Song of the Day, January 11: Tie Me At the Crossroads

BlackieCrossroadsToday’s song is a rousing example of a cover that outperforms its source. Bruce Cockburn wrote Tie Me At the Crossroads for his 1994 album Dart to the Heart. He turns in a stirring performance, creating one of his most energetic songs. It’s a smart lyric that looks at making the most of life and leaving no regrets behind. It also reflects Cockburn’s awareness of his role as a “serious” singer-songwriter.

Although I want to be taken seriously, some people take it too far and start investing my insights with greater power than they ought to. At that point, you have to chuckle. It’s great for other people to take you seriously, but you’d better not be guilty of doing it to yourself.

His sense of humor shines through the lyrics and the driving acoustic performance.

Blackie and the Rodeo Kings — Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson — frequently cover other Canadian folkies on their albums. Their finest record, BaRK, includes a  searing version of the song. With each singer taking his turn on the verses and a perfect blend of vocals on the chorus, they make the song their own. That’s quite a feat, given Cockburn’s strong version and the personal nature of the lyrics. That kind of inspiration marks the finest of writers and performers.

Enjoy this amazing cover today.

Song of the Day, October 2: Making Contact by Bruce Cockburn

CockburnContactToday’s song is the centerpiece of Bruce Cockburn’s glorious Stealing Fire. Cockburn’s work became increasingly political in the 80s as he travelled the world, observing poverty and oppression that he was determined to shine a bright light on. He firmly believes that the personal is political and that change requires commitment. Making Contact celebrates these themes, demanding that we work together to improve the world and make space for our shared humanity.

Enjoy this inspired, passionate song today.

Song of the Day, August 14: The Trouble With Normal by Bruce Cockburn

CocburNormalToday’s song is The Trouble With Normal, the title track from Bruce Cockburn’s 12th album. It’s something of a transitional album, building on the political consciousness that began to permeate his work with 1980’s Humans and adding a more direct use of electronic instruments. In many ways, the song could be the tagline for Cockburn’s later catalog. Witty but dark, dire but determined, it demands action while wondering who will heed the call. Cockburn presents a number of political scenarios, pondering after each one what it will take to return to normal. The sting in each case is bluntly put:

The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

Enjoy this potent song today.

Album of the Week, February 16: Stealing Fire by Bruce Cockburn

CockburnStealingPeggyBruce Cockburn was born in Ottawa, Ontario in 1945. He found a guitar in his grandmother’s attic in his teens and taught himself to play along with the radio. He attended the Berklee School of Music in Boston for a while, then returned to Canada. After spending the 60s in a variety of bands, he went solo in 1970. His early work was acoustic folk, filled with natural imagery — especially rural and nautical — and a growing sense of shared humanity and the need for activism. By 1980, his music had grown more complex and more overtly political. He spent several months in Central America and used those experiences as the foundation of his 13th album, the stunning Stealing Fire. Blending his folk and pop sensibilities with more urgent rock elements and a strong set of world beat influences, he crafted a human rights statement that stands alongside the best political folk ever recorded.

Title Stealing Fire
Act Bruce Cockburn
Label Columbia Release Date Summer 1984
Producer Jon Goldsmith and Kerry Crawford
U.S. Chart  74 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[US Hot 100]
  1. Lovers In A Dangerous Time
  2. Maybe the Poet
  3. Sahara Gold
  4. Making Contact
  5. Peggy’s Kitchen Wall
  6. To Raise the Morning Star
  7. Nicaragua
  8. If I Had A Rocket Launcher [#88]
  9. Dust and Diesel

Cockburn kicks things off with a song that serves as something as an anthem for his worldview. Anchored by the powerful line “kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight,” Lovers In A Dangerous Time is a potent political and personal statement. It underscores the need for active engagement in the world and couples it with the power of finding a partner who shares your vision and passion. It’s one of his best songs and opens the disc perfectly.

Maybe the Poet overtly addresses the power of the arts to shape awareness and motivate activism. Cockburn also celebrates the artist as outsider, pondering poets in every medium who are gay, minorities, women, and the oppressed of every stripe. It’s another great statement of purpose. Sahara Gold is more personal than political, but is a wonderful celebration of love and passion, again stressing the need for these things in a complete life. Making Contact takes that thought back to the political level, emphasizing the power of forging alliances and understanding the oppressed before attempting improvements that may be misguided.

Peggy’s Kitchen Wall is brilliant observational folk, showing the aftermath of urban violence and its often ironic impacts. Merging the gunplay with the prosaic setting of the kitchen creates the ideal framework for the song, another standout in a long and illustrious career. To Raise the Morning Star is a call to action, perhaps less stirring than other tracks on this disc but a wonderful song in its own right.

The final trilogy are the songs most inspired by Cockburn’s time in Central America. Nicaragua is a quietly pained portrait of the violence and struggle in a beautiful nation. With glimpses of individual life and struggle, the singer underscores the painful aftermath of colonialism and more than a century of external meddling. One of his few hits outside Canada, If I Had A Rocket Launcher is another amazing standout on this powerful disc. Built on the tension between Cockburn’s natural pacifism and the desire to respond effectively to the violence wrought but oppressive forces, it’s one of his best lyrics. Thoughtful, angry, pleading, and demanding, it stands with the best political music and features one of his finest vocals. Things wrap up with the lovely road song Dust and Diesel. Another portrait of a beautiful landscape and lovely people scarred by decades of war and oppression, it is ultimately hopeful.

