Cockburn has written more than 300 songs on thirty albums over a career spanning 40 years. Twenty Cockburn records have received a Canadian gold or platinum certification as of 2013, and he has sold nearly one million albums in Canada alone.
Cockburn was born in 1945 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and spent some time at his grandfather's farm outside of Chelsea, Quebec but he grew up in Westboro, which was a suburb of Ottawa when he was a teenager; his father was a doctor (interview on The Agenda,Sept.2017). He has stated in interviews that his first guitar was one he found around 1959 in his grandmother's attic, which he adorned with golden stars and used to play along to radio hits. Cockburn attended Nepean High School, where his 1964 yearbook photo states his desire "to become a musician". Nepean's music teacher at the time, Ronald E.J. Milne, said in 1988 that although Cockburn didn't take music, he could often be seen playing guitar.
Cockburn attended Berklee School of Music in Boston for three semesters between 1964 and 1966. In that year he joined an Ottawa band called The Children, which lasted for about a year. In the spring of 1967 he joined the final lineup of The Esquires. He moved to Toronto that summer to form The Flying Circus with former Bobby Kris & The Imperials members Marty Fisher and Gordon MacBain and ex-Tripp member Neil Lillie. The group recorded some material in late 1967 (which remains unreleased) before changing its name to Olivus in the spring of 1968, by which time Lillie (who changed his name to Neil Merryweather) had been replaced by Dennis Pendrith from Livingstone's Journey. Olivus opened for The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream in April 1968. That summer Cockburn broke up the band with the intention of going solo, but ended up in the band 3's a Crowd with David Wiffen, Colleen Peterson, and Richard Patterson, who had been a co-member of The Children. Cockburn left 3's a Crowd in the spring of 1969 to pursue a solo career.
Cockburn's first solo appearance was at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1967, and in 1969 he was a headliner. In 1970 he released his self-titled, solo album. A single, "Going to the Country", appeared on the RPM Top 50 Canadian Chart.
Cockburn's guitar work and songwriting won him an enthusiastic following. His early work featured rural and nautical imagery and Biblical metaphors. Raised as an agnostic, early in his career he became a Christian. Many of his albums from the 1970s refer to Christianity, which in turn informs his concerns for human rights and environmentalism. His references to Christianity include the Grail imagery of 20th-century Christian poet Charles Williams and the ideas of theologian Harvey Cox.
In 1970 Cockburn became partners with Bernie Finkelstein in the music publishing firm Golden Mountain Music.
While Cockburn had been popular in Canada for years, he did not have a big impact in the United States until 1979, with the release of the album Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. "Wondering Where the Lions Are", the first single from that album, reached No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US in June 1980, and earned Cockburn an appearance on NBC's hit TV show Saturday Night Live. Cockburn's label, True North Records, also signed a distribution deal with Recordi Records in Italy.
Cockburn was married from 1969 to 1980 to Kitty Macaulay and has a daughter, Jenny (b. 1976), from that marriage.
Through the 1980s Cockburn's songwriting became increasingly urban, global and political as he became more involved with progressive causes. His political concerns were first hinted at on the albums: Humans, Inner City Front and The Trouble with Normal. They became more evident in 1984, with his second US radio hit, "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" (No. 88 in the US) from the Stealing Fire album. He had written the song a year earlier, after visiting Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico that were attacked by Guatemalan military helicopters. His political activism continues to the present. His internationalist bent is reflected in the many world music influences in his music, including reggae and Latin music.
In 1991 Intrepid Records released Kick at the Darkness, a tribute album to Cockburn whose title comes from a phrase in his song "Lovers in a Dangerous Time". It features the Barenaked Ladies' cover of that song, which became their first Top 40 hit and an element in their early success. This lyric was also referenced by U2 in their song "God Part II" from their album Rattle and Hum. Also in 1991, three of Cockburn's songs were listed in a Toronto Star survey among Toronto's top songs of all time.
In the early 1990s, Cockburn teamed with T-Bone Burnett for two albums, Nothing but a Burning Light and Dart to the Heart. The latter included a song, "Closer to the Light", inspired by the death of songwriter Mark Heard, a close friend of Cockburn and Burnett. Cockburn frequently refers to Heard as his favourite songwriter and he was one of many artists who paid tribute to Heard on an album and video titled Strong Hand of Love.
In January 2003 Cockburn finished recording his 21st album, You've Never Seen Everything, which features contributions from Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, Sam Phillips, Sarah Harmer, Hugh Marsh, Jonell Mosser, Larry Taylor and Steven Hodges. (Taylor and Hodges, formerly of Canned Heat who performed at Monterey and Woodstock in the 1960s, may be known best for their work with Tom Waits).
Some of Cockburn's previously published material had been collected in several albums: Resume, Mummy Dust, and Waiting for a Miracle. His first greatest hits collection was Anything Anytime Anywhere: Singles 1979–2002, released in 2002.
Cockburn performed a set at the Live 8 concert in Barrie, Ontario, on July 2, 2005. Speechless, an instrumental compilation of new and previously released material, was released on October 24, 2005. His 22nd album, Life Short Call Now, was released on July 18, 2006.
Canadian senator and retired general Roméo Dallaire, who is active in humanitarian fundraising and promoting awareness, appeared on stage at the University of Victoria with Cockburn. The October 4, 2008, concert was held to aid the plight of child soldiers.
In 2009 Cockburn travelled to Afghanistan to visit his brother, Capt. John Cockburn, and to play a concert for Canadian troops. He performed his 1984 song "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and was temporarily awarded an actual rocket launcher by the military. Cockburn has stated that, while unsure of the original Invasion of Afghanistan, he supported Canada's role there.
