“Saint” Bruce Cockburn has earned his nickname. For decades the Canadian folk rocker has not only infused his music with a sense of spirituality but an earnest political and social awareness that has earned him commercial and critical recognition and respect.
Bruce Douglas Cockburn was born May 27, 1945, in Ottawa, ON. Clarinet and trumpet lessons morphed into an obsession with guitar as a teen. Busking in Paris led to a year and a half of education at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. There he developed an appreciation for jazz and folk, and after dabbling in rock upon his return to Ottawa, started his musical career in earnest.
His self-titled debut came in 1970, as did his long-standing relationship with manager Bernie Finkelstein. Three consecutive Folk Singer of the Year JUNOs (1971-73) followed, as did touring into the U.S., Japan and Europe. His insistence on having lyrics printed in English and French in his album inserts or on covers led to a break in the Quebec market, including the 1978 French-language hit “Prenoms la mer.”
Cockburn’s commercial breakthrough arguably happened in 1979 with his single “Wondering Where the Lions Are.” It wasn’t until 1984, however, that he became a radio and MuchMusic staple thanks to the vitriolic “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (inspired by an OXFAM-sponsored trip to visit Guatemalan refugee camps set up in Southern Mexico) and the political but romantic “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” both from the Stealing Fire album.
Cockburn would continue to record through the 1990s and 2000s, but he also ramped up his activism during this period. He has worked with Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, given concerts to raise awareness of landmines and funds for Haida land struggles, and spoken out about Third World debt.
Cockburn’s musical career and activism have been recognized many times. His induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001 was notable for the choice of presenters: folk legend Gordon Lightfoot and environmentalist legend David Suzuki. A video tribute included Bono, Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett and Jackson Browne. Cockburn would return to the JUNO stage in 2006 to be awarded the first Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, recognizing his social and political activism.
While Cockburn’s legacy may not be as immediately recognizable as his contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, he has a massive fanbase. Kick at the Darkness was the name of a tribute album released in 1991 that included contributions from the Barenaked Ladies, Bob Wiseman and Jane Siberry. Bono quoted the “kick at the darkness” lyric in the U2 song “God Part II,” from Rattle & Hum. Hawksley Workman has collaborated with Toronto’s Art of Time Ensemble to play entire concerts of Cockburn’s songs. And his tunes have also been covered by everyone from k.d. lang to Anne Murray to The Rankins.
Cockburn’s memoir, Rumours of Glory, originally released in 2014, has recently been reprinted in paperback. His most recent album is 2011’s Small Source of Comfort, and he continues to tour.
Wins 1981 JUNO Male Vocalist of the Year award
Inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame
Made an Officer of the Order of Canada
First winner of the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award
Published his autobiography Rumours of Glory
Featured on a Canadian postage stamp