THERE will be bigger acts taking the stage at the Greenbelt
Festival over this weekend, but probably no more estimable
artist than Bruce Cockburn. The singer-songwriter, who will be
headlining tonight, has been compared to Neil Young and Joni
Mitchell - and not just because he is, like them, Canadian, and of
a certain age. His often poetic lyrics are literate, acutely
observed, and both politically and spiritually engaged. He is also
a quite extraordinary guitarist.
Many years ago, he was described by the then editor of
Melody Maker as "the last great rock obscurity". Although
he is fêted in his native land - he was inducted into the Music
Hall of Fame in Canada in 2001, a year before U2's producer, Daniel
Lanois - that obscurity still stubbornly persists.
Last year, his 24th studio album, Small Source of
Comfort, was ignored by the mainstream British media. He has
appeared at the Royal Festival Hall, but he has not performed in
this country since the 2007 Lewes Guitar Festival.
In 1984, the year Cockburn first appeared at Greenbelt, an album
review in The New York Times spoke of "impressionistic
songs that combine Christian mysticism and leftist politics with
illuminating flashes of imagery". That summed him up pretty
Late at night, in the festival's Big Top, Charles Williams and
John Pilger seemed to meet, metaphorically speaking, in an
electrifying solo set that ranged from "Lord of the starfields" ("O
love that fires the sun, Keep me burning") to "Nicaragua" ("You're
the best of what we are").
Cockburn had travelled to Central America the previous year, at
the behest of Oxfam, and was deeply affected by the hope that he
saw in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and by the horror that he
heard of in Mexico, where refugees from the "dirty war" in
Guatemala gave him eyewitness accounts of "things too sickening to
relate". His most powerful song, which was to be a modest hit, was
"If I had a rocket launcher" ("I would retaliate").
AT THAT time, Greenbelt was artistically still rather
lightweight. On mainstage, Cliff Richard and Sheila Walsh pulled
the crowds. Cockburn was something else: a musician and lyricist of
multi-award-winning quality who spoke the same language as the
festival's heavyweight speakers, but sang it much better.
He expressed the same love of God, the same passion for peace
and justice, the same sense of the wonder and mystery of things.
Reportedly, one of the reasons why Bono sneaked into Greenbelt in
1987, disguised as a steward, was to see him perform.
Over the years that followed, some of his distinctive turns of
phrase became essential parts of the festival's phrasebook.
Greenbelt 1990 was titled "Rumours of Glory" after one of his
songs, and, for years, a line from another Cockburn composition,
"Lovers in a dangerous time" - "Got to kick at the darkness 'til it
bleeds daylight" - seemed to be quoted in every second seminar.
When, in 1999, the festival moved from Deene Park to the more
worldly surroundings of Cheltenham Racecourse, he was there, once
again, to reassure the old hands that Greenbelt's heart was still
in the right place.
A GREAT deal of water has gone under the bridge since those
days, and, when I rang him, I was curious to know whether, at 67
years of age, he is still, in his word, "burning". He now lives in
San Franscisco, where he is looking after a new baby daughter (born
35 years after her half-sister).
His latest album is characteristically classy, and features no
fewer than five instrumentals. His eye for an image is still as
acute, his wit still as wry, but many years have gone by since he
wrote a powerful "political" song. The word is out that he no
longer calls himself a Christian.
I ask him whether he has managed to maintain the passion of his
younger days. "I think there's a certain curve we go through in our
lives," he says. "You start full of warrior energy, and,
eventually, you end up becoming more spiritually inclined - or
perhaps just lazy."
Does he still find, as he put it in "Call it democracy", that
the iniquities in the world "render rage a necessity"? That song is
surely as relevant today as it was when he wrote it in 1985, about
the money men who "don't really give a flying fuck About the people
It is, Cockburn tells me, "the only response that I'm able to
find. Maybe 'outrage' is a better word. Perhaps a better response
would be serenity, to see it from the top of some spiritual
Everest, but not very many of us have the luxury of being able to
do that, or the qualifications."
So, why has he not written anything as forceful for years? "In
general," he says, "the inspiration to write comes through the
heart. When I write what people think is a political song, I'm not
thinking politics, I'm trying to express some way that I've been
made to feel by the things I've encountered - and anything deep and
moving is always more intense the first time you encounter it. I've
seen a lot more injustice and suffering since [I wrote "Rocket
launcher" and "Call it democracy"], but I doubt very much that I
would write a song like that now."
To some extent, he says, that is because his own understanding
of the world has deepened. "When you're writing a song, you're
attempting to reduce a complex picture to something communicable in
four or five minutes, and that's most easily done when you don't
know very much about what you're writing about. The more you know,
the harder it is to fit it into a song."
