The Common Good
April 2004

Bruce Cockburn Interview - Full Transcript

by Bruce Cockburn | April 2004

Sojourners: I would like to hear generally about your trip to Iraq, but specifically, I'm really interested in your experiences as a musician and a songwriter there. How did it come about that you were a part of this delegation anyway?

Cockburn: I kind of invited myself along. Bishop Gumbleton, I think, was the one whose idea it was. I'd heard about it from my friend, Linda Panetta, with whom I've worked around, particularly on the School of the Americas stuff; she's been active in the School of the Americas Watch for a long time. And at one point we were sitting, having dinner in Philadelphia and she mentioned that they were planning on doing this trip and I said, “Well, you know, I could do that too.” I wasn't sure, but it looked like it was going to happen right when I had the time. And from that point, she mentioned it to Thomas Gumbleton, and he was fine with it, and Johanna Berrigan also. So I became a part of the trip. It was kind of down to the wire whether we'd cancel; they had planned an earlier trip that they did cancel because of changes going on in Iraq. So we were watching the events to see if it would become necessary to blow this one off, but as it turned out, we all felt that it was good to go, so off we went.

Sojourners: I read in a recent Canadian Press release - I think it was by Roberta Cohen - about your trip. It mentioned that you found some time to make music while you were there, and I was wondering if you'd describe that experience; how it came about.

Cockburn: There were a couple of different experiences like that. Mostly it involved me playing for people, which I hadn't really planned on, but I've been in enough of those kinds of situations to know that it does happen when you don't plan on it sometimes. So I was prepared for it. I played for the - well, I don't know what they're called - I was going to say "inmates,” but they're hardly that (laughter). A number of disabled women living in a shelter that was one of the places we visited. I played some songs for them [and] I played in the lobby in the lounge of the hotel that we were staying at. There were a bunch of NGO people, Canadians and Americans that knew who I was, and I had to practice anyway for this tour that we're now on, so they got me to do it in front of them.

But the most interesting point came when I got invited for lunch - we all did, actually - got invited for lunch by a visual artist that we had been introduced to and who was fond of cooking a particular kind of fish that they have there, according to a Sumerian recipe. It was just amazing to be in a place where the people are using recipes that go back 2500 years or more. He said he was going to invite a young ud player. Ud is the Arabic lute that's very characteristic of Middle Eastern music and the precursor to the European lute and modern guitar. And I got to play with this young guy who was quite good and had a lovely singing voice, and he played and sang songs - I didn't even know what the songs were about because, obviously, he was singing in Arabic. But he played, then we had lunch, and then I played and he started jamming with me so we ended up in this kind of improvised jam that really worked. It was exciting to play with somebody whose background was so totally different but whose ears were really tuned. And we were both kind of careful to not get in each other's way and to try to complement what each other was doing, and it worked, really well.

Sojourners: Not everything works really well in Iraq these days…

You don't speak any Arabic, so how were you, as a group, able to communicate and interact? What were some of the challenges and some of the possible breakthroughs, moments of clarity, or experiences with the people you met?

Cockburn: Well, we were aided and abetted by people from the American Friends Service Committee. They provided us the drivers, at least arranged for us to have drivers who were local guys, so we always had somebody with us that spoke Arabic, although the drivers were not very fluent in English, they couldn't act as translators, but they could troubleshoot if that came up. But as it turned out, it didn't really. Most of the people we met spoke some English. And where that wasn't the case there was somebody around who could translate. We went to a squatter camp where somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 families were living in this bombed-out building, which is a scenario that's repeated around Baghdad, but in this particular one they didn't speak English really; they might know a couple of words. But we had people with us who were sort of our credibility as far as homeless folks are concerned and who also spoke English, so they were able to translate.

Sojourners: So are squatter camps and bombed-out buildings more, or less commonplace than the media are telling us? Describe some of the images and urban landscapes you saw that left an impression or an impact on you.

