Cockburn was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada and began his career in the late 1960s in a band called "The Children". By 1970, Cockburn had begun his solo career with the release of his first self-titled solo album. Cockburn's phenomenal guitar work and songwriting skills won him a devoted following. Early in his career, he became a devout Christian; many of his albums from the 1970s show evidence of his religious beliefs.
Although Cockburn had been popular in Canada for years, he failed to make much of a splash in the USA until 1979, with the release of Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. "Wondering Where The Lions Are", the first single from that album, became a minor hit in the US, even landing Cockburn on NBC's hit TV show, Saturday Night Live.
Increasingly, through the 1980s, Cockburn's songwriting became more politicized, and he became heavily involved with activist causes. Cockburn's second radio hit came in 1984 with the release of his Stealing Fire album and the song "If I Had A Rocket Launcher", written a year earlier after Cockburn had witnessed Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico being attacked by Guatemalan military helicopters. His political activism continues to the present: Cockburn has travelled to many countries, played benefits, and written many songs on a variety of political subjects ranging from the International Monetary Fund to landmines.
In the early 1990s Cockburn teamed up with good friend 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. Cockburn frequently refers to Heard as his favorite songwriter and was one of many artists that paid tribute to Heard on a tribute album and video entitled Strong Hand of Love.
On March 5, 2001 during the 30th Annual Juno Awards ceremony (Canada's version of the Grammys), Cockburn was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The Cockburn tribute during the Awards telecast from Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, included taped testimonials from U2's Bono, Jackson Browne, Cowboy Junkies' Margo Timmins and Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett. The Barenaked Ladies also performed their version of Cockburn's "Lovers In A Dangerous Time". Best female artist nominees Jann Arden and Terri Clark also performed "Wondering Where The Lions Are" and double nominee Sarah Harmer performed "Waiting For A Miracle".
In 2002, Cockburn released his first "official" greatest hits collection, Anything, Anytime, Anywhere: Singles 1979-2002 (though several previous albums had collected previously-published material: Resume, Mummy Dust, and Waiting for a Miracle).
Cockburn finished recording his 30th album in January of 2003, 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 are known for their work with Tom Waits).
The Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) honoured Cockburn by inducting him into the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony was held on October 22, 2002 in Vancouver, as part of the Gold Ribbon Awards Gala at the 76th annual Broadcasting 2002: Leadership Through Public Service convention.
In addition to a highly successful solo career, Cockburn's songs have been covered by artists ranging from Barenaked Ladies ("Lovers in a Dangerous Time"), Jimmy Buffett ("Pacing the Cage"), to the Jerry Garcia Band ("Waiting for a Miracle").
* = Reissued with additional tracks 2002-2003