Lincoln's Man Ben Bedford: "Truth is stranger than fiction."
In Ben Bedford’s songs, women wait for their husbands to return from war or from the coal face, homeless men haunt the city, a woman and her children cross the country in search of hope and an aviation pioneer takes to the skies.
The Illinois-based singer-songwriter has experienced none of those things himself but he doesn't think that matters. “You don’t need to be on the ship to recognise the journey,” he wrote in the introduction to his first album. And his songs are almost always grounded in fact, calling on his deep knowledge of history and his appreciation of the world around him.
“I do always think that truth is stranger than fiction, or more compelling,” says Bedford, 28, who begins his first tour of the UK on March 14. “Some of the details in the songs are historical fiction. They are based around an actual event which is a vehicle for the song, and then the character in the song itself might not be a specific person.”
That’s the case in “Lincoln’s Man”, the title track to Bedford's first album. It's an extraordinarily haunting, eight-minute song telling the story of one of the many families split apart by the Civil War, told from the point of view of a young southerner who defies his family to join the Union army.
Seen in a different context, “Lincoln’s Man” also describes Bedford himself. He grew up in Chatham, just south of Springfield, Illinois, where he now lives, and many of his songs are set in the state. Springfield was the home of Abraham Lincoln as a young man and the 16th U.S. president is buried there. Bedford sees that as part of the reason for his particular interest in the American Civil War.
“Lincoln looms large in the cultural fabric of the area. I grew up in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln I guess,” he says.
Bedford’s interest in history led him to study the subject at the University of Illinois, with the intention of becoming a history professor – “I still think that would be a pretty amazing dream job.” But things turned a different way when he found himself writing songs.
“I’ve always sung since I was a little kid. I was in choirs in church when I was little and started playing guitar when I was 14 because a friend of mine played the guitar,” he says. Writing the songs “just seemed like the natural progression”.
Bedford finished his degree – though he admits that at times he was tempted to give it all up and go to Nashville and write songs – and then went to work for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
“I had a job that a monkey probably could have done. I was typing in five-digit numbers for historic sites, over and over, all day. It was kind of boring. I worked there for a year and then just sort of took the plunge.”
At about the same time he met his future wife, Kari, whose support has given him the opportunity to develop his career. “She is a renaissance woman as far as money is concerned,” he says.
Lincoln’s Man was first released in January 2007, but received little promotion. After meeting and impressing a promoter at a Folk Alliance convention, Bedford re-released the album a year later, and it received strong play on folk radio in the U.S.
The second album, Land of the Shadows, was released in January 2009. The title song is the story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 after apparently whistling at a white woman. Bedford also tackles the Cherry Mine disaster of 1909 in which 259 people died in northern Illinois, telling the story from the point of view of a miner’s wife. And he’s up in the air with pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart as she struggles to prove that a woman can fly as well as any man.
Bedford says he finds stories about other people easier than writing about himself.
“I don’t think I’m very good at writing songs that are more introspective. It seems like when I write about somebody else I am able to free up my creative mind.”
People who have crossed Bedford’s path also end up in his songs. “Harley Albright” is the tale of a homeless man that Bedford met early in his career while he was performing in a coffee shop in Springfield with another singer-songwriter, Jason Eklund.
The pair saw Albright and his partner, Phyllis, at the door listening to the music – they couldn’t come in because Albright was smoking. “They seemed to be enjoying the music so we went out and talked to them. We gave them a copy of our CDs.”
A year or so later, Bedford met Phyllis again. “She said Harley had died five or six months ago and that he had had one of my songs and also one of Jason’s that he asked to be played at his funeral.”
Touched by that, Bedford wrote the song that bears Albright’s name. “A lot of the song is imagined, but it is based on true life.”
This will be not only Bedford’s first tour of the UK, but his first ever visit to the country. As a history aficionado, it’s something that excites him greatly, and he’ll be taking time out to appreciate the places he’s visiting.
“I am absolutely thrilled. I’ve wanted to go to the UK for pretty much my entire life. I was obsessed with castles and stuff like that. The history is pretty amazing.”
Ben Bedford’s tour begins in Twickenham on March 14 and continues to Montrose, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Further dates may be added. For full details, check the gig guide.