Early Years and Career
Bruce Cockburn was raised on a farm near Pembroke, west of Ottawa, and in Ottawa itself. He began playing clarinet and trumpet before becoming obsessed with an old guitar he found in his grandmother’s attic when he was in his teens. He took lessons with Ottawa music store owner Hank Simms, and studied theory and composition independently in high school. He then busked on the streets of Paris, France, and studied theory, composition and arranging at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts (1964–66), before dropping out after a year and a half.
In Boston he was introduced to the urban folk music revival and to jazz, which had an influence on his work during the mid-1970s. However, on his return to Ottawa he played in a succession of rock bands, including The Esquires, The Children and The Flying Circus. The latter changed its name to Olivus and had some success as a live band, opening for Wilson Pickett, Cream, The Loving Spoonful and Jimi Hendrix.
Cockburn performed solo in coffeehouses and, on the referral of his friend, Murray McLauchlan, made his first appearance at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1967, returning in 1969. His solo career continued, although he was also a member of the folk-rock band 3’s a Crowd when it was revived for a CBC Television series in 1968.
1970s — Rise to Success
In 1970, Cockburn became partners with Bernie Finkelstein in the music-publishing firm Golden Mountain Music, and released his self-titled debut album, produced by Kensington Market‘s Eugene Martynec, through Finkelstein’s True North Records. The record launched the label and included two songs, “Going to the Country” and “Musical Friends,” that reached the Top 40 on RPM’s adult contemporary chart. Finkelstein has served as Cockburn’s manager ever since.
With the critical and popular success of his music for the landmark feature film Goin' Down the Road (1970) and the LPs Bruce Cockburn (1970), High Winds, White Sky (1971) and Sunwheel Dance (1972), Cockburn rose to national prominence and won three consecutive Juno Awards for Folksinger of the Year from 1971 to 1973. He embarked on his first cross-country tour in 1972, and subsequently appeared at such major venues as Toronto’s Massey Hall and Ontario Place Forum, Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, Montréal’s St-Denis Theatre, Vancouver’s Orpheum and Queen Elizabeth Theatre, and many Canadian folk festivals. He made his United States debut at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1974, and first performed in Japan and Europe in 1977.
Cockburn’s performances began incorporating electric guitar in 1973, the year he released Night Vision. That album earned him his first sales award when it was certified gold in Canada in 1979.
As one of the first English Canadian singer-songwriters to enjoy success in Québec, Cockburn sang several of his songs in French and had all of his lyrics translated for publication on the covers or inserts of his albums, beginning with Sunwheel Dance. The bilingual “Prenons la mer” was a hit in Québec in 1978.
In the mid-1970s, after dabbling in such diverse spiritual pursuits as Buddhism and black magic, Cockburn converted to Christianity. Rolling Stone magazine observed that, as a result, “his songs became less folky and his imagery more overtly religious, earning him the tag of ‘Christian mystic.’”
He was nominated for three more Folksinger of the Year Junos in 1975, 1978 and 1979 as he issued a steady stream of albums that included Salt, Sun and Time (1974), Joy Will Find a Way (1975), In The Falling Dark (1976) and Further Adventures Of (1978). A 17-track live album titled Circles in the Stream, recorded at Massey Hall, was released in 1977.
Cockburn’s music started reaching a wider audience with the eight-song LP Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (1979), which completed a trilogy of acoustic jazz/folk albums and featured a cover painted by Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau. The reggae-flavoured single “Wondering Where the Lions Are” cracked the Top 40 in Canada and reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it Cockburn’s biggest American hit to date and resulting in an appearance as the musical guest on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
Cockburn continued the momentum with Humans (1980), which featured new band members Hugh Marsh (violin) and Jon Goldsmith (keyboards). Considered by many to be Cockburn’s finest album, it features some of his most enduring and popular songs, including “Tokyo,” “Fascist Architecture (I’m Okay)” and the reggae-influenced “Rumours of Glory.” His compilation album Mummy Dust (1981) yielded another Canadian hit, “Coldest Night of the Year.”
