Inspired by the beautiful broken dream of America.
Last year I went to see Billy Bragg play as a duo with his American friend Joe Henry. It was his Shine A Light tour focusing on songs they had recorded about the American rail road. It was a fabulous concert - in fact I went twice. Through the songs shone the tough resilience of the American spirit, and the strong threads of compassion and defiance that are essential part of the story. But there was a ghost in the room. The tour occurred shortly after the US elections and perhaps the disappointment and sadness of the Trump victory hung in the air. The American Dream denied.
Joe Henry, with grace and dignity met the issue head on. After speaking a few words acknowledging the issue that hung around us he concluded by asking to believe that ‘this is not who we are but where we are’.
‘Who we are?’ As I left and drove home I thought about how much my entire life had been haunted and inspired by the raw, simple idea of America. America as legend in a landscape, America as the incarnation of resistance and the struggle for freedom. The idea of self-determination where you judged by your worth not your family. A place where you could ‘start again’. Where the choices you made cut straight to chase about who you were and what you believed. And I had always been haunted by the rough-hewn characters of this legend: the vagabond soul, the outlaw, the bar room queen, the biker, the renegade, the immigrant, the bootlegger, the gambler, the defiant Indian warrior and the broken-hearted hobo. Of strong women and lesser men. Of heroes and villains
And as these thoughts lingered on with me I became drawn to explore this extraordinary, flawed, magnificent idea and the spirit in which it which it arose. It seemed to me that there was things here too easy to forget in these times of false truths, media manipulation and the trashing of principle, that there is something essential and universal about our romance with this mythical, fabulous world.
Such is the way for me these days this almost inevitably means going travelling, this time with my good friend Dinny on a three hundred mile trek through the forests, high places and hidden spaces of the old Cherokee Nation in Tennessee and North Carolina In doing this we will be taking the Benton Mackaye trail, one of the lesser known diversions of the Appalachian Trail, camping as we go and trying to avoid irritable bears, rattlesnakes, agitated natives, over exuberant creeks, a whole variety other nonsense whilst trying to hear in the trees, and scent on the wind the echoes of the things that inspire us all. As I write this I am about to set off and as with Morocco trip, endeavour to capture my meanderings with regular posts.
In parallel with this I have been working on a new album over the summer with my great friends Chris Lydon, John Humphries and Kev Moore. Four souls steeped in the ongoing musical conversation between the old world and the new, artisans all, we have been paying homage to the American music we love, not as a superficial pastiche or copy but as our response to the spirit, soul and sanctuary of it all. The working title of the album is A Beautiful Broken Dream: Gone to Look for America.
Somewhere I know the trek and the album will intersect - perhaps there will be a book, perhaps something else. But I don’t really know how or in what ways yet. Which is how it should be I guess.
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