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Radical Hope

Fifty years later, is Bruce Cockburn’s music still relevant?

At 76 years old, Bruce Cockburn is one of Canada’s most decorated musicians: 37 albums, 13 Junos and a recipient of the Order of Canada. As Cockburn makes his way around North America for his 50th anniversary tour (second attempt, due to covid), one of his encore songs may catch listeners by surprise. “When the Sun Goes Nova” was on and off set lists in the 70’s, and the off-beat song has only very recently made a comeback.

When I first heard the song as a 20-year-old, it seemed like a bit of lightheartedness in the midst of an otherwise serious and dark album (Night Vision, 1973). With an almost Vaudeville-show-tune feel, a youthful Cockburn sang: “If you’re on the bum / And the policemen come / If you lose your grip / Or your trousers rip / I’ll be waiting dear.”

It’s taken me most of the past 50 years to understand that the song is more than just comic relief. Cockburn is no longer a young folksinger; the gravity and tenor of his septuagenarian voice and our 2022 context of plague, war and environmental collapse gives these lyrics a profound new meaning.

“When the sun goes nova / And the world turns over / I don’t want to be alone / So honey come on home”

Night Vision (1973)


There is something disquietly apocalyptic about this. When the sun that gives us our energy and our secure place in the universe, blows apart. When everything is turned on its head and you can’t find your bearings. You sure don’t want to be alone. In the midst of the chaos that renders us desperately homeless in creation, in society and deep within ourselves, we long for the safety and familiarity of home.

War and climate crisis

In our post-truth world, it might be good to hear again the kind of dismantling that Cockburn accomplished in his 1985 song, “People See Through You”. While written in the context of Reagan era interventions in Central America, doesn’t this song resonate with the terror we are seeing in Ukraine these days? “You’ve got instant communication / Instant data tabulation / You got the forces of occupation / But you don’t get capitulation / ‘Cause people see through you” (World of Wonders).

Or how about the climate crisis? Isn’t it good to have someone remind us that:

In this cold commodity culture / Where you lay your money down / It’s hard to even notice / That all this earth is hallowed ground / Harder still to feel it / Basic as a breath / Love is stronger than darkness / Love is stronger than death.

“The Gift,” Big Circumstance (1988)

Don’t these tight eight lines capture both the heart of the problem, and the deepest resource of hope? We reduce the world to a commodity, forget that the earth is nothing less than the temple of God and become alienated from the love that is the very foundation of all creation.

Why should we seek a path of caring wisdom in the face of ecological insanity? Because love goes all the way down. In Cockburn’s imagination, the love that fires the sun calls forth love in response. “We’re given love and love must be returned / that’s all the bearings that you need to learn / see how the starwheel turns” (Joy Will Find a Way). Sounds like Psalm 19. Heck, it sounds like Jesus!

Hymns of Lament

In contrast to much superficial, sentimentally happy, Christian music, Cockburn knows the power of lament. He bears witness to the deep struggles of faith, doubt and disappointment.

In his 1996 song “The Whole Night Sky,” Cockburn offers words of empathy: “Derailed and desperate / Hanging from this high wire / By the tatters of my faith.” Listeners are invited to insert their own tragic loss or to think about times when they questioned everything about themselves, faith and God. “Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere / And knocks you off your feet.” When you’re going through such a season, isn’t there some comfort, some sense of recognition, when you hear a contemporary psalmist describe your reality? “And look, see my tears / They fill the whole night sky” (Charity of Night).

But Cockburn is no “singer of songs without hope” (“Feast of Fools,” Further Adventures Of). Playing off the 13th century hymn “Stabat Mater” which sings of Mary’s sorrow bearing witness to Jesus on the cross, Cockburn’s 2016 song, “Stab at Matter” (Bone on Bone) situates the artist at the foot of the cross. But “Stab at Matter” takes an apocalyptic turn as the song bears witness to a world still hanging on that cross: “you got lamentation / you got dislocation / sirens wailing and the walls come down.”

Again, Cockburn does not avert his gaze or allow us to ignore the dissolution all around and deep within us. Walls of protection are crumbling and we are left defenceless. But there is hope in these falling walls. “You got transformation / thunder shaking / seal is broken and the spirit flies.” The world might be imploding and the false temples of our civic religion trembling, but somehow this is all a sign that “the Lord draws nigh.”

For good reason, apocalyptic imagery and eschatological hope intensifies during times of deep historical crisis, debilitating anxiety and cultural collapse. When it is all falling apart, when the story of your life and the life of your world seems to hit a dead end, all you can do is to “step out from the past and try to hold the line” while you are asking, “so how come history takes such a long, long time / when you’re waiting for a miracle” (“Waiting for a Miracle,” Waiting for a Miracle). And if you have eyes to see “just beyond the range of normal sight” you might catch a glimpse of Jesus in the fray of our history, “this glittering joker . . . dancing in the dragon’s jaws” (“Hills of Morning,” Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws).

The Jesus Train

Fifty years (and counting), Bruce Cockburn’s art continues to speak beautifully and powerfully into our 21st century realities. Recognized as one of the finest guitarists of our time, Cockburn’s fusion of folk, rock, reggae and jazz speaks into our malaise, as he bears witness to radical hope.

Throughout my adult life – my years as a campus chaplain, as a writer, scholar and professor – I have found Cockburn’s music to resonate deeply with scripture, and to be a faithful companion on the path of Christian discipleship. Some years ago, after Cockburn had written his memoir, Rumours of Glory, I asked him if he had written any new songs. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve written something very ‘Christian’.” “Like, ‘how Christian?’” I asked. “Like ‘get on the Jesus train’ Christian,” he replied.

“Jesus Train” was released in 2017 on the Bone on Bone album. And while the motif of ‘trains’ has been ubiquitous in Cockburn’s body of work, this train has a clear destination. “I’m on a Jesus train . . . headed for the City of God.” The artist finds himself “standing on the platform / awed by the power.” He feels “the fire of love.” The love that fires the universe is somehow all around him, compelling, inviting, calling. He testifies, “feel the hand upon my shoulder saying ‘brother climb aboard’ / I’m on a Jesus train.” There is something wonderfully simple and direct about this. Cockburn knows all about “post-ironic postulating” (“Don’t Forget About Delight,” You’ve Never Seen Everything), his path has led through “dark places,” and sometimes the darkness was his friend (“Pacing the Cage,” Charity of Night). He has known “wounded streets and whispered prayers” (“Everywhere Dance,” You’ve Never Seen Everything), and he has been led beside “Strange Waters” (Charity of Night), but when it comes right down to it, he is on the Jesus Train, headed for the City of God.

So friends, have you found yourself “derailed and desperate”? Then Cockburn invites you to get back on track, to get on board the Jesus train. Maybe after all these years, Mr. Cockburn serves as a conductor on this train. It’s going home.

Brian interviewing Bruce at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University. (Photo credit: Henry VanderSpek)

Author

  • Brian Walsh is a retired campus pastor and the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community in Toronto. He is the author of "Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination."

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