Back in 1970, when Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn launched his first eponymous solo album, he happily celebrated the virtues of rural life in songs like "Going to the Country" and "Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon." On his album covers, Cockburn was occasionally seen perched under a tree with his acoustic guitar surrounded by a gentle sprinkling of snow, or maybe next to a warm fireplace, as he was on his third record, Sunwheel Dance (1972).His songs were both poetic and spiritual – at times, even mystical – yet richly evocative and intelligent. Bruce Cockburn seemed content to personify the quiet comforts of Canada’s untamed landscape. But then, in the late Seventies, he moved to the urban enclaves of Toronto. Suddenly, rock, reggae, jazz and electronica would not only bring an untamed sound to his music, but add a harder edged political sensibility to his work, which would sometimes be heard as romantically poetic ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), stridently controversial ("If I Had a Rocket Launcher") and didactic ("Call it Democracy"). Today his memoir Rumours Of Glory (HarperCollins) — which chronicles of his Christian faith and activism — arrives in stores to join a Cockburn curated 9–disc CD and DVD companion box set of what you might call a musical biography to serve as a soundtrack to the book. The mammoth CD set, released on his career spanning label, True North, also includes a 90–page book featuring rare photos, extensive track information and new liner notes written by Canadian music critic and author Nicholas Jennings. Because the songs aren't necessarily chronological, as in a traditional box-set, Rumours of Glory deftly contrasts the rustic romanticism in in Cockburn’s music with his growing sensuality and political fervour.
By 1979, Bruce Cockburn started to make music that even had the earmarks of commercial pop on it – like the reggae drenched “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (originally heard on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws). Within a year, “Wondering Where the Lions Are” had become a hit and reached #21 in the U.S. Billboard Charts. It was on the 1980 release Humans, however, when you could hear an eclectic assortment of musical styles from reggae ("Rumours of Glory," "What About the Bond") to acoustic punk ("Fascist Architecture") despite (or perhaps because) his married life was coming apart. The result of that split would be heard in his first self-produced Inner City Front in 1981, which would kick off with the big band impressionistic hard rock of "You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance," which owed much of its poetic spree to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business." Since he'd also fallen in love, Inner City Front also had its share of romantic songs like the lovely "And We Dance" (which is sadly not included in the CD box), but the politically incendiary tracks "Justice" and "Broken Wheel" do make the cut. The point of including those cuts in the box are perhaps to show that living in the city and observing urban life had not only changed Cockburn’s music, it was also dramatically altering his global perspective which was growing more radical in scope. From here, Cockburn's music never lost its free ranging compass even if the songs grew less elliptical and moved more towards the finger-pointing topicality of protest music.
Bob Dylan transformed himself from an acoustic troubadour into a rock and roller in 1965, and fans booed him across the world for betraying the cause of folk music. When Bruce Cockburn went from being a rural folk artist into an urban and electric rocker in 1981, nobody got upset – even though he began featuring some radically new music. What Rumours of Glory reveals is an artist continually evolving and whose many changes don't so much provoke his audience (as Dylan did), but draw them instead into his paradoxical sojourn for freedom where his spiritual salvation can transform both his art and the world he depicts in it. Rumours of Glory opens the door to a world of those possibilities – both musically and politically – and it's an enduring riddle that Bruce Cockburn continues to try and resolve.
- Kevin Courrier is currently doing a lecture series at the Toronto JCC Miles Nadal on The Beatles on Monday evenings at 7pm. Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.