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Ben Bedford: Portraits

This is Bedford’s sixth album; his last, Hermit’s Spyglass, was excellent and this is even better. Perhaps not surprising, as he has picked songs from his first three albums to create a collection of songs, the intention’s clear from the album title.

Hermit’s Spyglass told some good tales – it mapped daily life on a farm / shack in Bedford’s native Illinois – but this is even more of a story-telling album.

Opening song Lincoln’s Man is a standout, and it’s pretty well impossible not to like the album after this dramatic song, the title track from his debut album and eight minutes long.

The lyrics get straight to the point: “Riding down to Chancellorsville on a horse with eyes of blue / giving up my daily bread to see what I can do / my bayonet is sharpened up, my musket barrel’s clean.” The narrator has left his family – literally, they “don the gray and sing the tune of merry dixieland” – with only “a lover’s note, a mother’s prayer, and a father’s curse”. After talking at length about the daily travails of battle, the narrator goes the way of many an unknown soldier: “as the musket balls rip through my coat and drop me to my knees / no noble death to drown in blood of brothers in the dirt.”

The instruments are simple (acoustic guitar, banjo bass and drums) but lay down an atmospheric sound, reflecting his journey, banjo coming in as he goes off to war, the snare tapping out a military beat.

It’s a hard song to follow so Bedford wisely offers a quieter song, The Sangamon, from his second album, a gentle piece with just acoustic guitar and cello. Bedford has a soft voice but he uses it effectively. This song about a river of childhood and youth, being more softly sung than the wearier sound in Lincoln’s Man.

Both the river and the war reappear in Twenty One, when the narrator remembers the Sangamon, his wife and child and laments “got a muzzle loading ’58 Springfield gun / but I’d rather push my wooden plough” and “makes my heart stop every time the iron hits a white frame house like mine”.

We’re not going to go through every song: the livelier The Only Story has some nice licks exchanged between (electric) guitar and banjo, while John the Baptist features Hammond organ and powerful lyrics: “From the sun his face was flecked with sweat / red stain on the back of his neck” and “the devil skulks ’round every bend / and a broken soul you cannot mend.”

It’s not all men at war: Amelia is about Ms Earhart: “Harbor Grace, Newfoundland the ground was wet and soft / were you a tad bit nervous did you have your fingers crossed?” he sings – Earhart, as did many pioneer flyers, took off from Harbour Grace. She left there on 20th May, 1932, to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, taking only soup to keep her going.

Land of the Shadows is for Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. As Bedford puts it: “Emmett flashed her a smile from across the room … just a northern boy, didn’t mean a thing.” He doesn’t really go into details, although a line about Emmett’s smile – “like a sulfur match in the growing gloom” – suggests devil’s work to come.

This is a fine album, and for anyone who likes Americana or folk, or indeed songs that tell good stories with economy of language. Bedford’s voice is soothing but evocative and the musicianship is good.

Help Mr B make a living. Buy from here.

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