Chapter 2, From Birth to Berklee


The eldest of three sons, Bruce Douglas Cockburn was born at Ottawa Civic Hospital ( on 27 May 1945 (Caldwell 2002) during the final months of the Second World War. At the time, his father, a doctor – who would later work as a radiologist (Batten 1971, p. 37) – was stationed in Europe, serving as a member of the Canadian medical corps. As a result, his mother raised him on her own for the first year of his life (Adria 1990, p. 86).


In the early 1970s, when he was in his late twenties, Bruce would describe his suburban postwar childhood to Canadian journalist Jack Batten as “solid, conventional, religious … loving, athletic and not particularly musical” (Batten 1971, p. 37). Subsequent interviews, however, clarify the actual role religion and music played in Bruce’s upbringing. In a 1980 interview, for instance, he attributed his family’s United Church attendance while he was a child and young teen to his parents need to appease his devote Presbyterian grandmother. Still, as soon as Bruce and his brothers John and Don “‘were old enough to complain about having to wear grey flannels on Sunday’,” the three were allowed to stay home (Holden 1981). Essentially, Bruce was raised agnostic (Morton 1994, p. 15). “‘I didn’t really grow up in the faith,” he has since reflected. “I grew up with the symbols around me, but not with any real personal understanding of it’” (Ruhlmann 1992).

Bruce betrayed no obvious signs of brooding over religious questions or spiritual matters as a child (Cameron 2001). Instead, he owns to having possessed an acute sense of “‘another side of life’” at an early age, a sensitivity – as Marco Adria once put it – to a parallel and ultimately integral spiritual world.

Along with these sensitivities came an acute social awkwardness that persisted for Bruce into early adolescence (Adria 1990, p. 86). Bruce’s father, for example, remembers his eldest son as having been an unusually shy child, who walked and talked like a miniature adult (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002).

In at least one sense, Bruce coped “by seeking solitude” (Adria 1990, p. 86), particularly the solitude that nature offered. He especially cherished his family’s regular visits to his grandparents’ Pembroke area farm ( Subsequent summer camp experiences in Algonquin Provincial Park also helped solidify his life-long love for the outdoors (Batten 1971, p. 39).

Bruce’s parents regularly played the family piano during Bruce’s childhood, such that music remained a constant in the Cockburn household (Walker 1970). Moreover, Bruce’s father, eager to expose his son to culture and the arts, subscribed his young family to a music club that delivered long-playing records of orchestral works to subscribers on a monthly basis. Though only three years of age at the time, Bruce recalls feeling “completely fired up” by the records that were played in the Cockburn family living room in Kingston, Ontario. Though he would later shun his parents’ enthusiasm for sugary musicals like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music, Harry Belefonte was one artist the family always agreed on (Terfry 2009).

A Budding Poet & Musician

Initially reeled in by the songs of The Ventures, Dwayne Eddy, and Buddy Holly, Bruce felt intensely drawn to the emerging world of Rock and Roll as a young teen (Case 1991). Elvis’ Christmas Album would end up becoming his first independent record purchase (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). “‘I liked rock ‘n’ roll from the very first moment I heard Elvis Presley’,” Bruce has conceded (Ruhlmann 1992). For Bruce, Elvis became the singer to imitate and his guitarist, Scott Moore, the player to emulate (Cameron 2001).

At the age of fourteen Bruce’s dream of becoming a rock and roller assumed a plausible air when he discovered an old acoustic guitar in his grandmother’s attic (Terfry 2009). Permitted to keep the instrument, he set out to master it and soon made it his own, decorating its body with pattern of gold stars (Aristopia 2008). Unable, at first, to play anything other than simple rock and roll riffs, Bruce was nevertheless unable to “put the instrument down” (Adria 1990, pp. 86-87). Soon enough he learned to make do, playing in Top 40 school bands (Rulhmann 1992) and listening at night to the music of Ronnie Hawkins and his young guitarist Robbie Robertson on the radio (Jennings 1997, p. 72). Putting on his new public rock and roll persona, the young and chronically shy Bruce found a means of escaping the lonely solitude that dominated his childhood.

Bruce’s father worried, however, about his son’s seemingly aberrant attachment to the guitar and initially refused to fund any music lessons (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). In time, though, Bruce and his parents would strike a deal:  provided Bruce learned to play properly and promised never to grow sideburns or to wear a leather jacket, the lessons would be forthcoming. Eager to improve as a player, Bruce agreed (Walker 1970; Terfry 2009).

Hailing from the Chet Atkins School of music, Bruce’s new guitar teacher succeeded in turning him on to country swing and jazz (Jensen 1993), while a series of parallel lessons with Peter Hall, a local Ottawa church organist, consolidated Bruce’s lifelong interest in the latter of the two genres (Drockelman 1999). Bruce especially grew to admire the work of late Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and the work of jazz guitarists Herb Ellis and Gabor Szabo (Adria 1990, p. 87). As Bruce would later remark of his parents: “they thought that if I learned to play properly I wouldn’t want to play that awful rock and roll, and strangely it was sort of true” (Terfry 2009). At age seventeen (Batten 1971, p. 37), Bruce commenced lessons in composition and piano with the Royal Conservatory, and managed to completed sixth grade before leaving high school (Adria 1990, p. 87). These years culminated in the writing of a jazz mass, performed at a local church (Batten 1971, p. 37).

As Bruce transitioned into his senior year at Nepean High School in suburban Ottawa, he found himself increasingly drawn to contemporary folk music, however. Falling in with a group of local folkies he learned to play ragtime and country blues, chiefly emulating the melodic finger picking techniques of guitarists Big Bill Broonzy, Mance Liscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, and Brownie McGee (Jensen 1993; Terfry 2009). At open-mike nights at Le Hibou, Ottawa’s foremost folk venue, Bruce hesitantly began performing cover song for whoever would listen (Jennings 1997, p. 72).

