THIS YEAR'S RECIPIENT of Earth Day Canada’s Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award, Bruce Cockburn is a singer/songwriter and activist. An Officer of the Order of Canada and the honorary chair of Friends of the Earth, Cockburn has used his music to oppose degradation of the environment – from destructive logging practices to the Exxon oil spill. “Everything comes down to the human heart and how we treat each other,” Cockburn told Alternatives editor-in-chief Nicola Ross when she interviewed him in advance of Earth Day Canada’s 7th annual gala. Ross’ conversation with Cockburn began with a question about his environmental anthem - “If A Tree Falls.”
Nicola Ross Where did your inspiration for “If A Tree Falls” come from?
Bruce Cockburn I heard a documentary on a university radio station about the destruction of the rainforest in Borneo and the displacement of the Penan people. It was quite moving and thought-provoking. At that time I had not been in a tropical rainforest, but I had been in the coastal rainforest in BC, and I had a sense of what it’s like to be in an environment where the vegetation looms that large. The system is so complete and apparently so unaffected. I had a bit of a feel for what was being talked about having had an encounter with Aboriginal people. After that I got motivated to write the song because the radio show got me going. I thought about the idea of building a song around that Philosophy 101 cliché because everyone knows it. They’ll all get the song. Then it was a question of what kind of song this was going to be. I hadn’t done very much spoken word then, but it seemed like it was the way to go. It was a question of finding the imagery that was powerful to create a rant. It’s typical of the type of song where there is a spoken word component and then the chorus goes around that.
Ross Did you expect that song to do what it did?
Cockburn Not particularly. I thought it was catchy and it had enough of a pop feel that it might be radio-friendly, but nothing is radio-friendly any more. Radio’s the really expensive, highly promoted stuff, and the CBC, which is everybody else.
Ross What do you think about the relative effectiveness of subtle environmental messages (“A Dream Like Mine”) versus blunt ones (“If A Tree Falls”)?
Cockburn It’s a question of degree. When I write a song, I’m not very theoretical about it. I get an idea and I chase it until I can turn it into something. “A Dream Like Mine” is based on a book about a mythical Native spirit character reminiscent of King Arthur of the Round Table. That’s what drove the song – I had enough knowledge of Native history that I could relate – and Native concerns often overlap with environmental ones. They used to be able to live in the world the way it was made, not the way we’ve made it. So the song is harkening back to this; that it will be back again as long as we get rid of ourselves, which is entirely possible.
Ross What is the environmental issue that concerns you most?
Cockburn Water is a really big one. It’s not just about the environment; it’s also connected to very big political and military movements. That’s already started, but it’s going to get way bigger. Nobody’s going to stop bottling water just to stop it though.
Ross If you were putting together a CD for the planet what would you put on it? Cockburn Well, I’d probably suggest “If A Tree Falls,” but I also might put in something like “Hard Rain” by Bob Dylan.
Ross Do you support Greenpeace?
Cockburn I’ve been a Greenpeace contributor since they started. I was actually in an action with them in Thunder Bay once. At the end of the 1980s, they did a Great Lakes cleanup campaign. They had a day when they were doing a raid on a plant that manufactured wood preservatives and had a toxic blob. So I drove the boat dropping off people who were chaining themselves to the gear. It was really fun.
Ross Did you get arrested?
Cockburn No, the cops came and it was, fortunately, handled very well. They took a very hands-off approach.
Ross Not like the Rainbow Warrior?
Cockburn No, no. They didn’t give me cannons or anything.
Ross So you were good at being the one driving the boat but not jumping off it?
Cockburn For things to be catalyzed and motivated and for there to be attention, I think that the people who are willing and able to put their bodies in the act should do it and we should be appreciative. They are the heroes.
Ross But you end up being the hero and the people in the trenches don’t get the glory.
Cockburn Yes exactly, but what I’ve tried to do in the songs and conversations around the songs is draw attention to that exact thing. I’m trying to support and celebrate and express appreciation for the people who are really doing the work. The more of us who sound off about this stuff, the more people are likely to pay attention.
Ross How do you harness the inspiration of environmental politics and channel it into your music?
Cockburn It’s not very conscious. Songwriting is essentially an emotional process. Obviously there is a brain part, but the initial impetus to write is almost always the strong reaction to something and then having a verbal idea that somehow connects this to that. I see it. It’s visual. It starts with words.
Ross Do you write the lyrics or the music first?
Cockburn The lyrics. The words will suggest the music they want. I think I’m relatively alone in doing it like that.
Ross It makes sense because your lyrics are poetry.
Cockburn I’ve always liked poetry. I like poetry that I feel has some meat in it and some weirdness. I don’t like the stuff that is too transparent. I like the stuff that leads your mind down alleys that you wouldn’t normally go down. Ross Has the BP oil spill encouraged any songwriting? Cockburn If I hadn’t been in the BC rainforest, I wouldn’t have been able to write about it. Writing about something like an oil spill, I have to be there. To feel what it feels like to be there; to be horrified in more than an abstract way to generate a song. It’s my reaction to things that becomes a song.
Ross Who would be the target of your rocket launcher?
Cockburn Oooh, there are a lot of contenders for that. I wouldn’t know where to stop. The people who are in those positions are destroying things, but they aren’t the only ones. We’re all crapping in the same creek.
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