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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of guitar)

HANSEN: For three decades, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has spoken out on issues from the environment to human rights. His song, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," took aim at US military intervention in Nicaragua. "If a Tree Falls" underscored the plight of endangered forests. But Bruce Cockburn is at a loss for words on his new CD called "Speechless."

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HANSEN: The collection concentrates on Cockburn's extraordinary talents as guitarist and composer. It includes cuts culled from previous albums as well as three newly recorded tunes, and Bruce Cockburn joins us from the studios of the CBS in Toronto.

Welcome back to the program, Bruce.

Mr. BRUCE COCKBURN (Musician): Thanks. Nice to be with you.

HANSEN: It's nice to have you on again. Now this is unusual for you and for us. The CDs we've talked about with you before have been all songs with lyrics. This is totally an instrumental. The very first cut on the new CD, "Foxglove," you've got this kind of finger picking style, and I understand this is actually--this tune has been used for years by guitar teachers. Do you think it's useful, this piece, useful for guitarists to study?

Mr. COCKBURN: Well, you'd get a better answer from--about that if you asked one of the students probably, but it's--it presents certain things that people learning might find challenging and--but the piece goes basically like this.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: The thumb just does this through most of it.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: That's called an alternating bass, so--and on top of that is a little melody.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: And so on it goes. And the part that is kind of distinctive is this part where the thumb changes and does that instead.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: I haven't practiced this for a while, as you can tell. Basically what's happening there is the thumb is doing this and the fingers are going...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: ...and the three-against-two feel is what makes it sound like a study piece in a way.

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HANSEN: Who would you say influenced you most as a guitar player?

Mr. COCKBURN: Man, a lot of people. The most obvious influence would be, well, a couple of people: Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt, blues singers that were old men in the '60s but still active, and whose style--well, that, what you just heard, is based on what Mississippi John Hurt did with his songs, where he would play an alternating bass with the thumb and then just play the melody of the song over top of that. Mance Lipscomb used more of a sort of thumping rhythmic bass...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. COCKBURN: ...that kind of thing, and so, you know, in terms of what I do with my right hand, those two guys were the most conspicuous influences. There are a host of others, and what happens with the left hand is informed by attempts to play rock 'n' roll and jazz and all sorts of different things and it ends up sounding like quite a different kind of music than what either of those old guys did.

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HANSEN: You first appeared on this program--we first had the chance to talk to you back in 1991. Long, long time ago. And I read you turned 60 this year. Yeah.

Mr. COCKBURN: I did.

HANSEN: Is that a milestone for you?

Mr. COCKBURN: No, it didn't feel like one. Fifty felt like a milestone, you know, a half century. If you weren't at the top of the hill already, you're definitely at it now, and it's gonna--it's all down hill from here. But 60 just feels like another bump in the road, you know. It's not a big deal.

HANSEN: Speaking of down hill, every time--I mean, I can't look at a picture of you sometimes without seeing you on a bicycle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah, I don't do that downhill bicycle racing that people do, but I do ride a bicycle a lot. I like it. I like it as a mode of transport and as a means of maintaining some kind of exercise.

HANSEN: Hmm. And you can--does it clear your head, keep you creative?

Mr. COCKBURN: It keeps you sharp.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. COCKBURN: Riding a bike in traffic, you know, you have to pay attention. You can't be daydreaming.

HANSEN: You got that right.

Mr. COCKBURN: So it's kind of a--it's a zen exercise in being in the moment.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. COCKBURN: If you're not in the moment, you're liable to be--to come to grief, you know, so...

HANSEN: I hear you're going in the studio again in January to start working on a new CD?

Mr. COCKBURN: Actually February but, yes, that's right. We've--I've got a bunch of new songs and these songs range in content from sort of lovelorn ballads to sort of stuff with spiritual content, stuff with somewhat pointed sociopolitical commentary. I--one of the songs came out of a trip I made to Baghdad last year, and it's a song called "This is Baghdad" that I was doing on this little bit of touring we just finished, and it was interesting to get people's response to that in both Canada and the US.

