them mean that much to me. If what government does affects a person's life as much as their work does or their lover does, then it seems to me it's equally fair game for comment in a song."
    -- from World Of Wonders Tour Program, circa 1986. Submitted by Rob Caldwell.

  • Circa 1990 -
    [Interviewer is Johnny Walker]

    Johnny Walker: Do you think it's important to include the very strong messages that you put in your songs? I wonder what you feel your role is as the minstrel with the message.

    BC: Well, you know, the message is kind of after the fact. My role, as I see it, is to distill reality into something that works as art. Those sound like big, pompous words, but what that means is basically looking around at things, and feeling things, and trying to put those feelings and thoughts into songs. And if you approach the writing from that point of view, anything is fair game in terms of song material. I think it's perfectly appropriate to sing about political issues, or to sing about love, or to sing about silly things, or whatever you want, you know.

    JW: Because it is all part of life.

    BC: There's no rules. Yeah, exactly. It's exactly that, yeah. So I don't really go around thinking of myself as a political songwriter as such, although some people have labelled me that, and other people have labelled me a Christian songwriter…

    JW: Which you have to be because you're a Christian. You can't get away from it.

    BC: Yeah, I'm kind of inescapably involved in at least being aware of a lot of the things that are going on around me.
    -- from Radio Interview, BBC Radio 1, 1990, Interviewer is Johnny Walker. Transcribed and submitted by David Newton.

  • Circa 1991 - Songwriting is 'satisfying'

    MC: What's the most satisfying part of being an artist to you? Is it writing, recording, performing, traveling?

    BC: The one element I would keep if I had to choose would be the writing; that's when I'm really creating. Performing is just re-interpreting something and trying to keep it fresh for people, but the actual writing is pure creativity. You're there and you've got the flow or you don't.
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man," by Michael Case, Umbrella Magazine, circa 1991.

  • September-October 1994 - Commenting on the reviewers response to Dart To The Heart

    "Everyone is asking me if my love life is all I think about," he says with a chuckle.

    "No" is the answer, if you are wondering. "As strange as it sounds," says Bruce, "it makes no difference whether I write a love song or tell a story about being in a refugee camp. For me it comes from the same place. I just want to touch people. It¹s a passing of my understanding of reality, trying to put it into a form that is interesting and entertaining to somebody else."
    -- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion," by David Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.

  • September-October 1994 - Commenting on writing music and connecting with someone

    "Writing music, for me, is about touching something deep in someone else from a real place in yourself. It can be done with a mood; it doesn't have to be done with ideas or direct statements."
    -- from "Straight to the Heart, Bruce Cockburn's songs of subversion," by David Batstone, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1994.

  • 21 October 1994 - On music as entertainment, but with content; the importance of communication

    "The music is essentially entertainment, but there are many of us who prefer to be entertained by things that have some substance to it and that asks something of us," he said.

    "I spend a lot of time listening to jazz and reading poetry and I'm a product of the last dying gasps of the beat generation in away. It wasn't about instructing people, but it was about sharing genuine experiences about communication. It was about offering something substantial for people who like that kind of entertainment. That was the starting point and that has always been the starting point of what I do."
    -- from "Cockburn Darts to the Heart This Time," by Toni Ruperto, USAToday, October 21, 1994.

  • September 1994 - Commenting on how he perceives life and turns it into song

    "My songwriting is an attempt to take what I've experienced and what I think is true and distill it into something that is entertaining, then throw it out to people and say, "Maybe you can use this, too." In some ways it makes me a focal point for like-minded people - people who are trying to put their faith in to practice in the same way I've tried to. They hear the stuff in the songs and all of a sudden there's a kind of community."
    -- 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.

  • 25 August 1997 - Commenting that all his songs reflect deeply personal emotions and attitudes,
    (he's referring to the song The Mines Of Mozambique).

    "I didn't sit down and read about land mines in a magazine and go, 'OK, I think I better write a song about land mines,' " he observes. "The song came from being in Mozambique and feeling what I felt. It's every bit as personal as (songs viewed as nonpolitical). They're all (about) things I've been touched by directly in one way or another. The things that people think are political diatribes are my reactions to what I'm encountering. It's the same as a love song."
    -- from "Cockburn sticks to causes for 'The Charity of Night'", by Jon Matsumoto, CNN Interactive, August 25, 1997.

