Bruce Cockburn, Canada’s Forgotten Singer-Songwriter

When the singer-songwriter school took shape at the close of the 1960s, two expatriate Canadians, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, rose to the head of the class. Try to name another Canadian from the singer-songwriter movement. You may come up with Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot. If you are an actual Canadian, you may even remember Bruce Cockburn.

It’s not that American listeners don’t know Cockburn. They do, mostly as an impassioned, Reagan-era peacenik. He broke through in 1979 with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a reggae-inflected slab of campfire music that reached No. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. The attendant album, Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, hit No. 45 on the album chart. Cockburn’s other big hit came five years later with “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” a starkly political song that redefined him as a musical activist.

In the States, at least, Cockburn bloomed remarkably late. Dragon’s Jaws was his ninth studio album, released nearly a decade into his solo career. The first eight sold well in Canada but barely registered below the border. Some of his best early works saw no U.S. release until the late 1980s. “There were one or two radio stations in the States that were playing my stuff, even though it wasn’t out in the States,” Cockburn told AllMusic. “One was in the Denver area, one was in Santa Rosa, one was up around Seattle. Where they were playing the records, people responded to them.”

But those people were few. Here, then, is an overview of five classic Cockburn albums, starting at the beginning and ending with his commercial breakthrough.

Bruce Cockburn, 1970.Bruce Cockburn

Cockburn’s solo debut arrived in the heady year of Tea for the Tillerman and Sweet Baby James. It is a typical artifact of its time, most of it recorded in the dude-plus-guitar format as a simple songwriting showcase.

Born and raised in and around Ottawa, the Canadian capital, Cockburn “spent the second half of the ’60s, basically, in and out of a bunch of different bands,” playing lead guitar and keyboards, singing mostly backup. “The bands went from being kind of folk rock-like to being R&B to being psychedelic,” he recalled. “We opened for Wilson Pickett, we opened for Cream, we opened for Jimi Hendrix. I wanted to sort of be like Frank Zappa. It never really quite gelled.”

By the time Cockburn left the last of the bands, he recalled, “I’d probably written a hundred songs. Of that hundred, there were maybe twenty that were worth singing in front of people. I found that I liked them more playing them alone.” The opening track on Bruce Cockburn, “Going to the Country,” established Cockburn as a songwriter capable of McCartney-caliber melodicism. It’s a beautiful, fingerstyle performance, reminiscent of early Donovan and the quieter bits on The White Album.

“Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon” is a gorgeous, waltz-tempo song, deceptively simple, yet revealing a depth of compositional skill and instrumental virtuosity: Cockburn briefly studied at Berklee School of Music. He knew jazz chords. “Man of a Thousand Faces” and “13th Mountain” show Cockburn already experimenting with world-music hues, planting delicate melodies atop ringing, open chords, sounding alternately medieval and modernist.

“I made a conscious effort to avoid listening to other singer-songwriters altogether,” Cockburn recalled, “because I didn’t want to sound like any of them.” He made an exception for Joni Mitchell, queen of the realm. Epic Records released Cockburn’s debut in the States to little fanfare. “Someone held it out the window and dropped it,” he recalled. Original U.S. copies gave the album’s title as True North, which was, in fact, the name of Cockburn’s Canadian label. It didn’t sell under either name.

High Winds, White Sky, 1971.High Winds White Skies

No one bothered to release Cockburn’s second LP in the States. It was even better than the debut, an extraordinary display of songcraft. “One Day I Walk,” the single, rivals “Going to the Country” as a perfect melodic confection, as lovely as anything on McCartney’s better-selling album of that year, Ram.

The title song and “You Point to the Sky” invoke classic British folk. “Love Song” and “Happy Good Morning Blues” are warm, virtuosic fireside songs. “Let Us Go Laughing” unfolds like a little guitar symphony, almost acoustic prog.

In this era, Cockburn recalled, “I listened to Renaissance music and ethnic music from all over the world. I used to justify it in terms of growing up Canadian. English Canada doesn’t have any tradition. It has a hodgepodge of other people’s things.”

Sunwheel Dance, 1972.

Sunwheel Dance

Cockburn’s second and third solo albums mark his singer-songwriter peak. To belabor the Joni Mitchell analogy, they are his Blue and For the Roses. Any serious fan of the genre should own them both.

The cover of Sunwheel Dance pictures the artist with John Lennon glasses, shoulder-length hair and perhaps a month’s worth of beard, meditating on his fingernails in a dark room. “I’m sitting in the kitchen of my parents’ farm,” he recalled.

Cockburn opens the album with “My Lady and My Lord,” another fingerpicked marvel that Macca might have written, had he followed the careers of Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy a little more closely.

Sunwheel Dance brims with musical ambition. The second cut, “Feet Fall on the Road,” begins as a lilting fingerpicker, then opens up into a rhythmic folk-raga jam. “Fall,” a mystical waltz, brings a captivating Middle-Earth stoner vibe, the sort of sound Led Zeppelin might have attained, had they ever slowed down. The title song is a finger-picked instrumental tour de force.