1980s — Increasingly Political Focus
Cockburn produced 1981’s Inner City Front himself, making it his first album not produced by Eugene Martynec, who won the 1981 Producer of the Year Juno for his work on “Tokyo" and Rough Trade’s “High School Confidential.” The months leading up to Inner City Front’s release included the dissolution of Cockburn’s 10-year marriage, leading him to switch from country to city life. He moved from the country into a downtown Toronto apartment and adopted a more rugged, urban sound. Most traces of the gentle folkie of the late 1960s and even the Christian mystic of the 1970s were now gone, replaced by more politicized lyrics and a greater emphasis on electric guitar.
Cockburn was named Male Vocalist of the Year and Folk Artist of the Year at both the 1981 and 1982 Juno Awards (he would not win again until 2000). A 1981 concert at Toronto’s Music Hall was captured in Martin Lavut’s documentary, Rumours of Glory (1983). Cockburn’s political activism and anger with the state of the world became more apparent on The Trouble With Normal (1983), especially on the title track, as well as “Civilization and its Discontents” and “Planet of the Clowns.”
Cockburn’s words and music took on an even greater urgency on Stealing Fire (1984), which followed his first trip to Central America on behalf of the international development group OXFAM. While in Southern Mexico, he visited a Guatemalan refugee camp that was regularly attacked by the helicopters of the US-backed Guatemalan army. This prompted Cockburn to write the vitriolic protest song “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” which charted in both Canada and the US, and was in regular video rotation on MTV and MuchMusic. (That same trip also inspired Cockburn’s avid interest in “recreational firearms” and competitive marksmanship, which lasted until the mid-1990s. During that time, he was known to carry a bible with a camouflage cover.) Another single from Stealing Fire, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” had an evocative mix of politics and romance, and became a Top 40 single in Canada.
Cockburn and bandmate Hugh Marsh composed and performed the music for Bill Mason’s spiritual wilderness documentary, Waterwalker (1984), produced by the National Film Board. Cockburn’s LP World of Wonders followed in 1986 and was another politically charged effort, with the most popular songs being: “Call It Democracy,” “People See Through You,” “Santiago Dawn” and “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall.”
The double-CD compilation album Waiting for a Miracle: Singles 1970–87 (1987) features many of Cockburn’s most treasured tracks and was certified platinum in Canada. His next studio album, Big Circumstance (1988), was the result of three years of global travelling and reflected his reactions to war, repression and environmental abuse. “If A Tree Falls” tackled the issue of deforestation and became the album’s biggest hit, reaching the Top 10 in Canada and scoring heavy rotation on MuchMusic. Some of the album’s other titles, such as “Where The Death Squad Lives” and “Radium Rain,” accurately reflect their lyrical content.
Cockburn’s international itinerary during the 1980s included concerts in Central America, Australia and Japan in 1983, and throughout Europe in 1986 and 1987. A 1989 tour comprised more than 90 concerts in Canada, the US, England, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. Bruce Cockburn Live was recorded at Ontario Place Forum in August 1989 and released in 1990.
After 19 albums with True North, Cockburn signed a worldwide contract with New York-based Columbia Records in 1991. He teamed with Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer, songwriter, musician and producer T-Bone Burnett (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos) on Nothing But a Burning Light (1991).It featured a mix of personal and worldly material, and guest contributions from Booker T. Jones, Jackson Browne and Sam Phillips, and yielded the Top 40 hits “A Dream Like Mine” and “Great Big Love.” In 1993, he performed at Bill Clinton’s presidential inaugural ball and released his self-produced Christmas album. The Burnett-produced Dart to the Heart followed in 1994 and included the Top 40 single “Listen for the Laugh.”
Cockburn’s 23rd album, The Charity of Night (1996), was his first for Rykodisc. It was co-produced by Cockburn and Colin Linden, and featured guest turns by Bonnie Raitt, Ani DiFranco, Maria Muldaur and jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton. It included the Top 40 hit “Night Train” as well as "The Mines of Mozambique," which documents the deadly impact of anti-personnel mines.
Cockburn performed internationally through the 1990s. His third live album, You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance (1997), was recorded at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, on 3 May 1997. He also wrote and performed the theme song for the children's television series Franklin (1997–2004), which earned him a SOCAN Award. He closed out the decade with his 20th studio album, Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu (1999), which included the fan favourite "Last Night of the World" and won the 2000 Juno Award for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year: Solo.