  • Fall 1997 - Commenting on how his lyrics are often like reporting
    [Interviewer is Bob Duran]

    BD: Your lyrics sometimes seem to be poetry, and sometimes they seem like non-fiction, like you're a reporter?

    BC: I think it's a little of both. I don't call what I do poetry, but it's certainly a poetic use of language, at least that's what I'm trying to do. It all comes from life. It's not really made up stuff so there is an element of reportage about it, but I'm not bound by the constraints that a journalist is. I'm not obliged to pretend to be objective (laughs) and I don't have an editor, although some people may wish I did. (laughs) But, yes in some ways I am like a reporter.
    -- from "Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Bob Duran, Fall, 1997.

  • Circa 1999 - How does he view his contributions as a musical artist and songwriter?

    "I believe that the first priority of any artist is to make good art. Second, they must distill life and truth as the artist knows it and communicate these truths to others. But the ultimate goal is to represent some shared experience."
    -- from "Walking the Line With Bruce Cockburn",, circa 1999, by Heidi Drockelman.

  • 2-8 June 1999 - On songs as "vehicles for sharing"

    "I see my job as being about trying to tell what I think is true. At their most basic level, the songs are hopefully entertaining and perhaps enlightening vehicles for sharing real feelings, real experiences. It's about distilling life experiences down into this abbreviated art form that people can be entertained by--and perhaps, occassionally, learn from."
    -- from "Philadelphia City Paper", 2-8 June 1999. Submitted by Nigel Parry.

  • September 1999 - Commenting on the job of an artist
    [Interviewer is Eleanor Wachtel]

    EW: You're closely identified with political songs, songs connected to issues such as the plight of refugees or the destruction of the environment. What do you see is the connection between songwriting and activism?

    BC: Life with a capital "L" is the connection. We're all on this planet together. We all have a certain responsibility to take an interest in the fate of the world or at least a responsibility to examine the ways we affect that fate.

    I also think it's the job of an artist to talk about life in whatever medium he or she is working in, to try and distill human experience into something that's communicable to other people and becomes a vehicle for the sharing of experience.

    Therefore it seems appropriate to sing about everything in life from the political to the spiritual to the sexual to whatever happens to be there. To the goofy [laughs.]

    To me it's all part of the same thing. The writing process is the same, no matter what the theme.

    EW: Do you see yourself as part of a tradition of activist songwriters like Woody Guthrie?

    BC: No, not necessarily. I'm glad to lend my support to any worthy cause. There are plenty of causes around. There's no shortage of things that need to be done. But to me, the people I admire as activists are the people who spend all their time working on those things. Those are the people who I can help from time-to-time by being able to draw attention to their work.

    But the songwriting is a different thing for me. It's more personal. All of it is. The so-called issue-related stuff to the ones that talk about interrelationships between people. So I guess I kind of separate the songwriting from the active thing, in my mind, although obviously other people don't.
    -- from CBC Infoculture Interview: Bruce Cockburn on his new CD Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu, by Eleanor Wachtel, CBC Entertainment, 20, September, 1999.

  • Late-summer 1999 - On songwriting as the distillation of experience.

    "My songwriting is an attempt to take what I've experienced and what I think is true and distill it into something that is entertaining, then throw it out to people and say 'Maybe you can use this too.' In some ways it makes me the focal point for like-minded people... They hear the songs, and all of a sudden there's a kind of community."
    -- Bruce Cockburn, quoted on the Rykodisc website, around the time of the release of, Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu. Submitted by Nigel Parry.

  • 8 February 2000 - Commenting on mellowing as he gets older

    "The jury's out on that. The angry approach isn't working. We didn't stop the corporate world from trying to dominate the rest of us and screwing everything up in the the meantime, we have to think about healing and we have to be healed within ourselves."
    -- from "Bruce is Loose", Victoria Times Colonist, February 8, 2000, by Adrian Chamberlain. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • 9 February 2000 - Commenting that all his songs come from personal experiences

    "They come from life in one way or another. They're an attempt to distill my reaction to something I'm confronted with into something I can communicate to people."

