Archives for posts with tag: Bruce Cockburn

It’s December 1; time to haul out the Christmas music. The majority of musicians in the western world have produced at least one Christmas album. Many of these albums have been insincere and musically banal, thrown together in a short time to make a few extra dollars for the record company; usually a combination of well-known traditional carols and popular contemporary songs, and if the artist was adventurous, an original tune or an obscure gem from the vault. We own at least two dozen of these albums and despite my cynicism of the genre itself, there are a few treasures worth noting.

The best Christmas album of all time is an easy choice for me. It ranks far above the hundreds of Christmas albums produced over the years. There is no Christmas album that even comes close to the authenticity, originality, sincerity, meaningfulness, emotionality, and pure appropriateness to the Christmas theme. It is Bruce Cockburn’s “Christmas”. The album is bookended by two brief instrumental versions of classic carols, and includes an actual Huron version of “The Huron Carol”, Spanish and French songs, original versions of old English carols, a pulsating original, a few bouncy spirituals, and a haunting old southern carol to juxtapose the mixed emotions of the season. And, it has liner notes about each song! It is a work of personal passion that percolated for decades before being released; this is no obligatory rush job to cash in on seasonal spending.

Honourable mentions, without attempting to limit myself to Canadian artists in this 150+ year, also happen to be by Canadian artists. “Wintersong” by Sarah McLachlan includes some of the obligatory song choices listed above but also the original title track, some unique arrangements, and my favourite song on the album: Joni Mitchell’s “River”. McLachlan’s soaring soprano is just so appropriate for Christmas songs; it sounds sincere and the album seems carefully crafted. “Bare Naked for the Holidays” by Toronto’s Bare Naked Ladies is just plain enjoyable and includes a memorable collaboration with the aforementioned on “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” And I have to mention the award winning EP “For Your Weary Head” by my son, Joel Brandt, released last year online at It is beautiful while sparse, emotive, and lyrically poignant. The one non-Canadian album I like is Sufjan Stevens’ boxed set of five folksy, bluesy, homey recordings, complete with booklet and stickers; although the five CD set really has only enough good material for maybe one full-length album.



My Top Ten Canadian Popular Music Artists/Bands:

  1. Bruce Cockburn: He is a rare combination: profound poet, guitar instrumentalist, creative songwriter, world traveler, with both spiritual depth and political sensitivity, spanning musical genres: folk, country, jazz, rock, pop, blues… and all the while a polite and self-deprecating Canadian with French lyrics included on every album.
  2. Blue Rodeo: Again, spanning musical genres similar to Cockburn. The song-writing and harmonizing duo of Cuddy & Keelor is our version of Lennon & McCartney and they’ve stayed together like Canadians do!
  3. Gordon Lightfoot: A folk troubadour who stayed in Canada with a string of gentle but catchy songs with lots of uniquely Canadian themes, e.g. The Wreck of the Edmund Fizgerald. He is an inspiring Canadian even in his 70’s.
  4. Neil Young: He could rock with the best in the free world and could also make your heart cry with his ballads. He has lived mostly in the USA but he remains true to his roots with albums like “Prairie Wind.”
  5. Leonard Cohen: Too many cover versions of Hallelujah aside, his profoundly spiritual and romantic lyrics and unique gravelly voice make him a true Canadian icon.
  6. Joni Mitchell: Rolling Stone called her “one of the greatest song-writers ever” and I would not argue.
  7. The Guess Who: The original Canadian rock’n roll band from Winnipeg with the dynamic duo of Cummings & Bachman. They did not stay together long enough but the list of classic hits is impressive including the anti-American anthem with one of the best guitar intros!
  8. Bachman Turner Overdrive: Straight ahead rock’n roll; they knew how to take care of business—speaking of great guitar intros!
  9. Jann Arden: The ultimate Canadian crooner: sensitive, real, self-deprecating, and fun.
  10. Stompin’ Tom Connors: I had to include a country singer and his down-home Canadian themes from across the country make him a must on this list.
  11. Honourable mentions that almost made it and/or would probably make other people’s lists: Great Big Sea, Anne Murray, The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Paul Brandt, Rush, The Rankin Family, KD Lang, April Wine, Diana Krall, Tom Cochrane, Ian & Sylvia Tyson, Great Lake Swimmers…Who did I miss? There are so many!


Review of Bruce Cockburn, Rumours of Glory [HarperCollins, 2014]

I’m biased. Bruce Cockburn is my favorite Canadian singer songwriter, perhaps my favorite from anywhere. Thus, I began my read of his memoir with inherent interest. A few years earlier I had read Brian Walsh’s Kicking at the Darkness which explored Cockburn’s spirituality according to his lyrics. My thought was that this would just be a more personal version of the same. It was, although sometimes too much so in my opinion.

Too much, as in it could have been shorter than 526 pages. It reminded me of Neil Young’s autobiography which was also over 500 pages [See my earlier review]. Cockburn’s memoir is more articulately and thoughtfully written than Young’s, not unlike a comparison of their song lyrics. They both write much about their relationships but Young writes about cars and guitars while Cockburn writes about God and social issues. The latter being more interesting, for me at least. Even then, it was still too long.