Cockburn: The thing that's interesting, that struck me about Baghdad right away is that it doesn't immediately look like a war zone. It doesn't look like a city that's been under attack as much as it has. There are plenty of bombed-out buildings to be seen, but they're interspersed because they were selected by the US forces so-called "coalition.” They were the ones they actually tried to bomb. So you'll be driving through a neighborhood that actually looks like a pretty functional neighborhood, although terribly rundown after all the years of sanctions, and then you'll come upon a large building that's been blown to smithereens and then you turn out past that and you're back to into something like a normal city again. So it's not like a rubble-strewn landscape the way you'd picture the way Hanoi must have been, for instance, when they were bombing Hanoi; the way European cities looked after the Second World War. It doesn't give you that same impression. So the bombed-out buildings, in a way, are a lot more striking because of that contrast.

And there's an air of surrealism in a way, about the place, because you have what half the time looks like it should be a functional city, but it doesn't have reliable electrical power; no traffic lights work in the whole city - 5 million people in a city with no traffic lights and lots of cars, and the cars are all older models, run-down, bald tires - because for years they had no means of repairing anything. So streets are not in good shape, the buildings are not in good shape, the cars are not in good shape. That was before the war, and then the war has added to this scenes of bombed-out buildings.

But there were government buildings - interestingly enough, the two ministries that they didn't bomb were the oil ministry, which was fairly predictable and the interior ministry, which I found very interesting. That they chose to leave that standing. And immediately my suspicious mind went to work and I said, "Well yeah, they wanted all the records from there.” And a girl who happened to be sitting near me when I said that said, "Yeah, that's what all the Iraqis think too.” That's where all the secret police records were, and all the files. And they didn't bomb that. I don't know what the motive was, and you could ascribe anything to it, but it was noticeable because those were the only two government ministries that were not bombed. The oil ministry made perfect sense in the logic of - I mean as much as anything made sense about that whole exercise. But anyway, that's kind of an aside. But it was just strange - unlike any place I'd been in. I've been in countries and cities that were at war, but the cities were not themselves under attack. The vibe was very different in this case.

Sojourners: Are there any other experiences from this trip that captured your artistic attention?

Cockburn: I tried to write down everything that I could think of, and everything I saw, so, I guess the only thing that made a really big impression on me that I - well, there's so many impressions, really. They're not the kind of impressions that are readily reducible to songs so far, but we'll see. Sometimes these things take time. "Postcards from Cambodia” took a long time to write for the same reason - it just was hard to figure out how to approach that.

But the Sunday morning that big bomb went off, which was the first morning after that period of relative calm, we were told that we were there during the quietest week that they could remember. And obviously it heated up again pretty soon after we left, because that bomb was just the beginning of a whole string of them that have been going on daily, since. But that one big bomb at the entrance to the CPA headquarters - I happened to be standing there looking out my window; the hotel room I had had French doors, opening onto a little balcony which overlooked a regular street. And it was a Sunday morning, which is not a holiday there. Their holy day is Friday, so Sunday's a regular workday. People were going about their business, 8 o'clock in the morning; people were walking up and down, whatever. And there was just this big boom in the distance. But what struck me was nobody registered it at all. Nobody moved, nobody turned their head to see; there was no sense that they'd even heard the sound. And obviously they did because there was no mistaking it. I found that really telling, in a way, and I assume it's because they're so used to things like that happening that they're immune unless it's happening right next to them. So that struck me with great force. That whole moment is kind of etched [in my mind], because there was the sound of the bomb, and it was a clear sky, a nice sunny morning, and it was - there was nothing to see, I was a couple of miles away from where it went off, and - although I didn't notice it rattle or anything, my friends were having breakfast downstairs and they said it rattled the silverware on the table. I wasn't aware of that, but there was this moment of stillness after the initial sound and then you hear sirens start up pretty soon after that. People walking in the street, like I said, went about their business and registered absolutely nothing. I'd like to be able to get that into a song somehow.

Sojourners: It would get the wheels turning, I'm sure.