The anthology Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979–2002 and an extensive catalogue reissue campaign launched Cockburn’s new deal with the respected US roots music label Rounder Records in 2002. The album You've Never Seen Everything (2003) revealed a definite jazz influence, thanks to such guest musicians as New York-based Canadian pianist Andy Milne. It also retains Cockburn's politically charged global perspective while incorporating cameos from such roots music friends as Sarah Harmer and Emmylou Harris.
Cockburn’s celebrated artistry as a guitarist was showcased on Speechless (2005). Instrumentals dating back to the early 1970s were featured alongside three new tracks co-produced with Colin Linden. Cockburn began work in early 2006 on a new studio album with Goldsmith, his producer during the commercially fertile Stealing Fire period in the mid-1980s. Life Short Call Now (2006) featured such guests as DiFranco, Ron Sexsmith, Hawksley Workman and Damhnait Doyle. Slice O' Life — Solo Live was released in 2009, and in May of that year Cockburn performed at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party at Madison Square Garden with DiFranco, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Rufus and Martha Wainwright.
In 2010, Cockburn was forced to cancel a 12-date Canadian tour due to a bout of pneumonia that resulted in a partially collapsed lung (he made a full recovery). In November 2011, at age 66, he became a father for the second time when his San Francisco-based girlfriend gave birth to a baby girl.
Cockburn's 2011 album, Small Source of Comfort, won two Canadian Folk Music Awards that year and was also named Solo Roots & Traditional Album of the Year at the 2012 Junos. VisionTV aired a documentary that year titled Bruce Cockburn, Pacing the Cage about his life, music and spirituality. In November 2014, HarperCollins Canada published his memoir, Rumours of Glory. It was accompanied by a box set of the same name released on 28 October, consisting of a live concert DVD filmed in 1988 and 117 songs — 16 of them previously unreleased — spread over nine CDs.
Cockburn’s 25th studio album, Bone on Bone, was released to favourable reviews in September 2017, one week before Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside Neil Young. Bone on Bone went on to win the 2018 Juno Award for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year.
Musical Characteristics and Significance
As Ian Pearson wrote in 1981, “To the generation of Canadians that came of age in the late 1960s, [Cockburn] was a pure indigenous alternative to popular music: the bearded mystic who crafted fragile melodies on his acoustic guitar and sang with a voice as ephemeral as mist about spirituality and the wonders of going to the country.” Pointing out that Cockburn has never achieved the same level of fame as his peers Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, AllMusic’s Roch Parisien has said that Cockburn “may well be the most underrated of Canada’s major singer-songwriters.”
Cockburn’s music is most notable for two qualities: the humanist, poetic style of his lyrics, which make references to Christianity and can be highly charged politically; and his intricate finger-picking guitar style, which fuses Mississippi blues with modal jazz harmony, melodic lyricism and cycling rhythms. In reference to his guitar playing, Cockburn has said that “my right hand is folk music and my left hand is kind of poorly absorbed jazz training. That’s perhaps a simple way to put it.” He has joked that he plays “pretty good guitar for a lyricist.”
Cockburn has also described his work as music that “asks something” of people, “that invites them to think a little bit.” Unfailingly earnest, he has been referred to — both affectionately and disparagingly — as “Canada’s cultural conscience” and even “Saint Bruce.” The Vancouver Sun pointed out in 1995 that Cockburn is “not considered politically correct in any camp… Many Christians can’t stand his politics. And many political radicals can’t stand his Christianity… His doctrine is hard to pin down in a neat way, which is a characteristic of a mystic.”
The Toronto Star’s Stephen Bede Scharper has argued that “Cockburn has woven Christian faith, political activism and vibrant guitar playing into a dynamic musical swirl,” and that Cockburn’s personal theology is similar to that of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, who “proclaimed that to ‘know God was to do justice.’” Cockburn himself has said, "I think it's wrong to ignore what's going on around you. We purport to believe in the concept of loving your brother, which we're told in the Bible is everybody. And I don't see how you can sit and think you're loving your brother when your brother is starving to death or killing his brother… [F]or some reason the abuse of human dignity is something that matters to me. I abhor it."
