Bruce Douglas Cockburn was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on May 27, 1945, the oldest of three children. As a teenager he took lessons in clarinet, trumpet, piano, and picked up the guitar when he was fourteen. Through high school his interest and involvement in music grew. After leaving high school in 1963, Bruce headed to Europe where, among other places, he ended up performing on the streets of Paris. After spending three months in Europe he returned to Canada, and by the fall of 1964 shipped off to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. During the three semesters he was there he joined a jug band called Walker Thompson & His Boys.
By the end of 1965, having had enough of the Berklee scene, Bruce returned to Ottawa and joined The Children. It was during this time that Bruce was encouraged by Ottawa poet and mentor, Bill Hawkins, to write his own songs. While with The Children Bruce also sat in regularly with Heavenly Blue at the legendary Ottawa folk venue, Le Hibou. In the summer of 1967, after having left The Children, he joined the Esquires . . . but he soon departed.
Before year’s end Bruce moved to Toronto where he formed a band called The Flying Circus, which later was known as Olivus. The band played such venues as Toronto’s venerable Riverboat, located in the Yorkville District. In mid-1968 the band folded and Bruce joined 3’s a Crowd, which had originally been formed in Vancouver in 1964. He was reunited with David Wiffen and Richard Patterson from The Children. In late 1967, prior to his having joined 3’s A Crowd, the band recorded several songs written by Bruce for their album, Christopher’s Movie Matinee. These songs were penned while with The Children.
Contrary to other published reports, Bruce’s first solo appearance at the influential Mariposa Folk Festival occurred on August 11, 1968, while still a member of 3’s a Crowd, not in 1967. While 3’s A Crowd did appear at Mariposa in 1967, Bruce was not a member of the band at that time.
Bruce performed solo in November 1968 at the Pornographic Onion, a well-known coffeehouse in Toronto. Though he was still with 3’s A Crowd, the transition to a solo career was well on the way. Bruce remained with 3’s A Crowd until, in the spring of 1969, he left the band to begin his solo career. Later that year he teamed with Bernie Finkelstein and Eugene Martynec to record his first album, Bruce Cockburn, and thus True North Records was born. The album was recorded in Toronto in December 1969 and released in the spring of 1970.
This would be the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between Bernie and Bruce, one that flourishes to this day. It is extremely rare to see a manager and a performer stick together for so many years. Bernie takes care of the business and Bruce takes care of the music.
Eugene Martynec would go on to produce fourteen of Bruce’s first fifteen albums, and would tour with him in 1971, behind High Winds White Sky, then again in 1974 after the release of Salt, Sun & Time.
While on hiatus from producing David Wiffen’s 1973 album, Coast to Coast Fever, Bruce managed to record a breakthrough album called Night Vision, a very urban-sounding work, musically different from previous albums. In all, he released ten albums during the 1970s, including his highly regarded early effort, High Winds White Sky, and Circles in The Stream, a double-live album recorded during his first tour with a full band in 1977. The tour came on the heels of the release of In the Falling Dark, considered by many to be one of his finest works. In April, 1977, Bruce toured Japan with True North labelmate, Murray McLauchlan. He capped off the 1970s with one of his best-known albums, Dancing in The Dragon’s Jaws, which is generally included on the “fans’ favorites list”. Bruce’s overall sound during the 1970s was very acoustic oriented, but he would soon shift gears.
Cockburn moved to Toronoto in 1980, where he would become an urban dweller thus setting the stage for influential world travels through the 1980s. He would visit developing nations such as Mexico, Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Nepal and Mozambique. Sponsoring some of these fact-finding missions were OXFAM and USC Canada. Many songs from this era were driven by hard electric guitar work. With this sound he was off in a new direction, a trait which has become a trademark of his career. Many who know Bruce’s work associate his most political songs with the 1980s. However, I think it’s important to note that while the 1970s produced a fair amount of acoustic, spiritual, nature-oriented work, national and global politics were found in his writings even then. Songs like “It’s Going Down Slow”, “Burn”, “Gavin’s Woodpile”, “Red Brother Red Sister” and “Feast of Fools” reflect this. Bruce released ten albums during the 1980s, including several compilation albums. Perhaps his most notable were Humans, Stealing Fire and World of Wonders.
The last breaths of the 1980s saw Bruce flat against the wall with little to draw from for his writing. He took some time off to explore and came back with a milestone album in 1991’s Nothing But a Burning Light. This would be his first album recorded and mixed outside of Canada (in Los Angeles). The return of a more acoustic sound, which had begun to reappear on 1989’s Big Circumstance, continued through the next several albums. He would release eight albums in the 1990s, including a compilation album and two live albums.
