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Bruce Cockburn: A Veteran Traveler Finds 'Comfort'

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It seems there's no subject that singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn can't handle - and he still does, artfully and passionately after over 40 years in the music business. The range is evident on his latest album, his 31st. He covers everything from Richard Nixon to the war in Afghanistan on his new release, called "Small Source of Comfort." Bruce Cockburn is in our studio in Washington, D.C.

After all these years, it is so nice to meet you finally.

Mr. BRUCE COCKBURN (Singer, Songwriter): Likewise, I'm sure. It's great to be here.

HANSEN: Well, what is it that keeps you going? How do you think you've actually made it to recording number 31?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, I suppose some sort of desperation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COCKBURN: I guess - I can't imagine my life any other way than it's been, I suppose. But I like to think that if it hadn't gone as well as it has, I would still be playing the music. But of course, I wouldn't likely have had the opportunity to travel in a lot of the places that have inspired songs. So there'd be some different stuff happening.

HANSEN: Well, this new release is inspired by a trip you took to the Canadian forces base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009. Tell us more about your trip, and some of the songs that came from it.

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, there's actually only one song. But the title of one of the instrumental pieces on the album also came from there. And the trip was largely motivated by the fact that my brother joined the Canadian army about three years ago, as a fully mature man. He's a doctor. He's had a career through his adult life as a doctor specializing in emergency room anesthesiology, which is a skill set that the army could really use. And they were actively recruiting doctors, 'cause they didn't have enough. So he joined and then, eventually ended up doing a six-month tour in Afghanistan.

And when we knew that he was going, I just thought man, I got to get over there. I was interested - well, for one thing, because of the personal connection, but also in seeing what things looked like, what a war zone looks like from that perspective. Because I've been in war zones before. I've been to Baghdad, I've been in war zones in Central America and Africa. And my connections with people in those situations has all been with people doing charitable work or development work, or the campaign to ban land mines - that sort of stuff.

So this was a chance to see what a war zone felt like from the point of view of people with whom I can empathize quite easily because they're my fellow countrymen. In fact, I felt quite paternal toward them when I got there and, you know, there's all these young people that sort of felt like my kids.

(Soundbite of song, "Each One Lost")

HANSEN: "Each One Lost" is the song that you wrote, and it was because you witnessed a ceremony.

Mr. COCKBURN: Um-hum. what we call a ramp ceremony. In Canada, it's when one or more of our people are killed in Afghanistan - or elsewhere they might be. So the flag-draped coffins are carried down the ramp of the back of the C-130 onto the tarmac, and there are troops assembled. And in this case, we were in Camp Mirage, which is - well, actually, it's gone now - but it was an allegedly secret base run by the Canadian forces in Dubai. That was a staging area for flights to and from Kandahar.

So we landed there, and then we were about to board our flight into Kandahar when a C-130 came in from there, with the bodies of two Canadians that had been killed that day. So we became part of the ramp ceremony at Camp Mirage. It was very moving, and very deeply touching.

(Soundbite of song, "Each One Lost")

Mr. COCKBURN: (Singing) And here come dead boys moving slowly past, the pipes and prayers and strained commanding voices. And the tears in our hearts make the ocean we're all in. All in this together, don't you know...

HANSEN: Given that you have been in so many different war zones and you write your songs about it, do you actually consider yourself a troubadour or a balladeer - you know, singing truth to power?

Mr. COCKBURN: I don't mind the association with troubadour. I don't know what I am. I mean, I think of myself as an artist. I think the job of an artist is to kind of portray what's true for you - for you, the artist. And very often, what is true for me is true in some way for other people, too.

(Soundbite of song, "Each One Lost")

Mr. COCKBURN: (Singing) Each one lost is everyone's loss, you see. Each one lost is a vital part of you and me...

Sometimes, things are tragic. And what you want to do is try to convey the sadness of a situation - as with "Each One Lost." But other times, things get funny.

