Somewhere between pure pop music-music that succeeds or fails on the basis of its popularity-and genre music lies a kind of music that critic Robert Christgau defined many years ago as semipopular: music with a smaller, more sustainable audience than pop, though its strategems and aesthetics are essentially the same. An analogy would be the movie that lies somewhere between a blockbuster and the art house; the little movie that probably won’t but may become the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has been producing such music for more than thirty years. His new CD, You’ve Never Seen Everything, arrives after last year’s career-spanning singles compilation Anything, Anytime, Anywhere, and in the middle of a reissue series on Rounder Records that stretches all the way back to 1971. A semipopular musical creative output over that many years is unusual, but not unique. What is unique is the way he’s done it: by combining Christian spirituality with a global political critique. Why that’s so unusual requires a quick and admittedly simplified tour of the past fifty years.

Around 1955, an older urban-based pop gave way to a new music, rock ’n’ roll, that borrowed much of its explosive energy from Southern religion. This wasn’t the first time that the North looked south for music (don’t forget Stephen Foster and Al Jolson), but it was the first time so much of the borrowing was from religion. If the secular fervor of rock ’n’ roll was inclusive-you didn’t have to be a Baptist to attend this revival meeting-it still contained a problem. The music inherited a cultural split between secular and sacred.

Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Al Green-the number of African-American singers who came out of the church is beyond measure. Yet even those who broke from the sacred, became secular, and then went back again could never be both. This Pentecostal schizophrenia was shared with white singers. Rocker Jerry Lee Lewis and TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart are cousins, after all, and although their singing and piano playing are remarkably similar, their careers are unbreachable halves of a sacred/secular divide. Only cultural titans like Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin were able to cross back and forth at will or even straddle both sides.

In the 1960s, rock ’n’ roll collided with the urban folk-music tradition, whose brain may have been in Greenwich Village, but whose heart was also in the South. Again, much of the secular energy derived from Southern religion, at times by simply substituting the word “freedom” for “Jesus” in the lyrics. The archetype here, of course, is Bob Dylan who, famously and conveniently, has divided his career into distinct, and frequently antagonistic phases: folk-music-protest Bob, electric-rock ’n’ roll Bob, born-again-Christian Bob, rejuvenated cosmic-yet-secular Bob. A lot of this is just Dylan, but it illuminates dilemmas that were revealed in the music as the decades went by.

Some problems derive from the politics of the folk-music scene: How do you maintain the optimism and anger of the music over decades without running into the spiritual issues of hope and despair? You don’t. Dylan perceived the limitations in his earlier career but in the process ran into the secular/sacred split. When he got religion, it was framed as a rejection of the rest of his career, and he had to backpedal or move on (depending on how you look at it), before he had a chance to speak to his wider audience again.
ruce Cockburn began as a country-based folksinger with the somewhat fuzzy cosmic concerns of that era’s counterculture. By the middle of the 1970s, though, he had moved to Toronto, converted to Christianity, and engaged for the long haul with the city’s refugee, political, and musical communities. So why did his conversion lead to connecting with rather than breaking from the secular world?

Some of it is the music: although as a kid he was inspired by Elvis, Cockburn’s musical influences are more thoughtful than apocalyptic. His virtuoso guitar playing is rooted in the techniques of the acoustic blues masters rediscovered and idolized during the sixties’ folk boom. He studied at the Harvard of jazz, Berklee School of Music in Boston, before dropping out and returning to Canada to begin his career. An accessible rock beat anchors most of Cockburn’s songs, but over the years his music has sustained an atypical curiosity and variety. On the new CD, he collaborates with an experimental New York City jazz group, Dapp Theory, which includes a rapper in its lineup.

Some of it is Cockburn’s persona, to use an over-used rock-critic term. He’s got an unpretentious everyman kind of voice that works well over the musical virtuosity, and helps him navigate between the twin dangers of pomposity and crabbiness. His lyrics are frequently angry-“there’s a parasite feeding on / everybody’s bag of rage” who appears to be President George W. Bush-but he never comes across as a scold. He paints himself as a lonely world traveler, spiritual seeker, and bemused homebody. On You’ve Never Seen Everything, “Trickle Down,” a tirade against institutionalized greed, is followed by “Everywhere Dance,” where he sings “And we cry out for grace to lay truth bare / The dance is the truth...and it’s everywhere.”

Which leads us to another possible reason for Cockburn’s productive longevity: his particular take on religion. Christians can find familiar terrain in his lyrics, usually in imagery that’s not exclusively religious. Sunlight, for instance, often stands in for divine grace or revelation. That may sound trite, but as Cockburn has worked it out over the years, it has allowed him to pull off something profound. He has been able to write about the issues of a complex world in the format of the popular song without becoming bitter or burned out.

The tour de force of his latest CD is a “song” (much of it is recitation) about Cockburn’s visit to the killing fields of Cambodia. Personal observations from Phnom Penh are mixed with domestic details from back home in Canada, all tied together by a chorus that begins “This is too big for anger / It’s too big for blame.” Cockburn’s politics are obviously on the left; his big hit, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (the video was on MTV), describes his reaction to a helicopter attack on refugees by the Guatemalan military. Pol Pot’s genocide is an even less likely subject for a song. Like the Gulag, it’s often skipped over on the left-wing tour of history’s atrocities.

No one produces thirty-plus years of interesting music without a lot of skill and intelligence, but maybe geography helps too. Maybe the history of the United States can be described as a series of clashes and accommodations between North and South and African and European, and rock ’n’ roll can be described as one of the happier results of that dynamic, and as, in some ways, a Northern acceptance of the secularized religion of the South. If so, then Canada can be described as a series of clashes and accommodations between Anglo Protestant Ontario and French Catholic Quebec, and when rock ’n’ roll crossed the border to the north, maybe it was able to absorb a different religious dynamic, and Cockburn’s career is the proof.

As I write, Cockburn is returning from a visit to Iraq with a delegation headed by Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit. He’s not the type of writer to whip out a new song at a moment’s notice, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else who’s been on MTV worth waiting for.

Tom Smucker is a freelance writer in New York. He writes on music for the Village Voice.

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Published in the 2004-02-27 issue: View Contents
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