Cockburn released his studio album Small Source of Comfort in 2011. "Lois on the Autobahn", a cheerful and experiential instrumental recalling "Rouler sa bosse" from Salt, Sun and Time is a tribute to Cockburn's mother, Lois, who succumbed to cancer in 2010.
Cockburn married his longtime girlfriend M.J. Hannett shortly after the birth of his second daughter, Iona (b. November 21, 2011) in 2011. As of 2014, the family lives in the San Francisco area, where Cockburn is writing his memoirs up to 2004.
Cockburn's songwriting is often political, expressing concern for the environment and the welfare of indigenous peoples. He has worked with relief agency Oxfam, travelling to Central America in 1983, and with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The song "Mines of Mozambique" (The Charity of Night) reflects his observations of that country during a visit in 1995. Cockburn is affiliated with the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, twice visiting Nepal with the charity, in 1987 and 2007.
Songs on these themes include "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" (Stealing Fire), an angry response to the plight of refugees in Central America; "Stolen Land" (Waiting for a Miracle), about the land claims of British Columbia's Haida people; and "If a Tree Falls" (Big Circumstance)—one of Cockburn's best-known songs—decrying the deforestation of the Amazon.
Cockburn wrote and performed the theme song for the children's television series Franklin. He composed and performed, with Hugh Marsh, the music for the National Film Board of Canada documentary feature Waterwalker (1984), directed by Bill Mason. He also composed two songs for the classic English-Canadian film Goin' Down the Road (1970), directed by Donald Shebib.
In 1998 Cockburn travelled with filmmaker Robert Lang to Mali, West Africa, where he jammed with Grammy Award-winning blues musician Ali Farka Toure and kora master Toumani Diabate. The month-long journey was documented in the film River of Sand, which won the Regard Canadien award for best documentary at the Vues d'Afrique Film Festival in Montreal. It was also invited for competition at the International Festival of Environmental Films in Paris.
In 2007 Cockburn's music was featured in the movie adaptation of Irvine Welsh's best-selling novel Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance.
A documentary film, Bruce Cockburn Pacing the Cage, was released in 2013 on television and a brief theatrical showing; directed by Joel Goldberg, gave a rare look into Cockburn's music, life and politics.
A diversity of artists have covered Cockburn's songs: Barenaked Ladies ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), Judy Collins ("Pacing the Cage"), Jimmy Buffett ("Pacing the Cage", "Anything Anytime Anywhere", "All the Ways I Want You", "Life Short Call Now", "Wondering Where the Lions Are" [in the movie Hoot]), Michael Hedges ("Wondering Where the Lions Are"), Lori Cullen ("Fall"), Anne Murray ("One Day I Walk", "Musical Friends"), Dianne Heatherington and Ani DiFranco ("Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long"), The Rankin Family ("One Day I Walk"), Dan Fogelberg ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), Donavon Frankenreiter ("Wondering Where the Lions Are"), Vigilantes of Love ("Wondering Where the Lions Are"), Tom Rush ("One Day I Walk'), George Hamilton IV ("Together Alone"), the Jerry Garcia Band ("Waiting for a Miracle"), Holly Near ("To Raise the Morning Star"), and k.d. lang ("One Day I Walk"). Fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Steve Bell recorded an album of Cockburn songs titled My Dinner with Bruce, and jazz guitarists Michael Occhipinti and Edward Weir released an album containing jazz arrangements of Cockburn's songs.
Cockburn was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1982 and was promoted to Officer in 2002. In 1998, he received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada's highest honour in the performing arts.
He has received thirteen Juno Awards, and in 2001, during the 30th Annual Juno Awards ceremony, Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The Cockburn tribute during the awards included taped testimonials from U2's Bono, Jackson Browne, Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins, and Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett.
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters inducted Cockburn into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame on October 22, 2002, in Vancouver. On November 27, 2002, the CBC's Life and Times series aired a special feature on Cockburn titled The Life and Times of Bruce Cockburn.
In 2007 Cockburn received three honorary doctorates, the fourth, fifth and sixth of his career. In early May he received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and later in the month he received an Honorary Doctor of Letters at the convocation of Memorial University of Newfoundland for his lifelong contributions to Canadian music, culture and social activism. He was then awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. Cockburn previously received honorary doctorates from York University in Toronto, Berklee College of Music, and St. Thomas University in New Brunswick. He received an Honorary Doctorate awarded by McMaster University in 2009. His most recent Honorary Doctorate was awarded by Laurentian University in 2014.
Cockburn received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.
On November 19, 2012, Cockburn received the Lifetime Achievement Award from SOCAN at the 2012 SOCAN Awards in Toronto.
Cockburn has played guitars manufactured by a number of companies and luthiers over the years. Many early photos show him playing guitars made by the Canadian instrument-maker Larrivée. His request for an acoustic with greater access to higher frets directly led to Jean Larrivée's "C" series of guitars. These innovative acoustics incorporated a cutaway, a previously rare feature on flat-top acoustics. Cockburn has owned at least two guitars made by Toronto luthier David Wren, a student of Larrivée, but these guitars were lost in a fire.
In recent years, Cockburn has been performing on guitars custom-made by Linda Manzer, a Canadian luthier and another of Larrivée's protégés. Cockburn also plays a Resolectric guitar model from the National Guitar Company, and a steel-bodied Dobro resonator guitar. Cockburn has frequently used two early 1990s black Charvel Surfcasters, one tuned standard and the other in drop-D tuning. Cockburn has also begun playing a baritone guitar made by Ontario-based luthier Tony Karol.