Ben Bedford Makes Midwestern History Sing: Listen


  • Kari Bedford
Springfield, Illinois-based songwriter Ben Bedford finds his muse in the Midwest - the landscape, the people, the diction, the names of the rivers and towns. Across three albums, and especially on the just-released What We Lost, he transcends local color and the minutiae of his considerable, even bookish knowledge of history (he studied at the University of Illinois in Champaign and could have been a history professor) and brings characters and stories -- from Harlington Wood to Vachel Lindsay to Charley Patton -- into stark, dramatic relief.

If you don't know who these people are, you will by the end of the album. Not because Bedford has a lesson plan, but because his music and lyrics are so evocative. Through elegant, finger-picked guitar work, blues and country-influenced melodies and lucid vocal phrasing, all of these people and places become fully alive.

Bedford heads south from his Springfield home on Thursday, November 1 for a CD release party at Off Broadway. He shared some of his songwriting sources and philosophies in this interview.

Roy Kasten: What was Chatham, Illinois like growing up?

Ben Beford: It's a small town but a fast-growing community on the outskirts of Springfield. It was probably 7000 people when I grew up there. It was a typical Midwestern town, surrounded by cornfields, all that kind of stuff.

It's a bit of a generalization, but for a lot of musicians who grow up in small Midwestern towns the first thing they want to do is get the hell out of there.

I didn't have that experience. I feel really at home here. I love going out West, to Oregon and Wyoming, the mountains, but my heart jumps a little bit when I get back in the cornfields and the hardwoods, the typical Midwestern landscape.

You could make an exception to that desire for folk musicians. Bob Dylan had to get the hell out of Minnesota, but in so much of his music he never left it that far behind.

In terms of my songwriting, the Midwestern landscape heavily colors my approach. The geography, the people and places where I'm from show up in my songs. There was a time when I wanted to go to Nashville or wherever and ply my trade and try to go about the music business from that standpoint, to enter the big ocean of songwriters. But after doing this for a while, getting a taste of what it's like to travel, I love it, but I learned that being a songwriter in this genre you can live anywhere and do this. You don't have to live in Chicago or LA. You can live in Springfield, Illinois, travel to those places, come home, and do it all over again the next month.

There's that strong Midwestern sense of place in your songs, but it's as if your mission is to make the Midwest more interesting than it's given credit for being. Exotic is the wrong word, but there's so much drama, a kind of magical realism to the people and places that you're uncovering. It's hard to believe some of these stories happened. The figure of Harlington Wood [a Springfield, Illinois judge and negotiator during the Wounded Knee standoff] for example, people don't remember him, but his story of his experience on the reservation is amazing.

It's a great story. My mom encouraged me to write a song about Harlington Wood. She was from around here, and she was in a young women's horse troupe with Harlington's daughter. He was the adult leader of the troupe. They were called the "Lincoln Land Lassies." They were in parades and things like that. My grandfather was also friends with him. It's a story that's chock full of drama and suspense. And it happened to someone right here in the Midwest.

In that song, there's this image: "the flash of light on aviator glasses." It's so unexpected. Do you think about augmenting your stories with those kinds of images?

I was trying to get into the head of Harlington Wood, and a detail like that adds a certain realism, I hope. Here's something minute and interesting that really takes the listener there. For that detail I was looking at photographs from the event, and many of the members of the American Indian Movement were wearing those sunglasses. I could just see that cold, late winter, South Dakota sun shining down on them.

Can you tell me the story behind "Fire in the Bones"? It's a story of blues musicians. Is it grounded in something specific?

It's about Charley Patton, one of the fathers of the Delta blues, and I used him as a jumping off point. It's a song about him and one of his bluesmen friends. It's the same thing, getting into the headspace of that time and place, to capture that person and their surroundings.

In the notes to your first record there's a quote about "not needing to be on the ship to understand the journey." That would seem to be true both for you as a writer and for the audience. How do the songs become personal rather than just historical?

You've probably heard it before, but there's a saying in writing classes that you should write what you know. People get hung up on that. They think all they can write about is their life and their experience. If I was doing that my songs would be pretty boring. I don't think they would have the gripping nature that I hope they have. Whether it's a historical event or whatever, I'm trying to find the human element to any story. Then I try to get into the mind of the person that experienced it. I try to draw out the human element of that experience.

For example, the title track to the album, is told from my grandfather's perspective. He lost his younger brother in the Second World War. I found a photograph of the two of them in a big trunk after my grandma died. I wanted to write about him from his perspective, knowing what I knew then. It's a historical event from World War II, his brother was in the D Day invasion of Normandy. But it's not about that. It's about a guy, my grandpa, losing his brother. It's about the experience and life they had together. That's what I try to do with every song that I write.

I've always thought that "write what you know" is the worst advice ever. I like the other version: That you write what you don't know about what you know.

You can almost know too much and kill the vibe of the song. Guy Clark always says that a great song is determined not by what you say but by the hole you leave in a song. You can put too much information in a composition and kill it for people. It's what we don't know that's interesting. It's more about getting into that uncomfortable territory in a song.


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