“If I had a Rocket Launcher,” Bruce Cockburn’s anti-anthem of pure rage, was my introduction to the Canadian troubadour’s already established catalog. The year was 1989, and my older brother had sent me Cockburn’s song–a reaction to the United States’ interventionist politics in Central America–as I prepared to visit El Salvador. Midway through my senior year at UC Berkeley, honored with being asked to be the student representative on a church-sponsored community witness-to-war delegation, I was surprised that Bruce Cockburn’s overtly political condemnation had escaped my radar. My work on campus with Students Against Intervention in Central America (SAICA), in which I helped to organize educational events, had resulted in the opportunity for me to meet the people of a country caught up in a war I loathed, my lofty ideals hopefully validated through the veracity of personal experience.
Last Sunday’s sold out performance at the legendary Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Virginia was the first time I had seen Bruce Cockburn perform live. A devoted fan since my introduction to his music in 1989, I entered the venue with my admiration and appreciation already solidly intact. I was, as it turns out, far from alone. No shortage of reverence (or grey hair) in this audience, poised for the long anticipated return of a musical sage; fans were prepared with favorite song requests, copies of Cockburn’s 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, for signing, and stories of how Cockburn’s faith and activism inspired their own inner lives and sense of social responsibility.
AND Bruce Cockburn did not disappoint. Having no opening act and only a single accompanist, John Aaron Cockburn, his multi-instrumentalist nephew (adding accordion, guitar, and vocals as a fine familial note to the performance’s overall ambience), Cockburn delivered over two hours of a thoughtful and immensely satisfying sampling from his celebrated career. Fan favorites, especially those that placed in the Billboard top 100, such as the scathing critique of corporate greed, Call It Democracy; the expression of hope amid despair, Lovers in a Dangerous Time; and the ever relevant and perpetual heartbreak, If a Tree Falls alternated with instrumental masterpieces, like Bardo Rush (the show’s opener), April in Memphis, and Blind Willie, all from Cockburn’s recently released instrumental album, Crowing Ignites (True North Records), which proved, yet again, Cockburn’s singular genius as a composer and a guitarist. At one point he surprised and delighted by playing a Charango, which can be enjoyed as just one of several world instruments heard on Crowing Ignites. The traditional South American string instrument, which elicited several audience inquiries, can be thought of as a banjo-mandolin hybrid, and spoke to the various ways Cockburn’s latest lyric-less album incorporates many and varied “voices.”
In spite of Cockburn’s focus on inclusivity, this night would, however, leave out from the mix one very vocal assertion. “If I had a Rocket Launcher” was enthusiastically requested, then denied, more than once. “I appreciate the request,” Cockburn explained, “but this just isn’t the time…there will be a time again, but with so much divisiveness in our county, playing that song just feels wrong right now.” Cockburn’s reasoning was accepted without argument. Calling out our country’s current “Democracy” for its inherent hypocrisies-yes, but being an agent of unproductive discord, well, not on Bruce Cockburn’s albeit limited, yet obviously influential, watch.
First released in 1984, “If I had a Rocket Launcher,” was a stark departure from Cockburn’s earlier faith-driven work, but his consciousness’ soundscape had been irrevocably altered by the indiscriminant counterinsurgency atrocities he witnessed when visiting camps full of Guatemalan refuges displaced by that country’s brutal war. But this change in expression did not mean Cockburn’s faith had diminished. In fact almost the opposite was true and his certainty that faith is not antithetical to social, political, economic, environmental activism puts him in good company. For example Liberation Theology, a Roman Catholic clergy led movement embraced in several Latin American countries in the 20th century, reimagined the Church’s mandate as one of responsibility towards the oppressed. Similarly, The United States’ involvement in Vietnam inspired action by two Catholic priests, brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, who led the Catonsville Nine in the burning with homemade napalm scores of draft files. The Church’s central role should be to protect and to promote Christian values of peace and love. As an aside, former nun, Guatemalan rights activist, and original member of the Catonsville Nine, Marjorie Melville, would—upon her release from jail—earn her PhD and eventually become Chair of the Chicano Studies department at The University of California, Berkeley, where I was privileged to be among her students.
Finally, Bruce Cockburn’s rage resonated with me in new and personal ways after my aforementioned and ultimately ill-fated trip to El Salvador. Shortly after our arrival, our delegation of eleven North Americans had been deemed spies. We were arrested and—after one night in military custody—turned over to the notorious Treasury Police and placed in an underground jail cell. A prisoner was instructed to inform us, in his best broken English, that we now had no rights. Three days later The State Department, having heard about our disappearance, brokered a deal to get us out. Tired, dirty, and hungry, we were flown on a private plane back to the U.S., our passports stamped with an admonishing smudge: “DEPORTADO.”
Sunday night’s show at the Birchmere had many wonderful moments, but one lives large in my heart and mind. Late in the second set, Bruce Cockburn delivered a joyous and raucous Jesus Train, sung with infectious abandon, unabashedly highlighting a faith unshaken—fortified even—by an assuredness of his belief in our human responsibility to do good. And with that belief comes the promise that in spite of that which is bad, each and every one of us has the capacity to live a life filled with awe and ceaseless wonder:
Standing on the platform
Awed by the power
I feel the fire of love
Feel the hand upon my shoulder
Saying “Brother climb aboard”
I’m on a Jesus train
I’m on a Jesus train
I’m on a Jesus train
Headed for the city of God
Check out more things Bruce here: brucecockburn.com and read our interview here: Interview: Bruce Cockburn on Crowing Ignites, Meeting Jerry Garcia, and Little Ass Bells