THERE is one song on his latest album which he likens to "Rocket
Launcher": "Each One Lost" similarly comes across as a call to
arms, although not a call that Pilger would endorse. Cockburn wrote
it in 2009, after witnessing, on the way to Kandahar (where his
brother was serving with the Canadian army), a ceremony honouring
the bodies of two young servicemen who had been killed in
Afghanistan that day.
"This is going to get me in trouble, probably, but there is a
point where loving your neighbour means stopping your neighbour
from being brutalised - maybe.
"I don't know that it's always wrong to get militarily engaged
in something - I don't sympathise with the notion that we should
just let these people sink in their own shit. But it's very tricky,
and it's never clean, because, once you start that stuff, you've
unleashed something very negative on the world. It's something I'm
still wrestling with, as you can hear."
If his politics are "very broadly in the same place", Cockburn's
spiritual journey seems to have taken him further afield. "At the
moment," he confirms, "I'm not comfortable calling myself a
Christian, because I have too much doubt about the possible
limitations of the Christian understanding, let's say. Do I believe
in the historical reality of Christ? I'm not sure - which, I guess,
is a bogus way of saying I don't."
He refers to C. S. Lewis when he adds that "it doesn't matter:
Christianity is mythic, in the biggest sense of that word. I see it
as one of those noble bodies of myth that gives us access to the
divine, but it's not the only one that does that. There's a lot of
deep spiritual understanding among people that is not Christian,
and I feel I've gained as much from contact with other spiritual
pathways, including the writings of the Chinese and Arabic
Cockburn has long talked about "the mystery of it all", and, for
many years, his lyrics have invoked the Spirit rather than the man
he recently referred to as "the guy on the cross with the
HE DID have a life-changing encounter with Jesus, once, but he
has been re-evaluating it. "One of the reasons I came to Christ",
he says, "is that, the day I got married, in 1969, at the point in
the ceremony when we were about to exchange rings, I became aware
of this warm, glowing presence, and I was completely blown away.
Some people might have called it an angel, or a hallucination, but
I thought: 'Well, we're in a Christian church: it's got to be
"I had a subsequent encounter with the same entity, and I became
very focused on understanding Christianity, and that led to me
deciding that I was a Christian, because I felt that reality.
"I still feel that reality. I just don't know that it's Jesus. I
don't think Jesus is the only way that energy can appear to
Where does this unravelling of past beliefs end up? Is the idea
of the divine just a metaphor, then? Or does he have some
apprehension that there is something real, but at the moment
unknown, out there?
"The divine is not a metaphor," Cockburn says. "We are a
metaphor for the divine, if anything. God is, I think, after a
relationship with us - with each of us. To me, everything is about
Does he feel that he is in touch with the divine? "I feel that
the divine will fill me up if I [allow it] - though I find it very,
very difficult to. I'm always excited and grateful when I get that
feeling that there's something going on, something divine."
COCKBURN pleads, in "Each one lost": "Screw the rule of law, We
want the rule of love, Enough to fight and die to keep it coming."
He comes from a generation that once paid lip service to love - his
first band once opened for Cream and Jimi Hendrix, after all. So I
wonder what exactly the word means for him.
"Well, I don't mean hippie love. To me, love is a force like
gravity, the glue that holds the universe together, down at the
level of that Higgs boson particle they think they've discovered.
We feel this connectedness; it makes us feel at home; it makes us
long for something that we aren't in contact with; and that's where
it starts, for me.
"The rule of love, to me, is the anarchic notion that, when you
get down to that level of things, when you're motivated by God, you
don't need rules. Can you run a society like that? Probably not.
But in the hearts of us all, there's room for that."
In the past, Greenbelt has described Cockburn as "prophetic". It
is not how he sees himself, but he tells me: "I hope that people
will take this stuff seriously, and be moved by it. I try to write
songs in such a way that I think that that will happen. If the
songs open the world up for people, or touch them in some way they
feel is prophetic, that's as much as any artist could ever hope
Does he find that the kind of people who go to Greenbelt are
especially receptive? "It's different from other festivals that I
go to. There's this whole intellectual and heart-based dimension to
it that's quite distinctive." He adds, drily: "I don't think I've
played for another audience that sang along as lustily to 'If I had
a rocket launcher'. Nobody did that at the Royal Festival
Bruce Cockburn is also being recorded for the Bob
Harris Show on BBC Radio 2 on Sunday 26 August. It will be
broadcast in the autumn.
The Greenbelt Festival takes place from 24 to 27 August at
Cheltenham Racecourse. www.greenbelt.org.uk
THE ESSENTIAL BRUCE COCKBURN
• Circles in the Stream (1977)
• Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws
• Humans (1980)
• Stealing Fire (1984)
• Nothing but a Burning Light
• Dart to the Heart (1994)
• The Charity of Night (1996)
• Breakfast in New Orleans
• Dinner in Timbuktu (1999)
• Slice O Life: Live solo (2009)