Bruce’s passion for poetry also matured during his high school years. It had its roots in the sixth grade, when Bruce found himself surprisingly absorbed by the abstractions encoded in modern American poet Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “Ars Poetica” (Caldwell 2002). Later, in his senior year at Nepean High, Bruce found fresh inspiration in the poetry of American expatriate T.S. Eliot. By this time Bruce had also been exposed to the early poetic songs of Bob Dylan and John Lennon. As Bruce recalls: “‘When I first heard Bob Dylan and John Lennon it was revealed to me that you could put poetic words with music’” (Ruhlmann 1992).

Not surprisingly, Bruce’s interest in Dylan attended a parallel awakening to the work of the major American Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac (Rice and Gutnik 1995, pp. 240-241). Bruce especially admired Ginsberg and Kerouac, who for years remained pop culture heroes, despite living persistently controversial and marginal lives (Hampson 2002). Bruce’s 1963 yearbook entry would betray all the trappings of a budding Beat sensibility, describing his biggest pet peeve as “phoney people and advertising” (Caldwell 2002). So also would the personal study of Buddhism Bruce initiated toward the end of his high school career (Cameron 2001). By that point, Bruce claims, Christianity had become for him “a totally unacceptable option” associated with the “conservative, status quo” (Sojourners 1988, p. 30). Bruce found Kerouac’s novel On the Road, with its partly autobiographical record of spontaneous travel, intensely persuasive, and believed, like many of his peers, that its travel narrative described a potentially genuinely way of living (Adria 1990, p. 87; Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002).


Eager and impatient to put his musical wits to the test and imagining that he might earn his keep working as an itinerant musician, Bruce announced that he would be leaving school before completing Ontario’s thirteenth grade (Walker 1970; Holtz 1976). With a ticket for a freight ride and a $150 travel fund, he set out for Norway, guitar in tow, in the spring of 1964 (Walker 1970) on a solo backpacking trip through Europe (Caldwell 2002). Sometimes seedy and occasionally precarious, his experience of the continent proved sobering. In search of the dusty and hungry “roots of existence,” Bruce took to sleeping in fields and under bridges while in Europe (Kostash 1972, p. 22). In Stockholm, Jack Batten would later report, Bruce sang “at hootenannies for uncomprehending but appreciative Swedes,” while in Copenhagen he lived for a time “with six English dope peddlers” (Batten 1971, p. 37).

Eventually, Bruce would hitch hike to Paris (Holtz 1976) and form an impromptu street band with a French trumpet player and an American clarinettist. Together, the three performed Dixieland Jazz for $10 a day. Lacking a legal permit to beg, however, the trio were soon rounded up and briefly jailed by Montmartre police (Batten 1971, p. 37), who thankfully failed to discover Bruce’s contraband switchblade or the clarinet player’s marijuana stash (Walker 1970). On release, Bruce was promptly deported back to Canada where he found himself, as Patricia Holtz would vividly put it, “scuttling home to his parents in Ottawa” (Holtz 1976).

The circumstance of Bruce’s return must have seemed prodigal to some. Yet his father would not fail to discern a new won worldliness in his son’s demeanour and accelerated sensibilities (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002). Still, his father and mother were understandably anxious for their son and counselled him to commit to a path of higher learning (Batten 1971, p. 37). With reticence, Bruce enrolled with Boston’s respected Berklee School of Music. As Bruce has conceded: “‘bumming around was no longer a popular idea, and since college didn’t appeal, the next best thing seemed to be music school’” (Holtz 1976). His parents supported him, but with reluctance, knowing the challenges any professional musician then faced in making a viable living (Kensington Market Communications Inc., 2002).

Boston & Berklee School of Music

Intent on studying “straight jazz” (Rice and Gutnik 1995, p. 241), and declaring a major in composition (Caldwell 2002), Bruce headed south. Musically competent on arrival, the ease (MacLeod 1973) with which he adapted in first year left Bruce ample time for extracurricular endeavour. This included playing Albert Ayler-style ‘free jazz’ with fellow students (Caldwell 2002), with Bruce playing guitar and singing vocals, alongside two bass players and a drummer (Cockburn 1997). It also included playing in local bands like jug band Walker Thompson and His Boys (Keebler 2008). Bruce also performed some of his own material (Walker 1970; Yorke 1971, p. 57) and took to frequenting local blues and jazz clubs (Batten 1971, p. 37), in particular Boston’s Club 47 (Jennings 1997, p. 72).

By second year though, what began as a respectable credentialing exercise morphed into a “spiritually restless” (Eyre 2002) intercultural quest, underwritten by liberal marijuana use (Holtz 1976). Disenchanted with the staid rigours of jazz and traditional composition (MacLeod 1973), Bruce – like many of his fellow students – expanded his focus, in favour of a global exploration of music. Taking in Indian, Tibetan, and Arabic music styles (Rice and Gutnik 1995, p. 241), he further acquired a self-described infatuation with European Medieval and Renaissance music (Lawson 1999). Moreover, Bruce continued to marvel at Bob Dylan and The Beatles’ undeniable artistry (Lawson 1999), discerning in their successful marriages of poetry and pop direct means of meaningful musical expression. Dylan, for example, had just released his seminal Highway 61 Revisited album, while The Beatles would release Rubber Soul in December 1965.

Eventually, Bruce had to admit that he no longer fit into the world of Berklee. Eighteen months into his two year program (Batten 1971, p. 37), he dropped out and returned to Ottawa (Keebler 2008). There, he reunited with old musical friends and got on with the business of making music.


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