Bruce Cockburn will be a highlight at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Bruce Cockburn will be on the main stage Sunday evening at the Folk Fest.

Bruce Cockburn will be on the mainstage Sunday evening at the Folk Fest.

If you’re not a regular at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, this might be a good year to go (July 15 – 17). One headliner is Canadian icon Bruce Cockburn, whose music has sustained many Christians over the years. He will perform on the mainstage Sunday night, looking out over Jericho Beach – always a highlight of the weekend.

From any point of view, Cockburn is a major Canadian artist, producing excellent music for over 40 years; after 34 albums he is still going strong. Reviewing Cockburn’s 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, Globe and Mail writer Brad Wheeler said:

Why read Cockburn’s story? Songwriters come and go, but take my advice when I tell you to pay attention to the spiritually seeking, war-zone-visiting, guitar-mastering Canadian ones who hold rocket launchers. . . .

Cockburn doesn’t consider himself a preacher or a protest singer, but an observer who “paints sonic pictures of what I encounter, feel and think is true.” It’s intense stuff, from an intense artist and human.

Wheeler notes how many times Cockburn used the word ‘Divine’ in Rumours of Glory – and there’s no doubt he’s a very spiritual man, though he doesn’t much like to be pinned down about the content of his faith. He has often said he’s a Christian, and even pinpointed the time he accepted Jesus.

Songs like ‘Lord of the Starfields’ and ‘All the Diamonds in the World’ could fit onto a (much better than average) CCM record, and signs of faith are easy to discern in many of his songs, including those with social justice and political themes.

Asked by Dan MacIntosh of Stereo Subversion where he was on his spiritual journey (in 2013), Cockburn said:

It’s an ongoing quest. I don’t think it will stop when I die, either. I believe that my relationship with God is central to my life. It is the most important thing in my life. . . .

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to characterize my beliefs in a simple way because I don’t subscribe to a namable faith or religion. I’ve moved through an acquaintanceship with a few different things and a deep involvement with Christianity and I’m pretty close to that still, but I just have too many questions to feel comfortable calling myself a Christian at this point. But I’m still very close to that.

A June 2015 interview with Mardi Tindal in the United Church Observer revealed some new insights:

Q How do you maintain that relationship with the Divine?

A I struggle with a lack of trust, which I didn’t know back in the day. When I was a more active churchgoer, I felt like I had a pretty solid faith. But I had a conversation with a Presbyterian minister friend of mine who said, “Do you believe in an all-powerful, all-seeing God?”

I said, “Yeah, I do, but I don’t trust him. I don’t want to be available to him, because he’s going to ask me to do [things] I don’t want to do.” This is a totally wrong-headed way to think about it, but this is my default position, and I struggle with that. I’m winning, little by little – or God’s winning. It’s getting better. The period of doubt I’ve gone through has been an exercise in going deeper.

I’ve been doing Jungian-based dream work for a long time, and through it I’ve come to find myself; I’m able to feel love from God and receive it.

MJ [my wife] recently started going to a Pentecostal church, but it doesn’t conform to my previously held stereotype of a Pentecostal church. It’s full of spirit and brains and fun, a real sense of joy. I was shocked to discover this and finally let MJ persuade me to go with her. Then I got invited to play with the band. So I go now and sit in the church band as a guitar player. It’s an unfolding process.

At that point, he said he’d written three songs since his book came out, and one was a gospel song.

Wherever Cockburn’s spiritual journey has taken him in the past year, we can be sure of some great music at the Folk Fest (and I’ll be hoping to hear that new gospel song).

[Since I wrote this article for The Light Magazine, Cockburn appeared on CBC’s Early Edition radio show (July 13). Asked by host Rick Cluff about his faith, he responded that it is . . .

Very central to my life and works, as it were. For me, faith – it’s not a word I use, exactly. I do have faith. I have faith that there is a spiritual reality, and faith that it matters and faith that there’s a relationship with God possible. But otherwise, it’s more of a quest than a faith. It’s really about finding out what that relationship is supposed to be and how to actually make it go, and how to hold up my end of it. So, the search continues.

I expressed my spirituality through Christianity for a long time – and I’m kind of starting to again, I’ve just been led around to that. But there was a long period in there where I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a  Christian, for various reasons – some social, some personal – but I was not involved with Christian worship in any particular way.

But in the last couple of years I’ve sort of started coming around again, so I don’t know where it’s going. . . .]

Faith sightings

Mike Edel makes his home in Victoria.

Mike Edel makes his home in Victoria.

Folk has always been influenced by gospel music and spiritual themes – and this year’s Folk Fest will be no different. Here are a couple of other artists known for their faith:

* Mike Edel is a Victoria-based artist who has been interviewed three times on GodPod, a Vancouver Island initiative designed “to bring you the best Christian interviews, stories, blog posts, audiobooks, e-books and other new media to educate and inspire you in your Christian walk.” His last concert before Folk Fest was at Young Life’s Malibu Camp, though he normally plays regular venues (Biltmore, Khatsalano Festival, etc).

M Ward is the 'Him' of She & Him.

M. Ward is the ‘Him’ of She & Him.

* M. Ward was written up in Christianity Today in 2009: “Ward, who names ‘Amazing Grace’ his all-time favorite song, also makes spirited use of biblical language and imagery, using the tropes of the Christian faith as touchstones and illustrations to lend his songs weight.” The Oregon singer/songwriter is probably best known as ‘Him’ of the pop band She & Him.

New music

But of course the main point of going to the Folk Fest is not just to look for the familiar and agreeable, but to learn about new music from all over the world. Mike Usinger in The Georgia Straight notes:

As artistic managing director, [Linda] Tanaka has landed some heavy hitters for the 39th edition of the fest, including U.K. trad-folk godfather Martin Carthy, spoken-word treasure Shane Koyczan and indie-rock royalty the New Pornographers. . . . Some of the acts that she’s most excited about . . . are Ghana’s genre-jumping Jojo Abot and golden-throated Irish singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill. Those worth watching on that world-music front include Haitian vodou-hip-hop fusionists Lakou Mizik, Mongolian folk-rockers Ajinai, and Israel’s exotic Yemen Blues.

Should be an interesting mix, as always, in the panoramic setting of Jericho Beach.

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