-- Songwriting: Themes --

Issues Index


This page archives comments by Bruce Cockburn on the many themes found within his songs and albums.

  • 24 February 1988 - Commenting on writing songs with cities in the title

    intro to Tokyo:

    "This is a first of a series of songs that didn't start out to be a series of course, it just, sort of happened that way. Of songs.....I should say that, I should say that I deliberately started the series some years back. Determined to write an endless number of songs with cities in the title--- this is the first of those."
    -- from the Solo Tour, Luther Burbank Center, Santa Rosa, California, February 24,1988. Transcribed from recording and submitted to the project by Bobbi Wisby.

  • Circa 1991 - What was it that shifted the focus away from political material?
    [Interviewer is Michael Case.]

    MC: For a few albums you became quite political in focus, why has that changed recently?

    BC: I think it's a result of not traveling but also out of a desire to not keep repeating myself. I don't think it's necessary to keep on saying the same things even though they still may be true. I can stay involved in certain issues without them coming out in songs. The same process I just described went into writing the political songs as well. If I'm not working with those sort of things for a period of time, or if I'm still working but the novelty's worn off(laughs), then I don't produce those types of songs anymore. It requires a fair amount of emotional justice to get those type of songs going.

    Let me add to that, the fact, though I didn't think of it at the time, Trouble With Normal, Stealing Fire, and World Of Wonders seemed to be a sort of trilogy. After doing those it seemed like I have said enough about the North-South things. At least until a new experience gives me something to add to it.
    -- from "Bruce Cockburn: The Soul of a Man," by Michael Case, Umbrella Magazine, circa 1991.

  • Circa 1997 - Commenting that over the last twenty years, starting with the break between 1976's In The Falling Dark and 1977's Circles In The Stream, a pattern seems to have emerged. Every third album seems to be accompanied by a change in direction or a profound growth spurt.

    .. "Hindsight is always more revealing," Cockburn says, "and sometimes things that were unintended turn out to be true."
    -- from !Music, circa 1997.

  • January 1997 - Commenting on the flow of his albums
    [Interviewer is Paolo Caru]

    PC: The Charity of Night is an excellent album, one of the best of your career. I see it like a logical pursuance of Nothing But A Burning Light and Dart To The Heart. Do you agree?

    BC: Partly. Your point is illuminating -- at first I didn't think of it in this way but now I too find a certain logic in the progression of the albums.

    Originally I had decided to do a completely different album from what I had done in the past. But as the album neared completion, I realized that the albums followed a certain pattern.The Charity of Night is jazz oriented, less folk than the other two, but it does have much in common with them. Now that you've brought it up, I understand that I had come to the same conclusion without knowing it. When I began to write the songs for Nothing But A Burning Light I deliberately went in a direction of my musical roots.

    This approach continued with Dart To The Heart . But with this album I did not set any limits for myself and I let my writing go where it wanted. With the introduction of jazz, this album should be seen as more similar to those that I did in the 1980's. But my exploration of the "roots" sound is there, inside some of the songs and that's what this album has in common with the other two.
    -- from BRUCE COCKBURN -- Night Visions, by Paolo Caru, Buscadero, No. 176, January 1997.

  • November/December 1999 - Comparing the music of the 70's,80's,and 90's
    [Interviewer is Susan Adams Kauffman]

    SK: How would you characterize the music you've produced this decade as compared to your work in the seventies and eighties?

    BC: All of this stuff goes where my life goes, and it's all interconnected. When I started doing the so-called "political" stuff in the eighties, it was because I'd had an opportunity to travel, particularly in the third world, and to have direct contact with people in the kinds of situations I ended up singing about.

    There's been much less opportunity for that in the last decade. So the nineties have had a lot less of that kind of travel and a lot more touring and work [laughs]. And involvement in other things. I lived on a horse farm for seven years, and that was a different experience for me. Great Big Love , for instance, is a product of that atmosphere.