HANSEN: You have a remarkable sense of humor that is very subtle sometimes and sometimes, it kind of pounds you over the head - with what you're singing. There's a song on this one in particular, called "Call Me Rose." And it has a very interesting premise that Richard Nixon has basically been reincarnated as a single woman living in the projects?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah, a single mother. And now, you know - where, you ask, does such a song come from?

HANSEN: Yeah, and it's - I mean, Richard Nixon still, really?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, you know, yeah, I know. I can't explain this, really. I woke up one morning with this song in my head, and the opening line of the song: My name was Richard Nixon, only now I'm a girl.

(Soundbite of song, "Call Me Rose")

Mr. COCKBURN: (Singing) My name was Richard Nixon, only now I'm a girl. You wouldn't know it, but I used to be the king of the world. Compared to last time, I look like I've hit the skids, living in the project with my two little kids. It's not what I would've chose. Now you have to call me Rose...

I was mystified, but around the time that I wrote the song, it was somewhere in the second - recent - Bush administration. And they or someone on their behalf, I guess, was trying to make an effort to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon, for a couple of months. But somewhere in there, I think it might have triggered the speculation in me as to what it would take to actually rehabilitate Richard Nixon - like, never mind his image. The real guy.

HANSEN: Well, I remember it being spoken that, you know, if so and so is making all of the - the politician - is making all - they should be reincarnated or, you know, the idea of, I don't know, righteous comeuppance in some way.

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, yeah, or karma.

HANSEN: Karma, yes.

Mr. COCKBURN: To look at it from a different cultural perspective. You know, in the song, he's been reincarnated. His understanding is growing - of what it is to be poor, first of all, of what it is to be powerless, of what it is to be faced with the kind of stuff that you can imagine a young woman with kids living in the project would be faced with. But at the end of the song, he's still going, well, maybe the memoir will sell.

(Soundbite of song, "Call Me Rose")

Mr. COCKBURN: (Singing) have no power but the strength to endure, I'll perform my penance well, maybe the memoir will sell...

HANSEN: I'm speaking with Bruce Cockburn. His new album is called "Small Source of Comfort."

You're wearing a T-shirt that says: I'm only wearing black until they make something darker. I mean, really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COCKBURN: A friend of mine gave me this, and I - it's one of my favorite T-shirts.

HANSEN: You're not a pessimist, are you?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, to quote William Burrows: If the captain says this ship is sinking, do you call him a pessimist? I mean, I don't think of myself as particularly pessimistic. But I'm certainly not overly optimistic, either. I feel that at least an attempt to be a realist is what's required. And that means taking note of the bad stuff that's there, and taking note of the threats that we're confronted with - as much as it means taking note of the beauties and the love that are in the world as well.

HANSEN: You are going to perform a song for us today. It's the first cut on your album "Small Source of Comfort," "Iris of the World." Is there something you want to say about it before we hear it?

Mr. COCKBURN: It's a road song really more than anything. But the iris, of course, the iris image is not the flower. It's a...

HANSEN: It's like the camera, the eye.

Mr. COCKBURN: The mechanical thing, yeah. Like the thing that determines how much light gets into your eye - or is the shutter of a camera. But it's also, that same function applies to certain kinds of doorways, especially sci-fi doorways on spaceships and the books that I used to read when I was a teenager.

Anyway, the iris of the world is a portal like that, I think. And it's maybe how we get into the world, and maybe how we get out.

HANSEN: Or our perspective - whether it's pinpoint or the larger picture, too, right?

Mr. COCKBURN: All those things. And it's - the things that happen in life are happening in a perspective that someone has from where they can see that portal.

HANSEN: Here's Bruce Cockburn, performing "Iris of the World" here in our Washington, D.C., studio. His new album is called "Small Source of Comfort," and you can hear some songs from it on our website, Bruce Cockburn, it's been a pleasure talking to you, and nice to meet you. Thank you.

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh, thank you. It's great to meet you, too.

(Soundbite of song, "Iris of the World")

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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