The 1990s saw Bruce become very active in the campaign against landmines, and in 1995 he visited Mozambique for the second time to see firsthand the huge problem of landmines buried in the ground. The album that followed this trip was called The Charity of Night, another standout effort from this decade. In 1998 he visited Mali to assess the loss of arable land to the desert. A documentary called River of Sand chronicled his time there and is available at Maple Music
In 1999 Bruce visited Cambodia and Vietnam to witness the affects of landmines that litter those two countries. The trip was organized by The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s Campaign For a Landmine Free World.
In 2001 Kensington Communications produced an hour-long biography called My Beat: The Life & Times of Bruce Cockburn which aired on CBC TV and is available at Maple Music. That same year Bruce moved to Montreal after having been in Toronto for twenty years.
For over 35 years, the Ottawa-born musician Bruce Cockburn has recorded almost as many albums while earning respect for his charitable and activist work. “My job is to try and trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper, in the pulling of notes out of metal,” Cockburn said when he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He was also made an Officer of the Order of Canada and has been the recipient of honorary degrees in Letters and Music from several North American universities, including Berklee and Toronto’s York University. His many other awards have included the Tenco Award for Lifetime Achievement in Italy and 20 gold and platinum awards in Canada.
As a songwriter, Cockburn is revered by fans and musicians alike. His songs have been covered by such diverse artists as Elbow, Jimmy Buffett, Judy Collins, the Skydiggers, Anne Murray, Third World, Chet Atkins, k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, Maria Muldaur and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. As a guitarist, he is considered among the world’s best. The New York Times called Cockburn a “virtuoso on guitar,” while Acoustic Guitar magazine placed him in the esteemed company of Andres Segovia, Bill Frisell and Django Reinhardt.
Four decades and 29 albums into his career, Bruce Cockburn has stood for many things: flawless musicianship, activist actions, and lyrics that effortlessly flow from touching to caustic many times throughout a single CD. It is fitting, then, that Ani DiFranco makes an appearance on Life Short Call Now, as the two world-class guitar players have strong political roots, both seeking to leave legacies that extend far beyond memorable melodies in the hearts and minds of their fans. Their lushly produced duet, “See You Tomorrow”, has a slight Zydeco feel, the only surprise is the lack of overt political bite in the track; a subsequent Cockburn song, “Tell the Universe”, more than makes up for the subtlety with its anti-Bush commentary. “Mystery” is straight-up classic Cockburn, yet the inclusion of Ron Sexsmith, Hawksley Workman, and Damhnait Doyle is not just beautiful but also clever, as it shows the genealogy linking Cockburn’s effect on subsequent Canadian songwriters. Familiar sounds aside, there is a wonderfully new commonality throughout this disc - Cockburn has included a 27-piece string section whose arrangements add not just richness to songs (“Beautiful Creatures” and “This Is Baghdad”), but powerfully dark counter-melodies as well. One of the most compelling pieces falls near the CD’s end: “To Fit in My Heart” somehow manages to combine his love of jazz, world beat, and folk music into one gorgeous, haunting melody. It is rare indeed to see such an experienced musician continue to evolve, but Cockburn has done exactly that with this new disc.
Bruce Cockburn’s first studio album in three years finds the acclaimed Canadian singer-songwriter at the top of his game. The 29th album in a career that’s midway through its fourth decade, Life Short Call Now is wide-ranging, playful and adventurous, eager to take chances and happy to push limits. The songs run the gamut from the first single, “Different When It Comes to You”, to the classic folksong cadences of “Mystery”, and from the vocal intricacies of Ani DiFranco’s harmonies on “See You Tomorrow” to the deadpan modernism of the jazzy instrumental “Nude Descending a Staircase”. Cockburn’s insightful observations on life, love, politics, and the environment are as sharp as ever, and longtime fans and new fans alike are sure to be won over by this sterling album.
Small Source of Comfort (2011) is Cockburn s first studio album in six years - a rhythmic and highly evocative collection of fourteen new tracks inspired by his renowned unusual and diverse muse - recent trips to Afghanistan and ponderings on the re-incarnation of Richard Nixon, to road trips and unreturned phone calls.
The album boasts some of the best musicians recording today, including violinist Jenny Scheinman, former Wailin’ Jenny Annabelle Chvostek, and long time collaborators Gary Craig, Jon Dymond and producer Colin Linden.
As both a songwriter and a guitarist, Bruce Cockburn is considered among the world’s best. The New York Times called him a virtuoso on guitar, while Acoustic Guitar magazine placed him in the esteemed company of Andres Segovia, Bill Frisell and Django Reinhardt.