(Cockburn’s vocal and instrumental melodies seem largely interchangeable: His instrumental leads are strikingly melodic, while his vocals often suggest the rhythmic cadence of a guitar.)

Cockburn explores the slide guitar in “Up on the Hillside,” British folk with “Life Will Open” and “When the Sun Falls,” and full-tilt American rock with “It’s Going Down Slow,” an early foray into politics. He revisits the campfire with “He Came from the Mountain,” building up to a climactic spiritual-folk epic, “Dialog with the Devil.”

In the Falling Dark, 1976.In the Falling Dark

Cockburn’s fourth LP, Night Vision (1973), shows further musical evolution and doesn’t fall far short of the first three in songcraft. It’s more playful, too: Check out “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long.”

Not until 1974 did Cockburn draw his first, brief coverage in Rolling Stone, the bible of American rock. He wasn’t touring the States, had released only two U.S. albums and remained virtually unknown. Yet, he was consistently selling 30,000 to 40,000 copies of each album in Canada, enough to qualify for the occasional gold record.

Cockburn finally cracked the border in 1976 with In the Falling Dark, ringing up significant U.S. sales. The record completed his transition to a full band. The opener, “Lord of the Starfields,” is a glorious slice of spiritual pop: Cockburn came out as a Christian around this time. It should have been a hit. “In the Falling Dark” is a plodding rock epic, the sort of song that might now be dubbed slowcore. “Water into Wine” is a typically melodic instrumental. “Silver Wheels” is another radio-friendly pop confection, a tour-bus travelogue that evolves from a simple fingerpicked guitar figure into a polyrhythmic jam, complete with a free-jazz trumpet solo. It might fit nicely in a playlist with Merle Haggard‘s “Silver Wings.”

Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws, 1979.Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws

I hesitate to recommend Dragon’s Jaws, which charted strongly in the States, over Further Adventures Of (1978), which didn’t. Dragon’s Jaws is the better album, but Adventures features several killer songs: “Rainfall,” a spiraling acoustic masterpiece; “Laughter,” a beautiful meditation on love and a “child’s first cry”; “Feast of Fools,” another slow-cooking epic; and “Can I Go with You,” another spiritual pop hit that wasn’t.

Dragon’s Jaws may be Cockburn’s best album. It’s certainly the songwriting equal of High Winds and Sunwheel Dance. It sounds like the work of a different artist.

Cockburn had released a live album, Circles in the Stream (1977), to leverage his new continental currency. Circles “was a recording of my first tour with a band as myself,” he recalled. “I put that band together because I was getting tired of my own company. I wanted input. I wanted the energy of other people on stage. Once I had the band, it sort of changed the general direction of things.”

For Dragon’s Jaws, Cockburn wrote a full album of polyrhythmic acoustic songs and presented them with a band, his sinewy solo figures dancing atop a virtuosic ensemble, equal parts pop, jazz, folk and reggae.

“I had been listening to Bob Marley and really loving reggae in the ’70s,” he recalled. Cockburn had started listening to pop music again, primarily “the Sex Pistols and reggae.”

At last, Cockburn had a good record deal in the States and an industry champion, Don Ienner at Millenium Records. “And he was going around chumming up to the deejays and resorting to tricks,” Cockburn recalled.

“They went to a radio station in the Midwest, rented a lion, showed up at the station with the lion on a leash, and scared the bejesus out of everybody there.”

“Wondering Where the Lions Are” was a hit. It didn’t sound that far removed from the rhythmic acoustic pop Cockburn had been recording over the prior decade: but this time, radio listeners heard it. The singalong chorus was irresistible.

Elsewhere on the album, Cockburn flirts with actual dance music on “Creation Dream.” On “Badlands Flashback,” he turns in another fingerpicking masterclass – in French, no less. “Northern Lights” picks up the pace, even breaking into double-time at the bridge. On “Incandescent Blue,” a sympathetic backing band puts perfect accents on Cockburn’s acoustic rhythms.

Dragon’s Jaws became the starting point for most of Cockburn’s U.S. listeners, which explains why few of them regard him as a singer-songwriter.

I myself discovered Cockburn in the late ’80s via the double-disc compilation Waiting for a Miracle, which collected his singles from 1970 on. For weeks after the purchase, I reveled in a sense of discovery, playing and replaying acoustic gems I somehow hadn’t heard before. I never really got past the first disc.

Today, Cockburn qualifies as a forgotten hero of the singer-songwriter era. In terms of U.S. album sales (almost none), he ranks with such neglected greats as Judee Sill and Nick Drake. Unlike them, Cockburn and his works have yet to seed a dramatic rediscovery, the kind that inspires box sets and documentaries.

Daniel de Visé is a frequent AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.

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