Cockburn: There was [another] moment - coming down into Baghdad International Airport is amazing. The airport itself is a modern, glass and steel structure; I mean, it probably was bombed, but they repaired it right away. And there are no commercial flights going in and out of there; there were a couple of cargo planes and lots of military aircraft around, but we flew in from Amman, Jordan on a flight operated by an NGO called Air Serve that is devoted to doing mercy flights and other kinds of stuff - I assume they're on a contract with the UN to fly in and out of Baghdad. But there were about ten of us on this little twin engine (unclear) craft plane, and it flies directly over the city of Baghdad - directly over Baghdad Airport. And then - without lowering its altitude at all, at the last minute, it just starts to corkscrew right in over the airport so you're practically on your side for the last few minutes of the flight in order to avoid ground fire, of course, but it was quite spectacular. And then we get off the plane, walk into this terminal, this big glass and steel terminal that says Baghdad International Airport on the front - and we're the only people in there. There're four Iraqis in uniform manning passport check booths, and some Gurkas that were part of a private security company doing security for the airport that were standing around. But other than that, we were the only traffic in the airport. And that too - as an introduction to the place, there's a strange eeriness about that feeling in this big empty building.

Sojourners: So you made your observations and you registered facts while you were there, but I'm wondering how you as an artist tell the truth, as opposed to simply reporting the facts.

Cockburn: I don't know how it will work out, I mean, I have no idea whether I'll get a song out of this or not. It's hard to really address it as a songwriter per se, without having a specific song to talk about. But in terms of telling the truth of what was there, I can do two things. I can give my own impressions, which I'm doing right now, and I can quote the people who I talked to. Because what I can bring back that people don't already get from watching CNN [are] the feelings of those people that we met, and the ideas that they have about their situation, and so on. That's the reason I wanted to go in the first place; to see what it felt like for the people who live there.

Sojourners: Were the people open to you?

Cockburn: Very much so, and even when there wasn't language [in common]. The Iraqis generally have a longer stare threshold than we do. And they look you right in the eye and they kind of "gimlet-eye” when you walk into a room. Like in the couple of the hospital visits that we did, for instance, there'd be people standing around and they'd kind of be looking at you. And as soon as you said hello, they'd break out into these great big smiles and say, "you're welcome!” It was this beautiful sense of hospitality right away, soon as you indicated any friendliness at all. And I think they become used to seeing foreigners as intruders, obviously, and occupiers, and people who go around acting like occupiers. When you see the news media people - the mainstream media people at least - and the military, and the CIA or whoever they are in plainclothes with guns, they're going around in armed convoys of matching white suburbans wearing flat vests and, you know, it's really conspicuous and an unmistakable statement is being made whenever they do that. "We're running this place right now.” The Iraqis are a very proud people and they're very sensitive about stuff like that, so for us to actually be there, kind of on their level, I think they found that quite appealing. And they were very open. They're people who like to talk anyway, just like we all do. I mean, you get to talk to somebody from outside who hasn't heard your story before, they're happy to tell it.

So we met a wide range of people, everybody from the (unclear) to the inhabitants of this squatter camp, and everything in between. Women's groups, human rights groups, a fair number of religious people because of Bishop Gumbleton's particular priorities. And it was really interesting. I had no idea, for instance, that there was a Christian population in Baghdad or in Iraq. There are and they go back to the earliest days of Christianity. They're referred to as Chaldean Christians, and they speak Aramaic. You know, I though that was dead! These are things I'd never seen anywhere in the media, and as is not unusual, the mainstream media are oversimplifying the situation in Iraq, in a not very constructive way. I think a lot of Iraqis felt that the media are creating some of the divisiveness that we're hearing about between the Shiites and the other folks, for instance. That before the war, and up till the war - till Saddam had fallen, there was none of that. You could go anywhere in the country and everybody was equal and nobody dumped on anybody else because of their faith. And they still feel like that is there, except the media are creating this atmosphere of tension and insecurity particularly around the Shiite majority's desire to establish an Islamic state.

Sojourners: Speaking of religion in Iraq, did you get a sense of the role faith plays among the people? Either in a civic or personal sense?

