Hamilton is about to inherit decades worth of Canadian music history.
McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. announced Wednesday that Canadian songwriting legend Bruce Cockburn has donated his archives to McMaster — notebooks, musical arrangements, gold records, letters, scrapbooks, nearly 1,000 recordings and even three guitars.
The archive is there for students to pore over — and on Tuesday, Cockburn, 67, will be at McMaster to formally unveil the collection during a small, invite-only ceremony.
'Sometimes the words are just sitting there waiting for the right music.'—Bruce Cockburn
"It's nice to think there's some vestige of what I did in there that's preserved," Cockburn told CBC Hamilton. "That said, I worry about inflicting it on some people. Some poor kid is going to have to study that stuff to get his PhD."
All three guitars in the collection have been played live and popped up on various albums over the course of the Ottawa-born musician's decades-long career. The Guild 12-string was a gift from a former girlfriend, and it's the first 12-string guitar he ever owned.
The Martin is a travel guitar, and can be seen in the 2007 documentary Return to Nepal. And the Manzer is a custom build, constructed by Toronto-based luthier Linda Manzer.
But the jewels of the collection are Cockburn's handwritten notebooks. Inside are drafts of some of his biggest songs — like Lovers in a Dangerous Time from 1984's Stealing Fire.
"There's always a notebook," Cockburn said. "I learned very early on that if you don't write those things down, they're gone."
Lyrics are scrawled on now-faded pages in those notebooks — some lines crossed out, some changed as tunes evolved and took shape. There are sketches, notes from travel and first drafts of speeches.
In most cases, the lyrics almost always come before the music, Cockburn says. "Then I remember the music by playing it over and over." But that doesn't mean the songs come easy.
"Getting images into a poetic form that can be put to music sometimes takes some doing," Cockburn said. "Sometimes the words are just sitting there waiting for the right music."
There are also thousands of photos from countless performances in the collection, as well as tour memorabilia from over the years. One show poster is clearly from very early on — the cover price is $1.50.
Cockburn says he's not usually one to give in to great waves of nostalgia. But it still means something to know people are this interested in his work — and committed to preserving it. It might not seem clear to everyone who reads it, he says, but years of work are summed up in those pages and have been played on those strings.
"There's a definite personal history there."