Edhird's Blog

Restoring Health: body, mind and spirit


Bruce Cockburn: Restless Virtuoso

 By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

While at the local library with my wife, I ran across Bruce Cockburn’s fascinating new autobiography and spiritual memoirs Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory[1].   A true Canadian icon, Cockburn ironically gets more airtime now on US radios than in Canada.  Until recently, he has been called one of Canada’s best kept secrets.[2]  Over the past five decades, he has released thirty-one albums, selling over seven million copies worldwide, including one million copies in Canada.[3]  The New York Times has called Cockburn a virtuoso on guitar.[4]  His accomplishments include 12 Juno Awards and 21 gold/platinum certifications. As well as being a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, Cockburn is an Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.[5]  He even has his own postage stamp![6]  It is easy to put famous people up on pedestals, only for them to come crashing down.

Cockburn noted: “What doesn’t kill you makes for songs.”[7]  He is very transparent in his memoirs about the ‘cage of reticence’ that he has been trapped in, saying that it took him decades to open up enough to allow another human beyond the courtyard of his heart.[8] Due to the flat lining of emotional content, he bottled up his feelings and failed to connect.[9]  Cockburn commented: “It was almost impossible for me to communicate from the heart, especially if the subject required deep openness….I remained too trapped inside myself…”[10]  Even positive attention could be off-putting to him.[11]  Being terrified of audiences, he initially pretended that they were not there.[12]  Through his music, Cockburn temporarily came out of hiding: “Music is my diary, my anchor through anguish and joy, a channel for the heart.”  His self-described penchant for withdrawal led to several painful relational breakups: “Relationships of the heart though require exposure of the soul.”[13] Being a travelling musician can be very hard on relationships.  In his memoirs, Cockburn notes:

…a long history of failing to communicate our deepest fears, resentments, and longings was at the core of our unraveling….Neither of us would entertain for a moment the notion of going for counseling…I’d leave on tour. My wife would be left in a stew of resentment and loneliness.[14]

There are endless internet interviews with Cockburn about his spirituality.  Few authors are willing to be interviewed in such detail about their spiritual journeys.  Cockburn’s spiritual reflections are very paradoxical, evocative, and nuanced: “Anyone who has spent any time exploring Bruce Cockburn’s music knows what a complex artist he is. He is as spiritual as he is political, and as much a master musician as a lyrical poet.”[15]  He is a free spirit who cannot be boxed in.  Bruce has a strongly developed social conscience and passion for justice that is expressed through his music, particularly in the 1980s.[16] The more interior 1970s led to a more exterior 1980s, focusing on the love of oppressed neighbours in the Global South. [17]

While raised in the United Church by agnostic parents, his first spiritual encounter occurred while taking communion in St George’s Anglican Church in Ottawa: “it felt like something happened.”[18] He called it a wondrous shiver of contact, of connection.[19]  At his wedding at St George’s, all of a sudden there was someone there “as vivid as I could see them, but I couldn’t see them, this loving presence…So I started taking Jesus very seriously at that point…that image has never left.”[20] Sadly, in moving to Toronto, Cockburn ‘didn’t find another church that had the same spirit attached to it.”[21]

It has been said that Cockburn has a spiritual GPS in him that doesn’t want to shut off: “I’m trying to get people to be aware of how much more there is to life than just what they see.” [22] There are people who love Bruce Cockburn just for his music,” said Mr. Brian Walsh, explaining each has their reasons be it his guitar virtuosity, his lyrics or his political stance. “They don’t always get the spirituality.”[23]  Cockburn’s quest for deeper meaning is a lifelong spiritual journey: “I believe that my relationship with God is central to my life. It is the most important thing in my life.”[24] “Eventually, through a series of personal stuff in the early ’70s, I ended up giving myself to Christ and asking for help, and I figured at that point I better start calling myself a Christian,” said Cockburn. “I think a personal relationship with God is what we’re supposed to be after and what God is after. That experience was a very crucial part of discovering and attempting to develop that relationship,” said Cockburn.[25]  The song All The Diamonds was written on the night of Cockburn’s conversion: “When Jesus came into my life, in 1974, he also came into my music.”[26] Only God, said Cockburn, can fill that hole inside of us.[27]

 My three favorite Cockburn songs are Lord of the Starfields, All the Diamonds, and Wondering Where the Lions Are.[28]  The autobiography gave a fascinating backdrop to Cockburn’s life and songs, illuminating the rumours of glory.  Bruce is very experimental, experiencing himself into faith and relationship with God.  Then he reflects on it later, sometimes in very confusing and ambiguous ways.