    SK: Your 1997 album, The Charity of Night, is threaded with references to night and darkness. They turn up in such lines as "the weight of approaching dawn," "sometimes the darkness is your friend," and, of course, the title cut. Rather than viewing night as dangerous, you seem to be suggesting that night can offer a sense of safety.

    BC: We think of light as opposed to darkness, and when we're thinking of spiritual things we're encouraged to think of light as where God is and dark as where the devil is. Over time I've come to feel that it isn't like that. God is the dark, exists in the dark, just as God is in the light.

    I find the night stunningly beautiful. The subtlety of the way things are lit at night has always struck me as attractive. I also appreciate the way darkness provides refuge--whether it's the refuge of concealment or the implication of rest and peace that goes with night.

    Darkness just is what it is--another place you can be, or another thing you can use, or another quality you can appreciate. Sometimes the road does lead through dark places, and it's inescapable. But then, sometimes the darkness is comforting and protective in those dark places. It need not be seen as a source of fear.

    If you look at what I wrote in the seventies, it's full of sunlight. Sunwheel Dance for example. There's sun imagery all over the place. Yet it was a period when I was searching but very unaware of my own inner workings. There was all this optimism, even though the songs themselves may have been going in different directions. But the imagery of light was there--a lot.

    Things got a little darker through the eighties. The focus shifted from nature and the spiritual to people and the spiritual. It was more outward directed. The light shifted; there was a lot less light. Stuff like Berlin Tonight comes to mind, where light's either not an issue or it's a darker kind of light, much more metallic. In a way, The Charity of Night was the culmination of that whole line of looking at things.

    The stuff on the new album has more light in it again--but cautiously [laughs].
    -- from "Fire in an Open Hand: an Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Susan Adams Kauffman, The Other Side, November/December 1999.

  • November/December 1999 - Commenting on the writing of Look How Far and Birmingham Shado
    [Interviewer is Susan Adams Kauffman]

    SK: That song was inspired by Ani DiFranco, am I correct? (referring to Look How Far )

    BC: Yeah, she was a case in point. The song doesn't end up being about this at all--but it started from this sort of regret you feel at having these fleeting encounters with people you think could be friends, but you don't get to know them well enough to find out.

    SK: Birmingham Shadows comes to mind...

    BC: Ani's in that one, which I tried to play down for a long time because I didn't want to invite the gossip. Of course the gossip happened anyway. But to me, "Birmingham Shadows" chronicles an event where there is that little bit of transcendence, a time when physical reality breaks down and the spiritual comes through sometimes in the oddest circumstances. You know, a fifty-ish guy walking around with a very young woman in the middle of the night in Birmingham, Alabama, and getting stopped by a cop in an industrial park! It happened exactly like the song says, more or less.

    I try to write out of my own experience. It's not that I feel like I've got all this stuff to teach people. It's just that my life and my quest have gone through these different things, and the songs are a trail. Hopefully, somebody can find something to use in there. I'm trying to describe what I see at each point along the way.

    Most of the songs come out of very particular things, like Birmingham Shadows or the stuff from Central America, or Get Up,Jonah for that matter. At other times they pull from more than one experience. But the important thing is that the songs come out of life. They're not a reproduction of life. They're not an attempt to pin life down. They assume a life of their own.

    So in the end, the reason I didn't want people originally to know who it was in "Birmingham Shadows" is that it didn't matter who it was. The person is not the point. The point is that even a peculiar occasion like this can allow glimpses of the Divine.
    -- from "Fire in an Open Hand: an Interview with Bruce Cockburn" by Susan Adams Kauffman, The Other Side, November/December 1999.

  • 3-9 February 2000 - Commenting on the theme of sex in his work

    "All the important things in life, as well as those that aren't so important, are fair game as far as subjects go, and sex is something I think is both important and positive."

