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Vol 39  No 15
June 7, 2007


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Friday, May 25, 3 p.m.

Oration honouring Bruce Cockburn


Dr. Bruce Cockburn

When the travelling man, the cultural pirate, Humphrey Gilbert hove up on the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, his fellow celebrity, Edmund Spenser, was recording the politics and passions of his age in song. The government of the day didn’t have to reward Gilbert for seizing “this blessed isle,” he drowned on the way home, but Queen Elizabeth I did want to provide a life-time pension of £100 to her musical chronicler. Her chief minister, though, was horrified at the misappropriation of government funds and exclaimed: What! All this for a song.

Mr. Chancellor, As you well know, this mean-spirited, unimaginative parsimony is not confined to the 16th century. However, while this court of intellectuals and government of scholars may be occasionally short of funds, it is not short-sighted. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we place a high value on music and song, ever since Robert Hayman, in the 16th century, wrote a song about the rich elements of our province. That is why today we are proud to honour the pre-eminent singer/songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, whose songs have recorded the politics and passion of our lives and times. He has courted and provoked us all to engage in the urgent political, economic and environmental issues of our time. His lyrics summon us to take responsibility for our actions, and, most difficult of all, to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Through his extensive travels in Central America, Asia, Africa and Iraq, Bruce Cockburn’s substantial discography bears witness to the horror and the holiness of the human condition. And while, like Spenser, he sings of the evanescence of life, of our

Footprints by the sea’s edge
Disappearing grain by grain,

the intensity of his imagery, offers us glimpses of the divine.

Mr. Chancellor, While Bruce Cockburn modestly refers to himself as a “cultural pirate,” widely read in the Christian writings of Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and in the work of the poets Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ernesto Cardenal, he is an original artist. His luminous and forceful images have awakened our consciousness to the fearful symmetry in the dual nature of human kind – our amazing acts of grace and our atrocious acts of evil. The rich, sensuous palette of his music, a versatile distillation of folk, rock, reggae, jazz, blues, and liturgical, Renaissance rhythms, played on Western, Asian, African and Caribbean instruments, has been a call to generations of Canadians to attend to humanistic values.

Mr. Chancellor, in fact this is Bruce Cockburn’s second gig this month. He has just received an honorary doctorate in divinity from Queen’s University, but he is the first to admit that he is no saint. His parents thought he would become a bum if he played the guitar; he was once arrested for busking without a license in Paris and, having had some experience in these matters, he is writing the music for the film Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance by Irvine Welsh. While his songs at times are bitter and impassioned cris de coeur, they are never preachy. They are extracted from the truth of his own experience. If the songs take on a life of their own that is the risk this artist takes in speaking truly.
Bruce Cockburn’s songs are often cries of outrage, not a call to arms. But they call to account governments responsible for blighted landscapes, helpless refugees, maimed villagers, murdered children, and things too sickening to relate. His words and music pluck the silver strands of the soul. While he rejects the title of “activist,” acknowledging the work of the real activists, the women and men who risk their lives on a daily basis for humanity, his concerts and donations have supported non-governmental agencies struggling to counter the evil men do. Uncomfortable with the title of “Canadian Conscience,” Bruce Cockburn is aware of the irony that his iconoclastic songs have made him an icon, so he urges us to listen to the still, small voice of our own consciences. But, Mr. Chancellor, conscience sometimes makes cowards of us all, and we need our songwriters to remind us of the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit in the face of extreme poverty, suffering and tyranny.

His songs attest that, in his odyssey, Bruce Cockburn has almost been overcome by the “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” the futility and waste of human life. His spirituality has sustained him, while he has been a grim traveller in a dawn sky, as has the sacrament of erotic love, recorded in many of his sensuous songs, which he has shared with all of us who are Lovers in a Dangerous Time. Witness, Mr. Chancellor, the number of fans in the faculty clamouring for tickets to this convocation.

So what better way to record this convocation than to close with Bruce Cockburn’s own words –
Amid the rumours and the expectations
And all the stories dreamt and lived
Amid the clangour and the dislocation
And things to fear and to forgive
Don’t forget
About delight.

This outstanding Canadian, this citizen of the world, Bruce Cockburn, has given us true soundings on the voyage of our lives. We trust he will have a safer voyage from these shores than Humphrey Gilbert, that his communion with us will ensure a lifetime remuneration of grace and inspire many more songs illuminating the reality of our world.
Mr. Chancellor, It is a true delight to present to you, for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, Bruce Cockburn.

Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy Public Orator

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