Songwriter Bruce Cockburn has achieved the best of both worlds: his recordings are enviably successful, with 13 Juno awards and two dozen gold and platinum albums; and he is internationally respected for his commitment to social and environmental issues.
Born in Ottawa in 1945, Cockburn took up the guitar as a teenager, then studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He played in rock bands (The Esquires, 3’s a Crowd, The Flying Circus/Olivus) in the mid-1960s, when he first flexed his songwriting muscles, before setting out on a solo career, appearing at the Mariposa Folk Festival and at coffeehouses such as Ottawa’s “Le Hibou.” His 1970 debut album of his own compositions, released by True North Records, included his first hit, Goin’ to the Country. Cockburn scored Juno awards annually for Folksinger of the Year from 1971 to 1973, but waited until 1978 before his first Canadian number one recording, I’m Okay (Fascist Architecture). The following year, he released the BMI award-winning, SOCAN Classic Wondering Where the Lions Are, which featured on the adult contemporary, top singles and country charts.
This mainstream success was followed by the hit singles Tokyo, If I Had a Rocket Launcher, and People See Through You, and the SOCAN Classics Coldest Night of the Year, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, and Waiting for a Miracle. Another string of Juno success came when in 1981 and 1982 Cockburn took both the Folk Artist and Top Male Vocalist awards. He proved his longevity with Best Roots Album Junos in 2000 and 2012 for “Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu” and “Small Source of Comfort.”
Cockburn’s prolific recording output has been commercially and critically successful; the albums “Dancing In the Dragon’s Jaws” (1979) and “Stealing Fire” (1984) went platinum, as did his Christmas album. Of his 30-plus albums, 24 have achieved at least gold sales. His theme song for the children’s television show “Franklin and Friends” is also widely popular.
Cockburn’s career is distinguished by a fearless passion for social justice, tackling environmentalism (If A Tree Fell), refugee struggles (If I Had a Rocket Launcher), and human rights (Call It Democracy). He has served as a spokesperson for several humanitarian agencies.
In a 2017 speech to the U.S. Folk Alliance International, Cockburn described his approach to songwriting: “Songs need to come from the heart or they don’t count for much….I had always felt, and still do, that the job is to tell the truth of the human experience as we live it. ”
Musicians from the worlds of jazz, blues, country, rock and rap have recorded Cockburn’s compositions, including Chet Atkins, the Barenaked Ladies, the Barra MacNeils, Dan Fogelberg, Jerry Garcia, Anne Murray, Tom Rush, and Leo Sayer. Cockburn’s numerous honours include SOCAN’s Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Canadian Folk Music Awards, the Junos’ Allan Waters Humanitarian Award, the Order of Canada, and the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award.