BEN BEDFORD – Portraits (Cavalier CR255626)

PortraitsI first encountered the Illinois-based singer-songwriter back in 2012 with his third album, What We Lost, and immediately set about acquiring its two predecessors, 2009’s Land Of The Shadows and, from the previous year, his debut Lincoln’s Man. Since then he’s released a further two albums, The Pilot And The Flying Machine in 2016 and 2018’s The Hermit’s Spyglass, of which five tracks were instrumentals.

Curated by Bedford, this compilation gathers together material from those first three albums, none of which have ever been released in Europe, evidencing influences that, as storyteller and musician, range from Steinbeck to Van Zandt on songs that often deal with the lost and the broken. Portraits from America, if you will.

It opens with the title track from his debut, an eight minute civil war narrative with banjo and bowed bass about a Southerner going against his family and joining the Union army, losing his life at the battle of Chancellorsville. The album yields three further numbers, the folksy upbeat travelling love song ‘The Only One’ where you might suspect a John Denver influence, ‘Goodbye Jack’, a Dobro coloured elegy to a hard living author Jack London, and the Van Zandt-styled, accordion shaded ‘Migrant Mother’ drawn from the hardship of the Great Depression.

The follow-up tops the contributions with five tracks, the first being ‘The Sangamon’, a wrenching fingerpicked number reminiscent of early Don McLean in which the singer recalls a doctor trying unsuccessfuly to save the life of his wife and her unborn baby, the emotions underscored by Ron de la Vega’s cello and Kari Bedford’s harmonies. Three more are grouped together further down the running order, beginning with a return to Civil War themes and another mention of the Sangamon River in ‘Twenty One’ sung in the voice of war-weary Union soldier, missing home and wishing the Confederates would just surrender. It’s followed by the nimbly fingerpicked ‘Amelia’ and its understated drum burst, the arrangement gradually swelling as it unfolds its tribute to Amelia Earhart and her solo flight across the Atlantic.

The third, that album’s ruminative title track with its twin acoustic guitars and bass is another historically-based number dedicated to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American who was lynched in 1955 Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman by smiling at her across the grocery store. The final choice is the compilation’s penultimate number, ‘One Night At A Time’, a simple song of domestic contentment as warm as the kitchen stove it mentions as dobro, accordion and Keri Bedford’s harmonies waltz it away.

There’s just three songs from the third album, the first being the title track with its folded photograph, written from his grandfather’s perspective, remembering his poor but happy childhood and the brother who died in WWII, followed by the Hammond backed fingerpicked blues ‘John The Baptist’ which clearly draws a line between the prophet and today’s fire and brimstone evangelists, and, lastly, the gentle ‘Guinevere Is Sleeping’, a tender love song from an absent lover sailing across the sea to be reunite in her arms.

Those familiar with the albums might lament the omission of numbers such as ‘The Ballad Of Hartington Wood’ which recalls the Assistant District Attorney credited with the defusion of the 1973 Native American protest at Wounded Knee, ‘Cahokia’ and its account of the famous Illinois mounds, the remains of a sophisticated prehistoric native civilisation, the traditional folk styling of ‘Fisher’s Hill’ or the homesickness of ‘Black As Coal’, but this is a perfect introduction to newcomers just discovering his brilliance. Even so, it would be nice if all three albums were more accessible in their entirety.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘The Sangamon’ – live: