Canadian Dry


World of Wonders: The Lyrics and Music of Bruce Cockburn , James A. Heald

(209pp, Missing Link)



In sharp contrast to the condescending and ill-judged evangelical slant of Brian Walsh's recent book on Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn (which I reviewed in Third Way and for The Matthews House Project) James A. Heald takes an informed and intelligent approach to Cockburn's albums and songs, contextualising and appraising the work under a series of headings mostly within a linear timeline.


My biggest quibble is that I'd have liked a more academic approach, particularly fuller referencing and a bibliography, and arguments followed through a little more, but Heald's enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge more than compensates for this (and, of course, it's not being marketed as an academic title, it's just me being difficult).


The book offers plenty of biographical fact, lyrical analysis, and both speculative and informed context to the long career and large discography of this intriguing singer. Cockburn started as a new-age folkie within the hippy movement before engaging with both spirituality and politics in equal measure. His inquisitive and engaging questioning and exploration is suitably matched here by Heald, who manages to interrogate literary and musical inspiration and sources, political histories and geographies, as well as the personal, throughout this engaging and witty volume.


Heald isn't afraid to offer opinion and critique, but he does so sparingly and always defends those opinions. He weaves personal anecdotes and experience into the text where appropriate, too: a road trip into Native American Indian territories, a musical epiphany from the past, his part in an online discussion to clarify some lyrical or biographical detail, the shared enthusiasm or disappointment at a concert or the first spin of a new Cockburn album.


This isn't obsessive writing either (there are, thankfully, no detailed setlists or wardrobe details) this is just one fan's engagement with the complexities of a musician whose work has continued to inspire and intrigue him. Like me, Heald has been entertained, bored, and informed by Cockburn's music and quest for spiritual and political answers. The good thing about Cockburn is he never settles for the obvious; he finds out for himself, then moves on, leaving a trail of songs about love, doubt, desire and faith in his wake. Heald isn't afraid to admit Cockburn's albums haven't all been great, or that production values or marketing have sometimes done Cockburn a disservice. But he is astute enough to dig beneath that to the ongoing troubadour spirit which keeps Cockburn and his fanbase interested and listening.


     Rupert Loydell 2012