Bruce 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.
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.