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Ben Bedford - Giving songs historical perspective

Ben Bedford is reciting his favourite songwriters. It’s a long list delivered with easy enthusiasm and including such Americana stalwarts as Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Patty Griffin, and John Prine. Then, when he reaches British folk-rock hero Richard Thompson, the highly literate Bedford is, for once, momentarily lost for words. “He’s just so … fearless,” he says with a distinctly awed tone.

Bedford is pretty fearless himself. He’s not afraid to take on big subjects. On his latest album, What We Lost, he declares his support for same sex marriage and rewrites the story of Adam and Eve, neither of which, he says, would have won him many friends in the Methodist church he was raised in. And previously he has visited Emmett Till, the fourteen year old African American who dared to speak to a young white girl in 1955 and whose resulting lynching and murder remain a stain on American society.

“I think I’m more calculating than fearless, to be honest,” says Bedford down the line from Springfield, Illinois, where from a young age he became fascinated with one local character – Abraham Lincoln – in particular and history in general. “But if it comes across as fearless, that’s good. I’m just naturally drawn to stories with depth and multi-layered complications, I suppose, and I really enjoy trying to create something from them that communicates with an audience without oversimplifying the story or getting bogged down in detail.”

Bedford’s road to becoming one of the most compelling singer-songwriters of his generation began, he tells me with some embarrassment, in his pre-school days with him dictating tales of his teddy bears’ adventures, which his mother would write down for him. On family holidays his parents encouraged his interest in history by taking him on visits to sites associated with Lincoln, to pioneer villages and Civil War battlefields. He caught the performing bug in school plays and musicals and took up guitar at fourteen, and when he started writing songs at college, after a few early “horrible” efforts about girls, he began to put all of this experience together into a storytelling style of writing and performing.

“I started singing in open mic events around the college campus in Urbana-Champaign and singing my three latest songs,” he says. “Then I made friends with other songwriters who were getting proper gigs and began to get some proper gigs myself where just about everybody in my social circle would turn up and scream and shout their approval. Whether what I was doing merited this sort of reaction is another matter but it gave me confidence.”

With a history degree from the University of Illinois, he continued working for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, where he’d spent summer and winter breaks as a student, until the night job of singing his own songs became well enough paid to allow him to give up his day job.

It wasn’t long before people well outside his immediate friends and family were adding their approval and if his first album, Lincoln’s Man, won him many more admirers, shortly after the release of his second album, Land of the Shadows, Bedford was being cited as one of the fifty most significant folk singer-songwriters of the past fifty years by the Chicago Tribune in a roll call that included Bob Dylan and Judy Collins as well as Bedford’s own heroes Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. He’s flattered to be keeping such company but in no danger of letting it go to his head.

“These are writers with huge bodies of work and I’m just in the foothills, by comparison,” he says. “But there’s no end of material waiting to be written because history’s such a rich subject and you can go back as far as you want or come forward to more recent times. And what makes it so interesting for me is, the people involved, whether presidents or soldiers, were all just like the rest of us really. It’s that aspect that I try to bring to my writing – use the known facts, the history, the geography, as a backdrop, and then add the humanity.”

From The Herald, April 18, 2013.

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