    Commenting upon the recurring themes of sex, human dignity, the environment and the world of spirit

    "All of those interactions frequently get expressed through politics and social behaviour, but it's not like I think, 'Oh yeah, the world needs a song about clearcutting' or 'The world needs a song about refugees.' It's because I've been confronted with an idea, and it's in my heart."
    -- from "Sun Shines on Cockburn's Breakfast", Vancouver Courier, February 9, 2000, by Jennifer Van Evra. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • Circa 22 February 2000 - On "leaving a trail"

    "It's me leaving a trail," Bruce Cockburn notes of his 30-year musical career. "I feel like it's all part of one picture. And it's a picture of a spiritual journey, more than anything... All those songs sprang from direct experiences and they wouldn't have sprung from any other thing," he explains. "It's part and parcel to the way I write, to how I approach songwriting as a whole. The songs are attempts to do something with an emotional response I'm confronted with. Without that confrontation, that emotional response, there would be no songs. For me, what is essential is to write about as much of the human experience as I can. That includes political songs, but it doesn't preclude love songs, and songs about sex and whatever else might come up."
    -- from "Tucson Weekly", circa 22 February 2000. Submitted by Nigel Parry.

  • 10 March 2000 - Commenting on getting a 'hit' of the artist's experience

    "My songwriting is an attempt to take what I've experienced and what I think is true and distill it into something that is entertaining, then throw it out to people and say 'Maybe you can use this too,"' he said recently. "In some ways it makes me the focal point for like-minded people. They hear the songs, and all of a sudden there's a kind of community."

    The artist decides which words, which experiences to document in song, he continues.

    "You get down to whether or not it's well-expressed, assuming you like the way the artist works, then if you add in that feeling that it's coming from an honest place and that you're getting a `hit' of the artist's experience of things, then it becomes a valuable experience in your own right, beyond just sort of being entertained."
    -- from "25 Albums: Bruce Cockbrun Still Giving It Away" By Tom Groening, Bangor Daily News, March 10, 2000.

  • 14 May 2000 - On telling the truth as he understands it

    "If iI thought I was not affecting anyone the way I wanted to, then I would be frustrated," he said. "My job is to tell the truth as I understand it, and if I feel like some people are getting it, then that's fine, and if more people get it, that's better. But as long as somebody's getting it, that's enough. We all have to deal with adolescence and becoming parents and getting old and all those kinds of things, and the culture that we're confronted with and the political turmoil that's around us. So my observations on those kinds of things, if I do it well enough, will be meaningful to other people who are thinking about the same kinds of things."
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: Canadian will bring his band to Whitaker Center," by Kira L Schlechter, The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, PA, May 14, 2000. Submitted by John Peregrim.

  • 3 August 2000 - Commenting on his way of "making a living"

    "It's a living. Well, it's two things. It's a living, and it's the way people get to hear the songs, the way I get to play them for people, which is the most meaningful aspect of what I do other than the actual writing."

    "That's what I want to do is write. It happens to be in the context of songs. It's a particular kind of writing that's different than from what it would be like if it were being written for the printed page, for example, where you don't have any rhythmic considerations other than whatever you might want at a time, but you're not tied to a musical groove."
    -- from "Canadian Singer/Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Inspired by 30-year Journey", by Pamela White, Colorado Daily, U. Colorado, August 3, 2000.

  • 3 March 2001 - Commenting upon his music's effect on some listeners

    "I have had, for instance, on more than one occasion, feedback from people who will say one song or another of mine prevented them from committing suicide. That's fucking heavy. I didn't start out to do that. And I'm not sure I want the responsibility involved in that, either. I don't know if I want to be responsible for saving their lives. And you think, well, if you can save somebody from suicide you can also do bad things to people and you'd better not do that. There's a degree to which it's out of your control and it's somebody else's problem. But my way of freeing myself from worrying about the negative effect on people is to try to be truthful. Then it's up to somebody else."
    -- from "The Witness", Saturday Night Online, March 3, 2001, by Bill Cameron.

  • 26 January 2002 - Commenting on the songwriting purpose

    "I get a feeling like hunger that can only be satisfied by writing a song."
    -- from "The journey is what I'm interested in", The Globe and Mail 26 January 2002, by Sarah Hampson.

  • 27 March 2002

    While a noticeable amount of his songwriting has reflected his interest in a variety of social and political causes, the roots of his inspiration as a songwriter are more ubiquitous:

    "Well, it's just my life. I just mine my emotional response to something that happens. When I wrote Call it Democracy, I was commenting on what I understood first-hand from encounters with people suffering the devastating effects of the International Monetary Fund's policies. "

    "Sometimes I write about emotional reactions I have to things, like in the various love songs or more sexual songs."
    -- 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.