Covers and Tributes
Often considered a “songwriter’s songwriter,” Cockburn's songs have been recorded by more than 20 artists, including Judy Collins, k.d. lang, Jimmy Buffett, Chet Atkins, The Barra McNeils, John Allan Cameron, Mary Coughlan, Dan Fogelberg, Jerry Garcia, George Hamilton IV, Ron Kavan, Anne Murray, The Rankins, Tom Rush, Leo Sayer, Valdy and David Wiffen.
Thirteen Canadian musical artists — including Barenaked Ladies, Rebecca Jenkins, Jane Siberry, the Skydiggers and Bob Wiseman — recorded Cockburn songs for the 1991 tribute album Kick at the Darkness. The Barenaked Ladies’ recording of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” helped launch the band’s career when it reached No. 16 on the Canadian singles chart in 1991. Cockburn and his signature line from “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight / Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight”) were also referenced by U2 in the band’s 1988 song “God Part II”: “Heard a singer on the radio / Late last night / Says he’s gonna kick the darkness / Till it bleeds daylight.”
Canadian jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti recorded an instrumental album of Cockburn songs titled Creation Dream (2000) and Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell released an album of his songs titled My Dinner With Bruce (2006). Toronto’s Luminato Festival honoured Cockburn’s extensive songbook with a 2010 tribute concert titled The Canadian Songbook: 40 Years of Bruce Cockburn. It featured such varied guests as Occhipinti, Barenaked Ladies, folk-rapper Buck 65, country rockers Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, country-folk singers Sylvia Tyson and Amelia Curran, Hawksley Workman and folk-pop trio The Wailin’ Jennys.
Many of Cockburn’s best-known songs from 1969 to 1979 were published by Ottawa Folklore Centre Publications in 1986 in the folio All the Diamonds. Cockburn contributed "Ribbon of Darkness" to Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot (2003) and "Strong Hand of Love" to the Mark Heard tribute albums Strong Hand of Love (1994) and Orphans of God (1996).
Charity Work and Activism
Cockburn has long been a dedicated social-justice activist with left-leaning politics. He has worked with OXFAM, the Unitarian Services Committee, Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders, Friends of the Earth and World Vision Canada. He has made fact-finding visits to Central America, which led to a series of lecture tours. He later made similar humanitarian aid visits to Nepal, Mozambique, Honduras, Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq. During a trip to war-torn Afghanistan in 2009, he visited his younger brother, Captain John Cockburn, a physician in the Canadian Army.
Cockburn has spoken out on such issues as Third World debt, Indigenous rights, human rights abuses and the environment. In 1998, he narrated a television documentary on the Mali desert. He was also a leading spokesperson for the movement to ban landmines. After addressing the landmine issue in dozens of interviews, Cockburn and Jackson Browne headlined a fundraising concert in Ottawa on 3 December 1997 that marked the signing of a United Nations treaty banning their use. Cockburn also performed with Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Steve Earle at the Concert for a Landmine Free World at Massey Hall on 4 December 2000.
Cockburn has performed at numerous other benefit and humanitarian-related shows, including: a 1986 concert that raised $35,000 to help the Haida in their land claims struggle; a 1990 concert in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee; the 1993 Earth Day show at the Hollywood Bowl; a 1996 UNICEF concert in Kosovo; the 2005 Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ontario; the 2005 UN Summit for Climate Control in Montréal; a 2008 concert at the University of Victoria to aid child soldiers; a 2009 show for Canadian troops in Afghanistan; and the 2012 Bring Leonard Peltier Home concert in New York.
In 2001, environmentalist David Suzuki and singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot inducted Cockburn into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame during a ceremony that included tributes from U2's Bono, Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmins and Jackson Browne, who once called Cockburn “one of the most astute and compelling songwriters in the English language.”
In 2005, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Wondering Where the Lions Are” were ranked No. 11 and No. 29, respectively, in a list of the “most essential Canadian songs of all time” compiled by the CBC Radio series 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version. In addition to receiving the inaugural Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at the 2006 Juno Awards, Cockburn has been honoured for his activist efforts by the Canadian Music Broadcast & Industry Awards, which gave him the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award in 2014.
