Folk Hero

Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn gets lyrical about settling down, faith and fatherhood at 66  By Robert j. Wiersema

I guess I fall into the category of one of those people for whom the road is home,” Bruce Cockburn says in Pacing the Cage, the new documentary (airing  this month on VisionTV, a division of ZoomerMedia) that follows the singer’s 2008 tour through the Northeastern United States, which also resulted in the live album Slice O’ Life. “I’m a restless kind of person. I like the feeling of being in motion.”

The comment is an apt summary for Cockburn’s career, which spans almost five decades. After three semesters at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the mid-1960s, the Ottawa-born Cockburn took to the road, first with a series of bands but then made his debut as a solo performer at the 1967 Mariposa Folk Festival. He returned to the festival in 1970 as a headliner prior to the release of his debut solo album.

He’s barely been off the road since. “It’s the context in which I feel most natural and most like myself,” Cockburn says in the documentary. The road – and his career – have taken him further than he likely imagined, from concert halls and festival stages to the U.S. charts and soundtrack work to refugee camps and environmental battle zones. With songs like “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” he developed a reputation as one of this country’s finest songwriters, while “If a Tree Falls” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” hint at his role as a fiery activist. In 1982, he was named to the Order of Canada (he was promoted to an Officer in 2002), and in 2001, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. His 31st album, Small Source of Comfort, was released last year.

Pacing the Cage, documenting Cockburn in this perpetual motion, exists as a snapshot of a moment in time. In the years since the performances and interviews were filmed, Cockburn, who says that, in the past, “whatever vehicle I’ve been driving” was his home, has surprisingly come to rest. Now 66, the songwriter is settled into a comfortable intimate relationship and has become a father for the second time, to a daughter born last fall. Although there are a few concerts scheduled in the near future, he is, for the moment, a stay-at-home dad, changing diapers and warming bottles while his girlfriend has returned to work.

These changes took root more than a decade ago. “Once I turned 50,” Cockburn says, “I was allowed to have fun with my life. Before that, everything was about duty and necessity and getting everything right. And then right around 50, maybe even the day of, this burden fell off. ‘Wait a minute. Yeah, it’s important to do things right and it’s important to do the right things, but it’s also not as heavy as you think. And not as much hangs on it as you think.’ ”

That internal shift is readily apparent when Cockburn talks about his faith. While in Pacing the Cage, he is forthright in discussing his Christianity, today he says, “I don’t really call myself a Christian at this point.” In part, this is due to the current political and social climate, especially in the United States where he spends much of his time. “It’s a very negative factor that all of this fanaticism slash fundamentalism is in the ascendancy the way it is, and I don’t have any desire to identify myself with that at all.”

It’s more than that, though. Always independent of religious orthodoxy, Cockburn’s description of his beliefs hints at a strong spiritual bent, drawing on Taoism, yoga, Buddhism, Sufism and the Jewish Kabbalah. “I just don’t feel comfortable calling myself a Christian when I feel that I’m as connected to these other ways of thinking, of relating to the divine.”

That newfound insight also colours his approach to his second round of being a parent. “I think I’m in a position to be a better father. I mean, my older daughter, who’s in her 30s now and has kids of her own, turned out great, whether because of or in spite of me. But I look back on things I could have done differently with her and I know they’ll be different this time because I’m that little tiny degree different.”