HANSEN: The sociopolitical aspects, though, in your trip to Baghdad--you know, this is the time of year when a lot of us are reflecting on the state of peace on Earth, and given that you did have the chance to go to Baghdad, and given your connections to political issues and social issues, what's your outlook? What are your hopes for the future?

Mr. COCKBURN: Oh, you know, I'm--I heard somebody on the radio the other day describing themselves as a cautious pessimist, in response to someone else having described themselves as a cautious optimist, and I probably fall more into the cautious pessimist category myself. I look around and I see a lot of bad stuff piling up, and I don't see us doing enough about it. I just played at the UN Climate Control Conference in Montreal and--as part of their opening ceremonies--and that--you know, they're just dithering. These are the people that we depend on, and it's not--I'm not blaming the UN. It's the countries involved. The people who are willing to participate. If the terms are there, are suitable to them or people who aren't willing to participate at all, people who just want to look like they're participating, you know, carry on with whatever they're doing.

You look at that and it's hard to be hopeful, but what saved it for me is people in Baghdad, for instance, I received such warm hospitality from the Iraqis that I met. You know, I didn't get kidnapped, so I can say that, right? But there are obviously a lot of angry people in that part of the world, but the people I met were wonderful, and trying so bravely to maintain some semblance of human existence in the midst of chaos and pain. And when I see that, I'm emboldened by it and, you know, little bits of hope creep in around the edges.

HANSEN: On this Christmas day, you're going to play and sing a song for us with the guitar that you have in the studio, and this is actually from a 1991 album, and the song is "Cry of a Tiny Babe." This is a song in which you give some human emotions to a rather epic story. Do you want to just set it up for us and we'll let you play?

Mr. COCKBURN: Yeah. I just--I had this idea that, you know, listening to the sort of existing world of Christmas music, that something I could contribute to it would be to try to retell the biblical story in somewhat contemporary terms, and I kind of thought of it as a spaghetti Western in a way. You could take the same elements of that story and put them in a Sergio Leone film and it would be powerful. And in doing that, I sort of--I brought the people into some sort of different perspective than you get from reading the biblical stories or from hearing them told. You know, the vision of Mary that we've inherited through history, for instance, doesn't sound like any Jewish woman I ever met, so in the song she kind of has a bit more of a personality. And although this goes by pretty quick so, you know, don't be taking notes here.

HANSEN: No.

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Mr. COCKBURN: But Mary and Joseph are--I tried to make them human characters and multidimensional characters and Herod and, you know, the song just basically tells the story, but in different terms than we're used to hearing it.

HANSEN: This is Bruce Cockburn performing "Cry of a Tiny Babe."

(Soundbite of "Cry of a Tiny Babe")

Mr. COCKBURN: (Singing) Mary grows a child without the help of a man. Joseph gets upset because he doesn't understand. Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream, says, `God did this and you're part of his scheme.' Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand, says, `Forgive me, I thought you'd been with some other man.' She says, `What if I had been, but I wasn't anyway and guess what? I felt the baby kick today.'

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on forever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

The child is born in the fullness of time. Three wise astrologers take note of the signs, come to pay their respects to the fragile little king. Get pretty close to wrecking everything 'cause the governing body of this holy land is that of Herod, a paranoid man. Who when he hears there's a baby born king of the Jews sends death squads to kill all male children under two. But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream and they head out for the border and get away clean.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on forever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

There are others who know about this miracle birth. The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth. For it isn't to the palace that the Christ child comes, but to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums, and the message is clear if you have ears to hear. That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear. It's a Christmas gift that you don't have to buy. There's a future shining in a baby's eyes.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on forever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on forever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

HANSEN: Bruce Cockburn performing "Cry of a Tiny Babe." That's from his 1991 album "Nothing But a Burning Light." His new instrumental CD "Speechless" is on Rounder Records, and he joined us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

Bruce, thanks so much. Merry Christmas to you.

Mr. COCKBURN: Merry Christmas to you and everybody out there.

HANSEN: The CBC recording engineer was Dean Ples. There's more music and information at our Web site, npr.org.

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

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