The Music of Bruce Cockburn

A psalmist for our day
Bruce Cockburn is a superb guitarist, a fact evident on his albums and especially in his live performances, and a fine lyricist. He has honed his musical gift since childhood, and is one of those musicians who always aims for the heart rather than the Top 40. U2’s Bono refers to Cockburn as a “psalmist,” which is a good term for an artist whose faith has always shaped and informed his work without sliding into religiosity.

Everybody’s too damn busy these days…

My so-called buddy never called me back
called me back, called me back
my so-called buddy never called me back
I don’t know what to think about that
I coulda been croaking on the floor of my flat
floor of my flat, floor of my flat
I coulda been croaking on the floor of my flat
the bugger never called me back
Then again he could have troubles himself
troubles himself, troubles himself
then again he could have troubles himself
I better try him once more
He could be going through a bitter divorce
bitter divorce, bitter divorce
he could be going through a bitter divorce
or quadruple bypass

[From “Called Me Back” on Small Source of Comfort]

Cockburn recognizes how exquisite life truly is as we journey from birth to death, and how we leave, as individuals and a species an indelible mark on our planet and in history. Cockburn has not shied away from political themes, losing him fans who are so caught in some political ideology that his questions seem impudent. Once while visiting a Canadian base in the Middle East, Cockburn witnessed the bodies of dead soldiers being loaded on a transport for the long trip home.

Here come the dead boys
moving slowly past
the pipes and prayers and strained commanding voices
and the tears in our hearts
make an ocean we’re all in
all in this together don’t you know
You can die on your sofa
safe inside your home
or die in a mess of flame and shrapnel
we all in our time go
you know you’re not alone
you’re in the hearts of everybody here

[From “Each One Lost” on Small Source of Comfort]

Fans of Bruce Cockburn and those who want to think seriously about popular music will be interested in Kicking at the Darkness, a book in which Brian Walsh walks us through Cockburn’s music with loving attention to detail. “I’m not trying to put any worldview in a book,” Walsh says. “Rather, I am offering an exploratory, suggestive, and hopefully creative appreciation of a biblically rooted worldview that is in playful dialogue with Cockburn’s body of work.” You may not always agree with Walsh at each point, but you’ll find his musings both meditative and thoughtful, one model for responding Christianly to the music that resonates so deeply in the hearts of so many.


Lyrics from liner notes, Small Source of Comfort; Walsh from Kicking at the Darkness, p. 18.

Book recommended: Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination by Brian J. Walsh (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press; 2011) 190 pp. + discography + indices.

Album recommended: Small Source of Comfort by Bruce Cockburn (True North Records; 2011).