The civics component of the U.S. Citizenship test requires applicants to correctly answer six out of ten questions which have been randomly selected out of a total of 100. You need to know the difference between MLK and JFJK as well as being able to distinguish civil liberties from civil rights. While you don't necessarily need such knowledge to appreciate Ben Bedford's songs, it would certainly help. His narratives draw upon American history and literature while being imbued with the richness and diversity of nation's landscape.
The Illinois-based singer-songwriter cites travel writer and historian William Least Heat-Moon as a key inspiration to the creation of people, places and events that make up the portraits. "I have attempted to craft vignettes that engage the senses", Bedford says.
This album is a compilation of songs from his first three albums; Lincoln’s Man (2007), Land of the Shadows (2009) and What We Lost (2012). Significantly, none of these were officially released in Europe as if in recognition that these sketches of America don't necessarily travel well.
The eight minute opening track, Lincoln's Man, tells of a young man prepared to go against family wishes to fight in the Army of the Potomac in the American Civil War. His willingness to die for this cause is recounted in unsentimental terms judging that that it is "no noble death to drown in blood of brothers in the dirt." Twenty One is another song set during this conflict.
Land Of The Shadows (For Emmett Till) is about the notorious racially motivated murder of a 14-year-old African American from Chicago in 1955. When Bob Dylan addressed the same subject he emphasised the brutality of killing and expressed outrage that the perpetrators avoided prosecution. In Bedford's telling, there's no such rage or revulsion. While Dylan identifies a universal significance to the story, Bedford adopts a more objective perspective. On one level this makes the song calmer and more reflective but it also fails to stir the emotions.
The encapsulates the key problem with Bedford's storytelling style. His lyrics are articulate, literary and earnest but they don't elicit the kind of empathy that the subject matter deserves.
Migrant Mother is another case in point; this is full of descriptive detail of a farm worker, her lover and six children travelling from southern California. This woman, Florence Owens Thompson, was photographed in Nipomo and the famous image has become a symbol of the Great Depression in 1936. The song captures a moment in history although you might justifiably expect some direct link to the current plight of migrants in America. Another personal history from the same era is Amelia; a song about Amelia Mary Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932.
Even a more personal song about faded memories (What We Lost) is anything but confessional in tone.
'Portraits' is a perfectly decent set of tunes but, frustratingly, it is not a collection that gives any real sense of the artist's perspective on what he or The United States of America has learned from its recent past.
Ben Bedford's website