That hope is what makes Cockburn’s work stand out. Despite his anger and frustration — marked by the occasional cynical observation — he ultimately believes in the power of people to make the world a better place. Nowhere is that clearer than on Stealing Fire, the work of an important artist at the peak of his powers.

FURTHER LISTENING: With over two dozen albums ranging from acoustic folk to complicated world rock, Cockburn has a lot to offer. His best albums besides Stealing Fire are 1980’s Humans, his first fully political album, and 1988’s Big Circumstance. Two compilations neatly capture the full arc of his career. Waiting For A Miracle is the better of the two, but unfortunately ends in 1987, missing some of his wonderful later work. Anything Anytime Anywhere omits his earliest work, but nicely covers his strongest period.

Song of the Day, July 1: Fascist Architecture by Bruce Cockburn

CockburnFascistToday’s song is Fascist Architecture by Bruce Cockburn. It’s the penultimate track on his stunning 1980 album Humans and merges the themes of the album into a compelling whole. Cockburn draws the title from the classically influenced but stark and sterile architecture favored by the Axis powers leading up to World War II. Protesting fascism and abuse of government power is familiar territory for Cockburn, whose musical and political passion is well known.

In this case, he uses that theme as a metaphor for more personal concerns. Citing “fascist architecture of my own design,” he note the ways he has locked away his emotions to keep himself safe. Realizing that he cannot be fully human if he lives this way, he vows to tear down the blank marble walls and share himself completely with those he loves. To this end, he makes the “magnificent facades crumble and burn” and is all the better for it.

Been through the wringer but I’m ok
Walls are falling and I’m ok
Under the mercy and I’m ok

Enjoy this powerful testament to love and personal power today.

Song of the Day, May 24: Open Arms (Don’t Explain) by Patty Larkin

Patty-LarkinOpenToday’s song is Open Arms (Don’t Explain) by Patty Larkin. The song, from her wonderful album Strangers’ World, features a stirring harmony vocal by Bruce Cockburn. The lyrics magnify the tension in the title, contrasting the open arms everyone should expect with the desire to live one’s life without explanation or apology.

Larkin nicely shows how the traditional power structures and supports — parents, teachers, clergy — can use expectations to stifle personality. In contrast, finding the person who understands and accepts you can be a freeing form of security.

You’re born into a strangers’ world
You learn the language word by word
Take a step and then you turn
And you don’t explain

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, February 27: If I Had A Rocket Launcher by Bruce Cockburn

bruce-cockburn-if-i-had-a-rocket-launcherToday’s song is If I Had A Rocket Launcher by Bruce Cockburn. In 1983, the singer was sponsored by Oxfam to visit refugee camps in Central America. He took those experiences and crafted his finest album, 1984’s powerful Stealing Fire. Building on the more overt political and social commentary of his work since 1980’s amazing Humans, he crafted a stunning document of abuse of power and neglect of human decency.

Rocket Launcher is a strong statement even coming from Cockburn. Told in his stark narrative style, it reports events so dark that they push even the pacifist to ponder what a few moments of explosive vengeance might accomplish.

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher
I would retaliate

Cockburn has been clear about the emotional roots of the song: “[This] is not a call to arms; this is a cry.” The accompanying video conveys many of the images that inspired him to write the song.

The artful use of worldbeat music behind his gripping vocals —  ranging from a bark to cold, whispered menace — result in one of this fine artist’s most fully realized songs. Enjoy this powerful testament against war and violence today.

Song of the Day, October 15: Peggy’s Kitchen Wall by Bruce Cockburn

Today’s song is Peggy’s Kitchen Wall by Bruce Cockburn. It appears on Stealing Fire, the magnificent album he recorded after a trip through Central America. Expanding his already strong social conscience as well as his musical palette, the trip resulted in his most powerful and consistent recording.

Peggy’s Kitchen Wall is a story song, told in classic Cockburn style — partly conversational, partly descriptive, partly missing details. The result is a gripping story of random violence and the impact it has on bystanders and innocents tinged with a chilling resignation to things never changing.

Crashing in the kitchen, noises in the hall
Roll over and go back to sleep — it’s just a dream, that’s all
So how come the window’s broken? What caused the glass to fall?
And who put that bullet hole in Peggy’s kitchen wall?

Enjoy this compelling song today.

Song of the Day, August 4: Tokyo by Bruce Cockburn

Today’s song is Tokyo by Bruce Cockburn. He wrote the song on the flight home from his second tour of Japan, basing it on an incident he witnessed there. Cockburn says of the song:

it does describe some things that I saw and felt. And I find in a place like Japan I get particularly sensitized to other people; because you are so dependent on them. When we go to Japan we are illiterate. You can’t read a street sign, you can’t read subway directions or anything. The Japanese, of course, are extremely hospitable; also so they kind of encourage that feeling of dependency, and because of that my emotions were always right on the surface…any emotion that dealt with people. And so when we passed by this accident scene it was particularly shocking.

Using his great narrative skills, the singer and writer captures both a moment in time and an overall sense of place.

Oh Tokyo — I never can sleep in your arms
Mind keeps on ringing like a fire alarm
Me and all these other dice bouncing around in the cup
Did you have to show me that accident scene
Didn’t I get enough shaking up?
Still I’m gonna miss you…

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, May 27: All the Diamonds In the World by Bruce Cockburn

Today’s song is All the Diamonds In the World by Bruce Cockburn. It’s a wonderful song about recognizing the things that truly have value.

All the diamonds in this world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and sunlight
Sparkling on the sea

Enjoy this beautiful song and wish Bruce Cockburn a happy 67th birthday.

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