On Wednesday evening at Massey Hall in Toronto, Bruce Cockburn will be honoured by the Luminato Festival for his 40 years of songwriting. Cockburn and others (including Sylvia Tyson, Hawksley Workman, Colin Linden and Amelia Curran) will perform a selection of the iconic recording artist's songs, including the ones discussed here by the man himself.
Slow Down Fast
From the album Life Short Call Now, 2006's Slow Down Fast could be construed as a musical version of an "end-is-nigh" sign. Cockburn explains: "I have a lot of songs like that, really, over the years. Trickle Down and Call It Democracy, I would put in the same league. It's a song where I'm saying, 'Look at the things that are going on - are we going to address this or aren't we?' The answer is yes, a little of both, but I'm afraid not enough."
If a Tree Falls
Written in 1988, the hit single and video from the album Big Circumstance raised awareness of the destruction under way in the Amazon rain forests. Cockburn speaks about the issue, and whether anything has changed. "It shifts all the time. When I wrote that song they were cutting down the Amazon rain forest to put in cattle. But that didn't work out, and the next thing you know they're planting soybeans. But they're still cutting down the forests, and they're still displacing the natives. Corn for the biodiesel trade, that's the new big thing. You can't win. You create all this awareness about one aspect of the problem, but as soon as you think you have a foot on top of that, it squeezes out from under and morphs into something else."
If I Had a Rocket Launcher
Famously, Woody Guthrie's guitar had a message written on it, "This Machine Kills Fascists." Are Cockburn's songs and guitars his own rocket launchers? "It's not out of line to say these things," Cockburn replies. "But when I wrote that song, in 1983, it wasn't intended to be any kind of weapon. It was an expression of my own surprise at feeling so specifically a certain way, when I was confronted with the [Guatemalan]refugee-camp scene [in Mexico] It's about a sense of outrage. I don't know whether I'm violent or not. I don't know if I have the talent for it. I think probably I'm chicken, if anything."
All the Diamonds
The image-laden song from 1973 was written in Stockholm on the day after Cockburn realized he was a Christian. He comments now on Christianity, and how he views the song so many years later. "It's emotional, in a way. It marks a signal moment in my life. It's there. But I have to think when I perform it now, because I don't want to be associated with certain aspects of the Christian culture and tradition. I'm not so inclined to think of the imagery of what we associate with Christianity - the guy on the cross with the beard. It's not so much that, as it is about what we call the Holy Spirit."
Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long (1973)
One wonders if Cockburn, the activist-songwriter, wished he could be less of the important, serious guy. Are there times he'd rather barrelhouse all night long? "Yes, quite often actually," he answers with a laugh. "I'd much rather be the fun guy than the self-important serious guy. You didn't say 'self-important,' but I'm saying that."
Lovers in a Dangerous Time
The graceful 1984 hit was later covered with success by the Barenaked Ladies. Cockburn speaks about different eras, and how none are less dangerous than others. "When I wrote that, I was thinking of kids my daughter's age. She was quite young at the time. But, for any given individual, the world has always been a place where you could die. That's the baseline. At times we can ignore that, more than other times. There are times when fear is in the air, and, of course, there's always people around willing to exploit that, and enhance it, if need be."
One Day I Walk
The country-influenced track from 1971's High Winds White Sky refers to street-busking. Almost 40 years later, the acclaimed guitarist considers the idea of playing for passers-by coins now: "It's a scary proposition. As something of my own initiative, I'm not likely to do that. Unless, of course, I have to do it to make a living. You can never rule these things out. If it came down to it, I would cheerfully do it."
The Canadian Songbook: 40 Years of Bruce Cockburn takes place Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at Massey Hall in Toronto (416-872-1111).