Where are all the protest singers?
Every major social movement, as far as recent memory recalls, has activated artists to write anthems and make bold statements.
Watching the Occupy Wall Street movement unfold, it is surprising that there hasn’t been a multitude of artists rising to the surface, using their music as a means to represent the ever-growing frustration with the current state of affairs.
Outspoken singer-songwriter and activist Bruce Cockburn didn’t wait for a movement. Nor has he fallen silent in the calmer times that have followed his first explicitly political song, the 1984 radio hit “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”
The celebrated Canadian is a constant and keen observer of the outrageous happenings around the world. Cockburn’s opinions of the world’s tragedies and injustices, which often proceed that of the status quo, are sometimes unpopular and isolating; his boldness makes him the best of protest singers. He continued the pattern with his 31st album, “Small Source of Comfort.” It was released earlier this year on True North Records.
Taking a look at the liner notes of “Small Source of Comfort” and seeing that Cockburn thanked “sundry Corporate Scumbags (the same ones who shape everything else in the world),” one could only presume that his songwriting is influenced by the evils of big business. Perhaps the noisy, electric album Cockburn had in mind when he embarked on this work would have been a reflection of his irritation.
Diverting from his original intentions, he recorded a folksier, acoustic guitar-based album with only a few songs that touch on finances and government. Despite this, what blatant declarations Cockburn does make come through loud and clear. Within the first few verses of the album, in “Iris of the World,” Cockburn is singing, “They’re trying to plug holes in the hull while flames eat up the deck, the captain and his crew don’t seem to get the disconnect.”
Other outright remarks come from Cockburn in the solemn, but necessary, “Each One Lost.” He wrote the song after witnessing a memorial ceremony in Afghanistan for two young Canadian troops who had been killed in the war-torn country. His commentary is resounding and commands a reevaluation of discord that often turns fatal.
Richard Nixon makes an appearance on “Small Source of Comfort,” but he’s exchanged a battle with the guy for a comical recreation. “Call Me Rose” is by far the most absurd, but amusing observations of Nixon. Cockburn said he awoke one morning with the words to the song pretty much fully formed in his head. Richard Nixon being reincarnated into a poor woman living in the projects with her two little kids could only be the stuff of dreams.
Remarkably, “Small Source of Comfort” is largely apolitical. The album features five instrumentals and two collaborations with fellow Canadian artist Annabell Chvostek. Cockburn not only does not waste his words, but he also never wastes a single note. He is an exceptional guitarist, ingeniously conveying a particular theme with instrumentation alone. “The Comets of Kandahar,” also inspired by his trip to Afghanistan, masterfully represents the imagery of jet fighters taking off after dark.
Cockburn is a lyrical and musical intellectual, but he’s only mere wave in a massive sea of the short-minded and superficial. Yet, when that wave crashes into you, its mighty force leaves a lasting impact. It’s a small source of comfort that artists like Bruce Cockburn, ones that can make deeply perceptive articulations about the human condition and the towering influences that guide it, remain buoyant in the expanse of darkness.
For more information on Bruce Cockburn, visit http://www.brucecockburn.com.