Cockburn has always been a restless spirit: “I craved adventure. I needed to throw myself into something unknown, travel with only vague destinations, expose myself to the elements, sail the seas.”[29]   He says that a lot of his nomadic rootlessness and constant longing for home comes from mistrust when his father destroyed his first poems: “I have a great deal of mistrust. I have a mistrust of authority. I have a mistrust of things I don’t know intimately.  I have a mistrust that takes the form of “OK, God, I am here for you and you are here for me. But I don’t want to go all the way because you might ask something of me that I am not capable of giving or don’t want to give. So I hold myself back from that piece because of that.  I am working on that piece…”[30]  May Bruce Cockburn continue to inspire others to seek for home.

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin

-an article previously published in the Deep Cove Crier/North Shore News

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[1] Bruce Cockburn: “It’s supposed to be a spiritual memoir, so whatever that means. I’m not even sure what that really means, but that’s what the publisher asked for.” Bruce Cockburn by Dan MacIntosh on February 22, 2013. http://stereosubversion.com/interviews/bruce-cockburn-2  (accessed March 6th 2015)

[2] Terry Roland, “Bruce Cockburn Brings His Slice of Life”, L.A. Acoustic Music Festival, “Bruce Cockburn may be one of Canada’s best kept secrets.” http://folkworks.org/features/feature-articles/96-may-2009-articles/35983-bruce-cockburn   (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[3] http://www.cashboxcanada.ca/5136/proudly-canadian-bruce-cockburn  (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[4] http://brucecockburn.com  (Accessed March 1st 2015)

[5] http://brucecockburn.com (Accessed March 1st 2015).

[6] “Canadian Music Hall of Famer Bruce Cockburn gets stamped”, May 5, 2011 http://brucecockburn.com/tag/cockburn-stamp ; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/januaryweb-only/brucecockburn-january24.html  (accessed March 7th 2015).

[7] Bruce Cockburn, Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory (HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2014), p. 419. ; p.137 “Anything that touches me with a sense of meaning is likely to make its way into a song…”

[8] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 103, p. 105 “…trapped forever in a cage of reticence.”

[9] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p.104 “Forging close ties has been particularly hard for me, given the flat lining of emotional content that was the unstated rule in my childhood home….I learned how to bottle up feelings which would later lead to psychic capitulations and failures to connect, sabotaging deeper relationships with others.”

[10] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 129.

[11] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 19 “I didn’t like attention anyway, except on my own terms. I still don’t. Even positive attention can be oppressive.”

[12] “In the beginning, I was terrified of audiences. The only way that I could deal with it was to pretend that they were not there. “ Brian Walsh Interviewing Bruce Cockburn 4 – “Kicking at the Darkness”  May 20, 2012 at the recent Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing (April 19th 2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv5OveKtPSQ&spfreload=10  (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[13] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 4, p. 84, p. 106.

[14] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 183.

[15] Bruce Cockburn by Dan MacIntosh on February 22, 2013. http://stereosubversion.com/interviews/bruce-cockburn-2 (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[16] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p.119 “An honest reading of 1 Corinthians 13 and other beautiful passages in the Bible speaks to a humanity dedicated to serving all creation through active benevolence, through love.”; Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 41 “Jesus instructs us to love, to seek the Divine in the everyday, to foment real peace and real freedom, to share bounty among the poor, and to challenge malevolent forces even if it means placing yourself at great risk.”

[17] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 198 “If the seventies were marked by a deep introspection, the eighties were largely characterized by a more exterior orientation….This redirection reflected the teachings of Jesus – reach out to your fellow human, love your brother and sisters and serve them…”; Stephen Bede Scharper,  “Bruce Cockburn: Faithful troubadour of a dangerous time”, Nov 03 2014, “Such a stance has led him to trouble spots around the globe, including Guatemala, Mozambique and Afghanistan, performing and speaking out on crushing Third World debt, native rights, landmines and the environment.” ; “…The amalgam of Cockburn’s activism, Christian belief and musical virtuosity led him to work with many international human rights and eco-groups such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth and Doctors without Borders.” http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2014/11/03/bruce_cockburn_faithful_troubadour_of_a_dangerous_time_scharper.html  (accessed March 5th 2015)

[18] Bruce Cockburn: “I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.”  The United Church of Canada: It’s one of the least attended churches in existence…” “My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.” Lori E. Pike , “The Thinking Christian Man and His Music: Bruce Cockburn”, http://www.todayschristianmusic.com/artists/bruce-cockburn/features/the-thinking-christian-man-his-music/  (Accessed March 5th 2015); Brian Walsh Interviewing Bruce Cockburn 4 – “Kicking at the Darkness”  May 20, 2012 at the recent Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing (April 19th 2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv5OveKtPSQ&spfreload=10  (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[19] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 190.

