Skip to content

Years in the making, local author pens book on Canadian music icon

M.D. Dunn’s new book, 'You Get Bigger As You Go', explores the impact of Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn
Cover of M.D. Dunn's new book, You Get Bigger As You Go, a book about Canadian folk icon Bruce Cockburn.

M.D. Dunn knows a thing or two about writing.

And about music.

The Bawating High School graduate went onto Algoma University to get his Bachelor of Arts, and then Wilfrid Laurier University for his Master of Arts.

He currently works at Sault College as a professor in the General Arts and Science program.

As a musician, he has released nine albums.

Dunn is an active freelance writer and has published three books of poems, most recently Even the Weapons (BuschekBooks).

His latest, You Get Bigger As You Go, focuses on Canadian singer-songwriter and activist Bruce Cockburn.

Cockburn has 17 albums certified gold in Canada, of which three are certified platinum.

He has sold more than seven million albums worldwide and has won 12 Juno Awards.

His songs range from deeply personal to overtly political, including classics like If I Had a Rocket Launcher, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Last Night of the World, If a Tree Falls, and Wondering Where the Lions Are.

Bruce Cockburn is considered a Canadian folk icon.

Although Dunn remembers hearing Wondering Where the Lions Are on the radio, it wasn’t until he picked up an early Cockburn album that he began his connection to the artist. 

“When I was 14 years old, I found a cassette copy of Bruce's sixth album, Joy Will Find a Way [1975], in a discount bin at Records on Wheels in the Sault,” he says.

“I liked the cover illustration as it reminded me of a Cat Stevens album. There was no other info inside, and no internet of course. I fell in love with that album without knowing the artist or how many albums he had.”

Dunn’s early exploration of the artist’s catalogue led him to purchasing Cockburn’s World of Wonders [1986].

That album contained the hit, Call It Democracy.

At the time, the author remembers thinking of Cockburn’s music as a bit “intimidating.”

“I wasn’t ready for it,” he laughs.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Dunn was a burgeoning songwriter himself that he really began digging into Cockburn’s catalogue.

“I deliberately sought out Bruce's albums,” he says.

“His lyrics are poetry. So, as I became interested in poetry, Bruce’s lyrics became more relevant to me. His guitar playing was a mystery and it blew me away. Still does.”

But it wasn’t just the music that Dunn respected.

“I always admired his humanitarian work and usually identified with his take on things. He is fearless and stands up to bullies, which is something to be admired.”

Even then, the thought of writing a book about Cockburn wasn’t something Dunn had on his radar.

“The writing happened organically,” says Dunn.

“I interviewed Bruce for a magazine called Canadian Dimension in 2014. He was generous and spoke for about two hours. After that, I wrote a few reviews for other publications about his memoir and album.”

In 2015, another chance to interview the singer-songwriter came about.

“I then set about a process of active listening to his entire catalogue. At the same time, I started noticing and remembering that people liked to talk about Bruce. So, I started keeping more notes. By 2016, I had quite a lot of material and realized this might be a longer project.”

Dunn told Bernie Finkelstein, Bruce Cockburn’s manager, that he was writing a book about the singer.

“He said that they wouldn't endorse it, but they wouldn’t work against me,” says Dunn.

“After a couple of years of interviewing Bruce for various publications and interviewing some of his collaborators, he asked to see a manuscript. [At that time] it was a wacky mess, part fiction with haiku reviews of albums, and way too much personal stuff. But he didn't shut it down and the manuscript grew and became more accessible.”

Dunn conducted five formal interviews with Cockburn between 2014 and 2020.

He also started keeping notes from the 10 or so Cockburn concerts he attended.

“I talked with lots of fans and have been able to interview many players and activists close to Bruce,” says Dunn.  

“I also got to hang out a bit backstage and at Cockburn’s sound checks.”

Dunn describes his new book of less of a biography, and more of a “beginner's guide and critical appreciation.”

“I wanted to investigate why and how music affects us so profoundly,” says Dunn.

“I have always been obsessed with guitar and writing, and wanted to examine this drive, and focused the pursuit as it manifests in Bruce Cockburn's music. I [also] knew a lot of his biography going in and my book doesn’t add to his personal story. What impressed me is that everyone I spoke with from Bruce's circle, musicians, producers, activists, are geniuses, absolutely brilliant, kind, engaged, and real people. I recognized that many of the people I spoke with had stories about Bruce that haven’t been told a whole lot.”

Dunn’s decision to name his book You Get Bigger As You Go, taken from the Cockburn song of the same title off the Humans [1980] album, connects to some of the process of creating this book.

Bruce Cockburn sings, “You get bigger as you go. No one told me. I just know. Bales of memory like boats in tow. You get bigger as you go.”

Whether it was intentional or not, the lyric connects Dunn’s experience of writing the book.

“I have begun to see the importance of faith in life. Not necessarily religious faith, but faith that creative impulses are worth pursuing,” he says.

“I have also learned, or noted, that it is important to pay attention to coincidences and to try to stay open to wonder. Cliché, maybe, but there is a good reason for that.”

Ultimately, Dunn is excited for people to be able to read the book.

“You never know if what you've done is any good,” says the writer.

“So, there is a concern that these years were not well spent, but it is also very exciting to finally have it out.”

As for having the opportunity to not only write this book, but write about an artist he greatly admires, Dunn is reflective.

“Bruce Cockburn is a gracious and humble person and he said he was touched that people are interested in his music.”

You Get Bigger As You Go has had an exceptionally good first week since its release, winding up on many online sales charts.

“The first week of availability has been marvellous,” says Dunn.

“Initial interest has been propelled by Bruce's popularity and fan base, so we shall see if it has legs.”

More information on M.D. Dunn and his book, You Get Bigger As You Go, can be found here.

What's next?

If you would like to apply to become a Verified reader Verified Commenter, please fill out this form.