STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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With a catalogue that goes back 45 years, singer/songwriter/guitarist Bruce Cockburn (CO-burn) is one of the must-see acts at the Philadelphia Folk Festival this year.
The spiritual, socially conscious Canadian troubadour, who now lives in San Francisco, is playing the main stage at 9:05 p.m. on Saturday Aug. 15. Earlier that day, he’ll be on the Tank Stage, on the stage left side of the Martin Guitar Main Stage, at 3 p.m. with Rolly Brown for an informal “Guitar Styles” workshop mini-concert.
“Each time out, I look for old songs I haven’t done for a long time. I have a couple of new songs,” he said in a phone interview.
Cockburn, whose signature songs include “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Pacing the Cage,” has played the Folk Fest a few times over the years. During his first appearance in the ‘70s, “I was so nervous, I could barely play,” he said.
Several years after that, in 1980, Cockburn nerves got jangly again as a musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” — his first national exposure in the U.S. “It was an interesting experience because it was the original cast still,” Cockburn said, describing the atmosphere at SNL as “hurry up and wait.” He also said that although everyone conducted themselves in a professional manner, there was a “conspicuous sense of dissatisfaction” among the cast members, suggesting that the end of an era was nigh. “Afterwards there was a party, and I probably drank a lot of whiskey,” Cockburn chuckled.
In a separate phone interview, fellow Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot said he first heard of Cockburn when he covered one of his songs — “Ribbon of Darkness” on the 2003 album “Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot.” “He’s a very talented guy,” Lightfoot said, recommending Cockburn’s 2014 book “Rumours of Glory: A Memoir.”
When asked about what it was like writing about the bad times in his life for “Rumours of Glory,” Cockburn responded: “There’s a quality in exorcism when you’re telling the story.” It’s the same kind of thing, he said, with mental images that pop into his head whenever he plays “Wondering Where the Lions Are.”
This year, Cockburn celebrated his 70th birthday. “It’s not as big a deal as turning 50,” he said. “I’ve got a 3-year-old daughter that tries to keep me young.”
If you thought a 70-year-old parent with a 3-year-old child was unusual, wait until you hear some people at the Folk Fest calling out for “Franklin.” Cockburn wrote and sang the theme song for the animated series based on the “Franklin the Turtle” children’s books. “People call out for it, being ironic. The other half of the audience is looking like ‘what are you talking about?’ because they don’t have kids,” he said.
Cockburn has mixed feelings about “Hey, It’s Franklin.” On one hand, it was something he’d never tried, and he remembered having fun recording it. Also, his daughter recognizes his voice whenever “Franklin” comes on TV. On the other hand, there was an uncomfortable “corporate production aesthetic” about the whole process. “It was like doing a jingle,” said Cockburn.
Worth seeking out is the 2012 documentary “Bruce Cockburn: Pacing the Cage,” which offers a rare look into his music, environmental and human rights activism, and Christian faith, all while on the road during a solo acoustic tour in 2008. Bono and Jackson Browne appear on camera to express their appreciation for Cockburn’s songwriting.
“The only thing wrong with (the film) is everyone likes me too much,” he said with a laugh.
Although Cockburn isn’t working with any specific causes right now, he’s passionate about his political views. “We, as a species, are in a precarious position,” he said. “Who’s making a profit from war and the destruction of the environment? The same ‘bad guys’ are behind both.”