[20] Brian Walsh Interviewing Bruce Cockburn 4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv5OveKtPSQ&spfreload=10  (Accessed March 6th 2015)

[21] Brian Walsh Interviewing Bruce Cockburn 4  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv5OveKtPSQ&spfreload=10  (Accessed March 6th 2015); Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 192 “I never found a church that had the same feeling of community, of being filled with spirit, as St George’s. That church, with its healing services and its congregation half made up of ex-cons, was more special than I had realized. Gradually the habit of attending worship services gradually faded away.” Ed: St. George’s since left the Diocese of Ottawa, and is now called St. Peter’s & St Paul’s.

[22] Drew Marshall to Bruce Cockburn: “You have this spiritual GPS in you that doesn’t seem to shut off.” April 14th 2012 on the Drew Marshall Online show. http://drewmarshall.ca/show/120414  (Accessed March 7th 2015);  http://www.todayschristianmusic.com/artists/bruce-cockburn/features/the-thinking-christian-man-his-music/  (Accessed March 5th 2015)

[23] “Music helps reveal Christian imagination”, Mykawartha.com,  Jan 30, 2012  http://www.mykawartha.com/whatson-story/3697209-music-helps-reveal-christian-imagination (accessed March 7th 2015).

[24] “Bruce Cockburn” By Dan MacIntosh, February 22, 2013. http://stereosubversion.com/interviews/bruce-cockburn-2  (accessed March 6th 2015)

[25] Allison, Hunwicks, The Catholic Register, April 26th 2012, “Bruce Cockburn and his longing for home” http://www.catholicregister.org/item/14360-bruce-cockburn-and-his-longing-for-home (accessed March 6th 2015); Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p.133 “I wanted a healthy relationship with Kitty. It wasn’t long before I was begging on my knees, consciously asking Jesus to help me, to fortify my mind and salve my soul, to make me the person he wanted me to be. I prayed like a child without reserve. Suddenly it was there, the same presence I had felt during our wedding ceremony, in the room with me, its energy filling the air.  I felt my heart forced open. He was there! … I made a commitment to Jesus. From that moment I saw myself as a follower of Christ.”

[26] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 2; “A boat ride through the Stockholm archipelago – barren islands, sun on waves – the balance tipping toward a commitment to Christ. ” – from “All The Diamonds” songbook, edited by Arthur McGregor, OFC Publications 1986. http://cockburnproject.net/songs&music/atd.html (Accessed March 1st 2015); “The song ‘All the Diamonds in the World’ was the song that sort of marked that turning point.”- “Bruce Cockburn – A Burning Light and All the Rest” by William Ruhlmann, Goldmine magazine, 3 April 1992. Anonymous submission. (Accessed March 1st 2015)

[27] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p.106.

[28] Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p.151 ”I wrote the song Lord of the Starfields as an attempt at a Psalm. One clear summer night, walking on a gravel road…Deep space overhead, far from urban light spill, blazed with millions of distant nuclear furnaces. All the way to the edge of everything, love resounded.”

[29] http://brucecockburn.com/about  (Accessed March 1st 2015); Bruce Cockburn: Rumours of Glory, p. 45.

[30] The April 14th 2012 Drew Marshall Online show. http://drewmarshall.ca/show/120414http://www.catholicregister.org/item/14360-bruce-cockburn-and-his-longing-for-home  (Accessed March 7th 2015);  Lou Fancher, Correspondent,  “Bruce Cockburn peels back the protective shell in his memoir ‘Rumours of Glory’”, 10/27/2014, “When Cockburn was a teen, his father destroyed a notebook of his first poems — an act he says annihilated his trust of authority.” http://www.mercurynews.com/entertainment/ci_26787017/bruce-cockburn-peels-back-protective-shell-his-memoir (accessed March 7th 2015)