At times there was also too much personal [private] information. Rumours of Glory is at its best when he gives us personal and spiritual insights into his songs [lyrics liberally included in the book] and at its worst when he gives us too many details about his numerous sexual relationships with women. I appreciate his vulnerability but there are some things I don’t need to know. Yet, sexuality and spirituality are often more closely related than we might care to admit and Cockburn’s memoir exemplifies this. It is indeed a deeply personal spiritual autobiography as he had insisted on when approached to write his story. Here are a few selected excerpts [with songs alluded to in brackets] that give you a feel for the book and the author:

Our journey is driven by longing. Longing is perhaps the overarching human emotion. Longing has to do with God, because what humans long for the most is a relationship with the Divine. We may not be conscious of it, but we long to know God, in whatever context or guise that might mean to the individual. [You Don’t Have to Play the Horses, 1972; Shining Mountain, 1970; He Came from the Mountain, 1971]

My songs tend to be triggered by whatever is in front of me, filtered through feeling and imagination. [My songs] are not meant as calls to action—though if someone heard one of my songs and was inspired to help the poor or save an ecosystem, all the better—but as an attempt to share my personal response to experience with anyone who feels a resonance, or even with someone who doesn’t, because life is one long conversation. [People See Through You, 1985; Planet of the Clowns, 1981; Berlin Tonight, 1985; The Charity of Night, 1994; Where the Death Squad Lives, 1986]

It was as if God were overseeing my basic training. The military tears you down to nothing and then rebuilds you in the mold they want. The fires of crisis often afford an opportunity to rebuild ourselves, to move forward from the embers into the arms of God. [Embers of Eden, 1997; Get Up Jonah, 1995; When You Give it Away, 1997]

Cockburn appropriately closes the book by reflecting on lyrics from Life Short Call Now, his second to last album at the time of writing [2014] and also perhaps his most spiritual album.

People who maintain a relationship with the Divine—no matter the religion or sect or specified belief system—will bear a special burden. It’s the burden of healing that is so needed after our poor stewardship of this blessed earth and of each other. Between the dogmatism of fear-based fundamentalism and the Battlestar Galactica new-aginess of Hollywood, down there in the cracks, there is room, there is a necessity, for the sharing of real, personal, and experiential knowledge of God—of love. That is our mission…[Mystery, 2004; Beautiful Creatures, 2004; The Light Goes On Forever, 1980]

#3 in the Canadiana series: Review of Neil Young’s autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace

I have followed a number of Canadian folk and rock musicians beginning with Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, the Guess Who, and BTO; however, my favorite singer-songwriter has always been Bruce Cockburn. I also enjoy the smooth, soaring harmonies of Blue Rodeo and their fusion of country, folk, rock, and jazz. The Great Lake Swimmers, and most recently Reuben and the Dark [stay tuned for an upcoming review] are presently on my playlist. I have not yet opened Bruce Cockburn’s spiritual autobiography, but I happened to spot Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace for a dollar while browsing at the Winkler MCC Store this summer.

The weakness of the book is that it is written very crudely and simplistically; and with just under 500 pages, it includes a lot of trivial details that I could have done without. The other side of this is that I feel like I really got to know the man. I found out his true loves: music-making friends [too many to mention], his three kids [two boys with disabilities], his latest wife Pegi [his third long-term partner], cars [he owns multiple Lincolns and Cadillacs, most notably “Lincvolt” his custom made electric car which he drove to Fort McMurray to protest the oil sands a few years ago], and guitars [he is obsessed with perfecting tone].

Neil Young grew up in northern Ontario, moved with his mother to Winnipeg when his parents separated, then drifted to Toronto as a young adult musician but soon crossing the border to spend the rest of his life in the USA, eventually settling down on a ranch in California with a second home in Hawaii. In many ways he has lived the life of a typical American rock star, unlike the above named artists who all continue to live in Canada, but he does hold a nostalgic view of his Canadian roots.

“Old memories are wonderful things and should be held on to as long as possible, shared with others, and embellished if need be. Whenever I go back to Canada, my heart is flooded with them—memories, that is. I look forward to seeing my brother, Bob, and Dave Toms up there in Peterborough when I go back for the premiere of Jonathan Demme’s new documentary. It will be a great time. (Canadians say great a lot, in case you haven’t noticed. I know. I have looked up many other words I could have used in the thesaurus, but that is not my style. I prefer to be boring and use the same words over and over, because that is more true to who I really am. That may not work for you if you pride yourself on your great vocabulary.)”

Although there are too many pages filled with trivial details about his obsessions with cars, relationships, and musical adventures, he does offer interesting background to some of his songs [his favorite albums are mine as well: Harvest and Comes a Time]. And although I would not call him a particularly reflective or spiritual person, he does have some insightful commentary on life.

The title reflects his “hippie dream” of peace in relationships and in the world. One of his most well-known songs, “Heart of Gold” describes this search for meaning and inner peace. Although he mentions the album “Prairie Wind” as going back to his roots in Canada, he unfortunately does not comment on “When God Made Me” which is a tender Gospel song in the spirit of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” He wrote “Ohio” as a response to the Kent State shootings in the 1960’s and more recently his “Living With War” is an in your face protest of American militarism during the Gulf War.

The book ends the same way it begins and reads throughout: with a trivial detail about an ordinary day, but I like the following statement better as a conclusion. This statement is his explanation of “It is better to burn out than to fade away” which is perhaps one of the most oft-quoted of his song lyrics. “At sixty-five, it seems that I may not be at the peak of my rock and roll powers. But that is not for sure. The idea that I should have died earlier is not the point. There really is more to life than its charged peak, because other things continue to grow and develop long afterward, enriching and growing the spirit and soul.”