Cockburn: I'm not sure if I met a big enough cross-section of people to really have a good handle on that, but certainly it played a varying role. It actually struck me as being very similar to how it would be in North America if you were to make a trip like that. Obviously, as I said, we met a lot of people, a lot of religious leaders and other religiously affiliated people because that was part of what Bishop Gumbleton wanted to do. And it was very enlightening to do that, but among the other people that we met, I'd say it was about 50/50 between people who appeared to have put their faith in a central position, compared to people who were more secular in their inclinations, not particularly concerned [with] the faith. The women's groups, for instance, were not keen on the fundamentalist view of women, particularly the traditionalist view. More than once we heard somebody say - a woman would say this is - she would talk about the fundamentalist vision of an Islamic state and refer to it as "their” idea of Islam. Making a clear distinction between their interpretation of scripture or tradition and what's really there. I've been reading the Koran but I've only gotten a little way through, so I can't address what it says about that.

But the big thing on everybody's mind and the thing that you really notice is fear. Not so much of the Americans, although that's an issue, but of crime. Because there's no law and order. The existing law enforcing systems were shut down, and, I mean, the country doesn't have a constitution, doesn't have a real functioning government. It has a police force now, but that police force spends most of it's time defending itself against people who see them as collaborators, and bombing them and shooting them and so on. So people are really nervous about sending their kids to school in case they get kidnapped or sold off into who-knows-what, or in case there's just violence there. The US military is staging house raids almost daily, looking for whatever, (unclear) and people get stopped sometimes in the course of those things or disappear into the prisoner system. Iraqis don't have a very good handle on that because they're not allowed contact with people that are arrested; none of the legal safeguards that we think should be in place are in place on any level. So if your husband or mother or cousin or whoever gets arrested, it's going to be months before you find our where they are or what happened to them.

Sojourners: So this atmosphere of fear - this bleakness, lack of infrastructure…I mean, these are things that you've seen before.

Cockburn: Not quite in the same mix, though. It's a really different vibe from Nicaragua, for instance, where everyone was at war. Everybody felt the presence of warfare and you were kind of on one side or the other. Maybe if you went to Nicaragua now it would be more like this, like what I saw. But my experience of Nicaragua under the sandinistas was [that] there was very little crime - not significant amounts of street crime, robbery, or any of that kind of stuff - it just wasn't happening. And here it's actually the main problem, aside from the bombings. But people are just really worried. Those who can afford to have armed guards have armed guards around. The street that our friends are living on, landlords on that block had hired these guys to keep an eye on their property. So there's always several men with AK-47s standing around in the street. In their street. But their job is to prevent petty theft as much as anything else, but they're the closest thing to a regular police force you're gonna find, except in very limited circumstances where the Iraqi police are kind of working with the Americans. I'm tempted to say its kind of more of a middle-class fear. Because Baghdad was a well-to-do city. I mean, it was a thriving first-world city before the sanctions started. It doesn't have the vibe of a third-world postcolonial place.

Sojourners: The final lyric on your recent record is the word "hope.” And I've noticed that you seem to occupy what in my perception is an ambivalent space in your recent songwriting, between what might be a temporal disillusionment and an eternal longing, something like what we hear in "All our Dark Tomorrows.” But there's also a juxtaposition of redeemed carnality against the backdrop of something foreboding. In light of the situation there in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, how can there be hope and meaning in such a grim context?

Cockburn: It's very hard to generalize about that, but for me, I feel that everything is unfolding as it must. Not from detail to detail, moment to moment, necessarily, but in the broader strokes. I think that the things I encounter are things that God has at least permitted, if not deliberately put in my way. And therefore hope or not-hope is kind of a non-issue. It's just about reality. We all make up this universe together, or creation - if you want to call it that. And everything that happens touches everything else that happens, and that applies to us and to our own personal movements in both our interior and exterior as much as it applies to what we might think of as accidents of nature. Creation is an unfolding thing and we're part of that unfolding in our excesses; our violence, our coldness toward each other, our lack of humility, our lack of compassion are as much a part of that unfolding as their opposites. So personally I don't feel like anything's going to happen to me that isn't supposed to happen. Therefore, what's to be hopeless about? And it doesn't require courage to think that way; it's just the way it is. And that doesn't take free will out of the picture either. I feel like I'm confronted by choices all the time. I have the capacity and the freedom to make choices.

