Cockburn's musical legacy to be celebrated

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn will be celebrated in a tribute concert in Toronto Wednesday night.
Bruce Cockburn performs during the Canadian Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ont., on July 2, 2005. He has been activist throughout his songwriting career. (Aaron Harris/Canadian Press)
Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn will be celebrated in a tribute concert in Toronto Wednesday night.

The man who's been called "a rocker with a mission" and "a troubadour for the common man" will hear his songs played by some of Canada's top musicians in the Canadian Songbook concert, part of the Luminato Festival.

Unlike Neil Young, who was similarly honoured in 2009, Cockburn will take to the stage during the tribute.

Singers such as Buck 65, the Barenaked Ladies, Sylvia Tyson and Hawksley Workman will perform works he's created over the last 40 years.

"It's fun to be feted in this sort of way — I'm looking forward to the bits of collaboration that I expect to get to do with some of the people performing and I look forward to hearing the peculiar things they do with my songs," Cockburn told CBC News.

Cockburn, who was honoured just last week on Earth Day for his commitment to the environment, has been outspoken about environmental and human rights issues throughout his songwriting career.

One of his biggest hits was 1984's If I Had a Rocket Launcher, a song he said he wrote in Chiapas, Mexico, after spending three days in Guatemalan refugee camps.

"The Guatemalan army was prone to making forays by air or land and raiding those camps and shooting them up and kidnapping people and butchering them in the forest, so there was this incredible sense of outrage and pain," he recalled.

"If I Had a Rocket Launcher had an unexpected impact because … I didn't ever imagine it would get on the radio," Cockburn added.

Bruce Cockburn performs for Canadian troops at a forward operating base in Kandahar province, Sept. 10, 2009. ((Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters) )
Cockburn grew up in Ottawa and began his career as a folk singer at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1967. His first self-titled album was released in 1970.

His hits include Wondering Where the Lions Are, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Rumours of Glory and Last Night of the World.

"A concise way to describe how I get inspired is just to say God does it but it doesn't feel exactly like that," he said. "It's more complicated — it's beauty, it's an emotional response to stuff  whatever it is … it can be horror at something that's been done to someone or to the planet, it can be sex, it can anything at all."

Participants in Wednesday's tribute say he has had an enormous influence on a new generation of musicians.

"Bruce Cockburn for me was a pinnacle moment in my musical development," Workman said. "It came at a time when I was open to the ideas of absorbing poetry and newness and images and ideas."

Workman said he admires Cockburn's legacy as an activist.

"I think he's probably one of the last adversarial voices — it's not fashionable to write protest music any more that's for sure and as the world gets more and more corporate it's even dangerous for your career to step out," he said.

Colin Linden, a guitarist who has had a long association with Cockburn, said he should be recognized as the great musician he is, as well as for his strong lyrics.

"I think Bruce's songs strike just a chord of truth to so many people for different reasons," Linden said.

"The lyrics to his songs continue to haunt you and inspire you. Sometimes with a great songwriter like Bruce or Bob Dylan the lyrics are so strong that people forget that the melodies and musical component is so incredibly powerful as well."

Cockburn said the reminder that he's been a singer for 40 years is both "amazing" and sobering.

"There's only a finite amount of time left to do whatever it is that's next," he said "I can't take any of this for granted. I don't know if my eyesight will hold out or my hands, or my brain will hold out — anything can happen."

CBC Radio 2's Canada Live is recording the Bruce Cockburn Tribute at Massey Hall and it will air on Wednesday, June 30.

With files from CBC's Margo Kelly