Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn just got back from a tour of Iraq, where he was looking for things he could do to help those in need. "There's a lot of things out there that don't appear on CNN," he said.

During a telephone interview from Buffalo, N.Y., Cockburn (pronounced KO-bern) said Iraq "is not a Third World country, like so many people believe. And, yes, the military told us the truth when it said the bombing was selective. All the government buildings are rubble, and the other buildings are pretty much intact."

Traveling to Iraq, as Cockburn sees it, is just part of the job. "As an artist, you create works that deal with the human condition. You have to continue to dig deeper into things to get to the truth."

But writing about social issues and politics isn't what Cockburn had in mind when he started his career. "I was drawn into music by seeing Elvis. I wanted to play guitar and sing like him. I had visions of myself doing what he was doing.

"Later, I began writing poetry and composing music. But the funny thing was, I didn't think about putting the two together until I started listening to Bob Dylan and John Lennon's solo works — that songwriting era in the early '70s. I found out you can write substantial stuff without fluff."

After 27 albums, including a new one called "You've Never Seen Everything," Cockburn still is conscientious about how he approaches recording new works. "I do get worried, at times, about repeating myself. But the fact is, no matter how much you grow and learn, you're still basically the same person. I'm not obsessive about making sure my songs are fresh, but I try to keep it new in the most possible way. I have songs about the same topics, but I try to write them differently."

The trip to Iraq introduced him to a lot of homeless people. "While some of the people were homeless before the fighting, others have been made homeless because of it. We went to a squatter camp where 500 families live in a bombed-out building. And 500 families averages up to maybe 2,000 people.

"Also, the water system only works part of the time. In the evening, when the pumps shut down, the raw sewage leaks into the streets where the kids are playing. There is no telephone system. So if someone needs to get to the hospital, they take them and hope the roads are open, because the military has closed down a lot of the main roads around the city. It's interesting to turn a corner and find yourself looking down a barrel of a tank."

People stand in line for up to 48 hours for gasoline, Cockburn said. "That's ironic because Iraq is an oil-producing country."

Cockburn went to Iraq because a friend, Philadelphia photojournalist Linda Panetta, told him about the trip. "Linda and I have traveled to conflict-torn countries before, and she and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, and Johanna Berrigan, who is the founder of the Catholic Worker Free Clinic in Philadelphia, set up this trip to visit with hospitals, schools and orphanages to see what kind of help they need. They had all been there before. It was my first time and it was eye-opening, and a lot needs to be done."

While the trip to Iraq has inspired a lot of writing, Cockburn isn't sure what he's going to do with it. "I don't know if an album is going to come out of it. I do know, however, that I want to keep getting better at what I do."

If you go

What: Bruce Cockburn

Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center

When: Tonight, 8 p.m.

How much: $35

Phone: 355-2787 or 1-800-451-2787