    When asked why the theme of sex didn't appear in his songwriting until the fifth or sixth album he remarked:

    "Well, I just didn't get it 'til then!"
    -- "Mango Man, Bruce Cockburn Tastes Folk Music's Forbidden Fruits", Monday Magazine, February 3-9, 2000 by Ron Forbes-Roberts. Submitted by Audrey Pearson.

  • 10-17 February 2000 - Commenting on the themes of his writing over the years

    "I go through life and I experience the things I experience and I'm leaving a trail in the song, and that's really the theme in my whole body of work over the years, and that continues with this record (Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu)."
    -- 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.

  • March 2001

    What rises to your mind when I say crucial songs? Critical songs, songs that just jumped out from you?

    BC: Itís easier to answer in terms of albums. Night Vision was a change from the earliest stuff that represented a turning point. In the Falling Dark in seventy-six represented a turning point. Actually it was six years before I had my own band, because the tour after that album I started playing with a band again, and then the real turning point was Dancing in the Dragonís Jaws which for me summed up whatever I had been doing to that point. It doesnít mean that everything on that album is better than everything on the album before it, thatís not true, but taken as a whole it just seemed to get to the essence of what Iíd been trying to do spiritually and creatively up to that point.

    And then it was time to move on so the Humans album took a whole different tack and also went with the big change in my life which went from being mostly Ottawa-based or rural-based and married to being single and in Toronto. And from being a spiritual loner who sought truth in nature, and in the way nature reflects a big universe, to somebody who understands that itís about people too. For me at the time it was necessary to be around people and the move to Toronto reflected that and so did the contents of that album and what came after.

    The next big change came with Stealing Fire, which reflected in a big way my first real contact with the Third World and was part of what, in hindsight, became in my mind a trilogy. The Trouble with Normal, Stealing Fire, and World of Wonders were albums of mine that really dealt with southern stuff and travel as the main focus. It was because of the period of time, the things Iíd been living through, which is always the case. The songs reflected whatever Iíd been exposing myself to in the period they were being written. Thereís stuff on the next albums that I like but the next big change was Nothing but a Burning Light, which was the first album of the nineties. That was a change in a couple of ways. One was a very deliberate attempt to write, or at least the songs on it were an attempt to write a simpler kind of song, structurally simpler. I donít mean that my guitar part would be simpler, but the structure would be such that a person who couldnít play my guitar part could still play the song and make it sound okay, which, up to that point, mostly wasnít true. And isnít so true any more either. But for a couple of albums in there I thought that was a good premise to work from. The subsequent album, Dart to the Heart, had less of that as a guiding principle. Really if I pick them out . . . the landmark albums for me are Dancing in the Dragonís Jaws and The Charity of Night, which are a little over a decade apart and each seems to encapsulate what was in the decade leading up to it. The thing about The Charity of Night is that it sort of closes the circle because it starts to bring in the seventies sound, the acoustic phase, the less produced sound with the elements of jazz in it that didnít characterize a lot of the stuff before it.
    -- from "The Cockburn Transcripts", Saturday Night-Online, March 2001.

  • 15 January 2002 -

    Bruce, I have always enjoyed watching the movie - "Goin' Down the Road". The movie works on so many levels and it still speaks volumes even today. Adding to the greatness of the movie - were your songs. Can you tell me if there ever was a soundtrack to the movie (doubt it) and if not, which album of yours would contain the songs from that movie?

    Bruce Cockburn: It was a subject of some controversy at the time. I'd never done a film score before and I was excited to do one because it was new but really I felt the songs I wrote for that were artificial. There were designed to be part of a film and so I elected not to record those songs whether on an album or on a soundtrack and that got me in all sorts of trouble with the director...there was a lot of bad feeling around it but that was my feeling at the time. I was probably more uptight about it than I needed to be but that's how I was in those days.
    -- from Canoe Online Chat with Bruce Cockburn, 15 January 2002. Submitted by Suzanne D. Myers.

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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.