Cockburn received the Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award from Earth Day Canada in 2010, and was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 2011. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from SOCAN and more than a half-dozen honorary degrees. In 2013, he donated his archives — including 32 notebooks, musical arrangements, gold records, letters, scrapbooks, three guitars and nearly 1,000 recordings — to McMaster University.
- Top Folksinger (or Group)(1971)
- Folksinger of the Year (1972)
- Folksinger of the Year (1973)
- Male Vocalist of the Year (1981)
- Folk Artist of the Year (1981)
- Male Vocalist of the Year (1982)
- Folk Artist of the Year (1982)
- Best Roots & Traditional Album of the Year: Solo (Breakfast in New Orleans Dinner in Timbuktu) (2000)
- Canadian Music Hall of Fame (2001)
- Allan Waters Humanitarian Award (2006)
- Best Roots & Traditional Album of the Year: Solo (Small Source of Comfort) (2012)
- Contemporary Roots Album of the Year (Bone on Bone) (2018)
- PRO CANADA Award (1981)
- PRO Canada Awards (1982)
- PRO Canada Award (1985)
- PRO Canada Wm. Harold Moon Award for International Achievement (1986)
- PRO Canada Crystal Award (1988)
- PRO Canada Award (1988)
- SOCAN Award (1990)
- “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” SOCAN Awards (1993)
- “Great Big Love,” SOCAN Awards (1993)
- “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” SOCAN Classics Award (1995)
- “The Coldest Night of the Year,” SOCAN Classics Award (2000)
- Folk/Roots Most Domestic Airplay, SOCAN Awards (2001)
- International Television Series Award (Franklin theme), SOCAN Awards (2006)
- Lifetime Achievement Award, SOCAN Awards (2012)
- Goin’ Down the Road Soundtrack (1971)
- “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (1981)
- Top Male Vocalist, CASBY Awards (1985)
- Top Male Vocalist, CASBY Awards (1986)
- Video of the Year, CASBY Awards (1986)
- Honorary Doctorate, Doctor of Letters, York University (1989)
- Honorary Doctorate, Berklee College of Music (1997)
- Honorary Doctorate, Doctor of Letters, St. Thomas University (1999)
- Honorary Doctorate of Divinity, Queen’s University (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, Memorial University of Newfoundland (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, University of Victoria (2007)
- Honorary Doctorate, McMaster University (2009)
- Honorary Degree, D Mus, Carleton University (2014)
- Best Male Vocalist, CFNY U-Know Awards (1980)
- Best Album of the Year, CFNY U-Know Awards (1981)
- Member, Order of Canada (1982)
- Edison Award, Netherlands (1982)
- COCA Hall of Fame Award (1988)
- Q107 Toronto Music Awards (1988)
- Songwriter’s Award, Berklee School of Music (1988)
- Folk Award, Q107 Toronto Music Award (1989)
- Musician’s Award, Toronto Arts Awards (1992)
- Distinguished Alumni Award, Berklee College of Music (1994)
- Artist Award, Global Visions Festival (1995)
- Key to the City of Ottawa (1997)
- Helen Verger Award, Ottawa Folk Festival (1997)
- Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement (1998)
- Lifetime Achievement, TENCO Awards, Italy (1999)
- International Achievement Award, Billboard (2000)
- Native Heart, Native American Music Awards (2000)
- Officer, Order of Canada (2002)
- Inductee, Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame (2002)
- Inductee, Folk Music Walk of Fame (2003)
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Winnipeg Folk Festival (2005)
- Best Instrumentalist, Canadian Folk Awards (2006)
- Ottawa Peace Award (2006)
- Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award, Earth Day Canada (2010)
- Contemporary Album of the Year, Canadian Folk Music Awards (2011)
- Solo Artist of the Year, Canadian Folk Music Awards (2011)
- Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
- Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award, Canadian Music Broadcast & Industry Awards (2014)
- Inductee, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2017)
- Inductee, Canada's Walk of Fame (2021)
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.