Sojourners: Freedom's not necessarily light or easy, though. In "Tried and Tested” you speak of the "burden of choice.”

Cockburn: In effect, yeah. And choices are made, inescapable; even if I pretend not to make a choice I've still made some kind of choice. So over the years I've sort of come to appreciate the value of actually deliberately making the choices instead of pretending that I wasn't doing that. I use the word "hope” in that song ("Messenger Wind”) and other places because it's a word for something that we all feel in our hearts, but if you actually analyze it, it's just - what is.

Sojourners: Are there any political-moral imperatives that have gripped you after your visit to a country at war?

Cockburn: The thing that comes immediately to mind is that George Bush has to go. One way or another he's got to get out of there, and his gang with him. [But] it may not happen in the next election. I worry about this, because Americans like things to happen right away or they give up on them. If the attempts to unseat Bush do not succeed this time around, what I really hope is that people won't get discouraged by that, [but will] feel even more driven or inspired to work for a stronger opposition to him next time around. Or to what he represents, because it won't be him. The neo-conservative agenda is an inhumane, thoughtless, disaster-laden agenda, and it's got to go.

Sojourners: In light of this American short-term memory, this capacity to be easily distracted - what do you think it would take to reach and inspire a younger generation to respond to these global power plays?

Cockburn: That's an interesting one, because I think a lot of young people are responding to what they see as the phoniness of the world - what they see as encroachments on their own future, by business, for instance. They're the ones driving the World Trade Protests and all that. The young people. And yet they're not showing up to vote, which suggests that there's a cynicism about the voting process or a lack of faith in it, certainly, and I think that lack of faith is well founded. But at the same time, it would be really helpful if that energy and that willingness to move forward could be channeled into the electoral process. I think that we'd all be better off for it. So that's a challenge, I don't know how you do that. There are things like Rock the Vote and all that, and that helps, but I think that's where there needs to be a real push. To get young people to feel that they can actually make a difference by voting.

Sojourners: Do you think that music in any way plays a role in giving a language to these feelings? Can it help?

Cockburn: Certainly it can. It has to be the right music though, because kids aren't listening to everything. It requires credibility on the part of the people that are making the statements to them. Kids will see through phoniness right away. If somebody stands up and says "get involved in this or that” and they don't look like they know what they're talking about they're not going have an influence of any valuable kind. In some ways youth has to find its own way, I guess. That's always how it is. I remember in the Sixties when the concept of youth as a political force was a new thing, there were older people around who were inspirational as all get out. There were people who would say, "look, it's on you - it's your future.” And we would listen to people like that if they came with the right credentials. I don't know who the people are that would have the right credentials at this moment, but they've got to be there, and somehow we need to get them speaking to the youth.

Sojourners: How do you see your role as a songwriter and as a musician in mobilizing, truth-telling, or speaking truth to power?

Cockburn: Well speaking the truth is it, exactly. That's my role. My job is to take what I understand to be true and try to put it into a communicable form. That's what I do as an artist and on the periphery of that are other kinds of involvement, like the benefit we just did to help out people who are fighting a toxic waste incinerator in New Brunswick. [It's] a little village that you can barely find on the map, and it's exactly the kind of situation where business interests go in and say, "We can manipulate the situation easily.” People need jobs, therefore…etc. etc. And some of the people feel that way and other people don't, so there's been a strong resistance to this without any help from the provincial government, which is totally on the side of business. So it's at least a morale boost to have somebody from outside show an interest, somebody with a bit of a public profile. And hopefully it will have meant more than just a morale boost. But we were able to raise some funds for their efforts and so on. So those kinds of things happen around the exercise of the art as well. And that's going to continue in various ways.

Sojourners: But I wonder if there aren't ever certain messages or feelings that can't be truly expressed. With your trip to Iraq, for example, was there anything that got lost in translation?

Cockburn: Well [my] job is to try not to have that happen. When I write a song like "Postcards from Cambodia” or "Mines of Mozambique,” those kinds of landscapy songs, I try and get the atmosphere of a place. I try to be as precise as I can with it and I guess it works for some people.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)