Rolling Along

Three decades of Bruce Cockburn's music

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...

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About the Author

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