The first time that I heard about Bruce Cockburn was in 1980 when a religious satire magazine called the Wittenburg Door published an article about him. It was defending his use of the word “shit” in a song, since he was supposed to be a Christian. This made me curious so one day when I was in a used record shop in 1984 I found a few discarded radio station 33 rpm LPs of Bruce Cockburn selling for $3.00 each. I purchased Dancing in the Dragons Jaws and Humans. When I played the albums it was the first time that I actually heard a song by Cockburn. What struck me immediately was how pleasant his voice was as he clearly articulated fascinating lyrics. I returned to the record store later in the week and purchased all the remaining Bruce Cockburn albums. After that I began to anticipate the release of each new album like some did with the Beatles, Stones or Dylan. In 1986 I saw him perform live for the first time in Portland, Oregon. Since that time I’ve attended a dozen of his concerts to go along with album releases and chose the following ten songs from his catalogue of over two dozen studio albums.
10. “Wondering Where the Lions Are”
“Wondering Where the Lions Are” appears on Dancing in the Dragons Jaws from 1979 on the True North record label. It was Cockburn’s most popular song and reached the Billboard Top 40 in the US propelling him into the mainstream. The song itself has a number of influences beginning with “The Place of the Lion” by Charles Williams, as well as a couple of dreams and a conversation. The dreams occurred over a period of years and the first had fierce lions while the lions in the later one were docile. The conversation was with a relative who worked for the government that dropped the fact that Russia and China were on the verge of nuclear war.
9. “Lord of the Starfields”
In 1976, “True North Records” released In the Falling Dark by Bruce Cockburn which featured “Lord of the Starfields.” He wrote the song after he became a “born again” Christian in the mid 1970s. When questioned about the song he replied, “I was trying to write something like a psalm.” In 1999 the song was used in the soundtrack of an Italian film and after that it became part of his repertoire again.
“Lord of the starfields
Ancient of days
Here’s a song in your praise.”
In 1979, “True North Records” released Inner City Front which had a jazzier sound. The song “Justice” has a reggae beat and is an introspective look at the role that religion has played in the evolution of the human race.
“What’s been done in the name of Jesus?
What’s been done in the name of Buddha?
What’s been done in the name of Islam?
What’s been done in the name of man?”
7. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”
Stealing Fire included “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” which according to Cockburn was inspired by his trip with OXFAM to Central America. At the time he was visiting a Guatemalan refugee camp in Southern Mexico. While he was there he learned that the Guatemalan army would send attack helicopters illegally over the border into Mexico to harass the refugees with machine gun fire. The song expresses the helpless rage of the victims by an emphatic observer.
6. “Call it Democracy”
“Call it Democracy” is best explained by Cockburn’s own words at a performance at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada in March of 2000. “That song came from the time of neo-conservatism, when governments supported business at the cost of lives and nobody gave a shit. We have since moved on to neo-liberalism, when governments support business at the cost of lives and nobody gives a shit; and I see we’re moving on to neo-feudalism, that’s the service economy coming at you. We will all serve. I’m not quite sure who we’re serving.”
5. “Fascist Architecture”
“Fascist Architecture” first appeared on Cockburn’s 1980 album Humans. The title for the song was inspired by a trip to Italy in the late 1970s where Bruce first learned about the Fascist architecture that came from Mussolini’s “legacy.” At the same time that he was composing the song his marriage was falling apart and he equated Mussolini’s architecture as a metaphor for the structures we build within ourselves mentally.
“Fascist architecture of my own design
Too long been keeping my love confined”
4. “If a Tree Falls”
In 1989, Cockburn released Big Circumstance and “If a Tree Falls” was the biggest hit on the album. The song’s lyrics analyze “deforestation” using an echo machine and a whammy bar for a hypnotic musical hook. The song was inspired not by Amazonian rain forests in Brazil but by what Bruce observed taking place in the North West coast of the United States and Western Canada. The song is as relevant today as it was 34 years ago from the Amazon basin to the rainforests of Borneo.
3. “Strange Waters”
In 1997, Bruce Cockburn released The Charity of Night and “Strange Waters” was the last song on the CD. The song is inspired by the 23 Psalm in the Bible but instead of “still waters” Cockburn sees “strange waters.” The song has a hard rocking delivery with stunning lyrics a stellar guitar solo. The song itself is a series of real life observations coupled with a quest to discover “what the existence of the divine means and trying to live in accordance with that.”
“Seen a forest in flames down to the road
Burned in love till I’ve seen my heart explode”
2. “The Last Night of the World”
“The Last Night of the World” appeared on 1999’s Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. It was an emotionally driven song reaching back to the early 1980s when he was visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico. At the same time it was inspired by a conversation that Bruce had with Sam Phillips the wife of his sometime record producer T Bone Burnett about preparing for the apocalypse. The details of his descriptions are journalistic in nature reporting on facts like mentioning “Flor de Cana” the best rum that Nicaragua produces.
1. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”
Bruce Cockburn hit his peak during the 1980s and Stealing Fire was released in 1984. “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” became one of the most popular songs off the album and was re-recorded by Dan Fogelberg and The Bare Naked Ladies. The song was originally inspired when Cockburn was observing teenagers expressing love to each other in a school playground with the backdrop of a nuclear holocaust as a result of the “cold war” being a possible reality at the time. So it was about living in the moment.