Bruce Cockburn will perform Saturday Sept. 7, as part of the 3-day music festival where all the town’s a stage and intimate performances occur throughout 11 venues in town.
Few recording artists are as creative and prolific as Bruce Cockburn. Since his self-titled debut in 1970, the Canadian singer-songwriter has issued a steady stream of acclaimed albums every couple of years. Bruce Cockburn says, “Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread light, at whatever level you can do it.”
Cockburn, inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017; winner of Top Contemporary Folk (Roots) Album of the Year for Bone On Bone; JUNO Award-winner (Canadian Grammy); and the inaugural People’s Voice Award at the Folk Alliance International conference in 2018, continues to find inspiration in the world around him and channel those ideas into songs. “My job is to try and trap the spirits of things in the scratches of pen on paper and the pulling of notes out of metal,” he once noted. More than forty years after embarking on his musical career, Cockburn keeps kicking at the darkness so that it might bleed daylight.
While Cockburn had been popular in Canada for years, he did not have a big impact in the United States until 1979, with the release of the album “Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws.” The album’s first single, “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. in June 1980, earning Cockburn an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Through the 1980s Cockburn’s songwriting became increasingly urban, global and political as he became more involved with progressive causes, with his second U.S. radio hit, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” from the “Stealing Fire” album. He had written the song a year earlier, after visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico that were attacked by Guatemalan military helicopters.
His newest recording, “Bone On Bone,” Cockburn’s 33rd album, arrives with 11 new songs, including “3 Al Purdys,” a brilliant six-minute epic that pays tribute to Purdy’s poetry. Cockburn explains its genesis: “I went out and got Purdy’s collected works, which is an incredible book. Then I had this vision of a homeless guy who is obsessed with Purdy’s poetry, and he’s ranting it on the street. The song is written in the voice of that character. The chorus goes, ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty dollar bill.’ Here’s this grey-haired dude, coat-tails flapping in the wind, being mistaken for the sort of addled ranters you run into on the street – except he’s not really ranting, he’s reciting Al Purdy. The spoken word parts of the track are excerpts from Purdy’s poems. After that, once the ice was broken, the songs just started coming.”
Bone on Bone amounts to the deepest expression of Cockburn’s spiritual concerns to date. The 12-time Juno winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee turned away from traditional Christianity in the mid-1970s toward a quest for the more all-inclusive mysticism he documents in his memoir. And it’s that kind of spirituality that figures prominently in “Jesus Train” and “Twelve Gates to the City.” In “Looking and Waiting,” Cockburn sings of “scanning the skies for a beacon” from the divine. “It’s a song of faith and frustration,” says Cockburn of the latter. “Tired of looking in from the outside.”
“My MO has always been to be aware of the divine… that dimension… always dealing with being stuck in a kind of observer’s position with respect to all that. I know it’s there. I don’t really see as faith so much as knowledge. Others may have different ideas about those things, but for me, I don’t have to struggle to believe in God, or the notion that God cares what happens to me. But I do have to struggle with being in a conscious, intentional relationship. That underlies a lot of these songs.”
“Forty Years in the Wilderness” ranks alongside “Pacing the Cage” or “All the Diamonds” as one of Cockburn’s most starkly beautiful folk songs. “There have been so many times in my life when an invitation has come from somewhere… the cosmos… the divine… to step out of the familiar into something new. I’ve found it’s best to listen for, and follow, these promptings. The song is really about that. You can stay with what you know or you can pack your bag and go where you’re called, even if it seems weird… even if you can’t see why or where you’ll end up.”
Tickets for the Sisters Folk Festival, Sept. 6-8, are $170 for All Event Passes, $55 for youth 18 and under for the weekend with 45+ artists performing and providing workshops. There are no individual tickets for Friday and Saturday. Tickets can be purchased at www.sistersfolkfestival.org/tickets, or call the festival office at 541-549-4979