A chance remark by singer songwriter Joe Henry, appearing with Billy Bragg, set me (ever the vagabond philosopher) off on a literal and metaphorical exploration of the myth, music and moonshine of America. The result is a ‘trail journal’ called "A Beautiful Broken Dream" which was officially launched at the Wigtown Book Festival in September. Alongside the book are two new collections of songs: The Girl With The Rattlesnake Heart and Reliance. It's been a long and still ongoing journey stimulated by Joe's heartfelt plea, in the age of Trump, to 'believe,(of America) it's not who we are but where we are". I have never met Joe Henry but the last chapter is an open letter to him and this is a shortened version of it.
This is kind of strange. Writing a letter to someone I have never met and who will most probably never see it. But you inadvertently set me on a journey and it is now time to look back along the path and wonder where I travelled. I went to explore the essence of America. I travelled with my companion Dinny. Well not exactly ‘with’, usually more than a little distance behind.
The lack of conversation in such a formation gave me time to ponder.
I cannot claim to be a scholar or a scientist. I can only say what I think.
What did I see, what do I understand? You see, I went to Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and in doing so fell into the borderlands. The borderlands, the place between two worlds, the old world and the wilderness. Between the given and the unknown, between the conservative and the revolutionary, between what we were as people and what we might become.
For better or worse, it seems the borderlands lives on in America along with its uncertainties and the deep cherishing of the idea of self-reliance that , at its best sustains us. For nothing it seems in America is given or certain, no one is safe from the shadow of the bear in the wood.
As Dinny and I sat at the edge of dusk on a fallen tree watching, by the light of a small fire, the smoke rise, folding itself through the darkening air, I often felt that the wilderness around us was not so much an empty space but resonant with possibility. Mysterious and magical it was a strange brew of threat, discovery, confrontation, and seduction. And so it would have been when the first Native Americans arrived and then the same for all that followed.
You have to open out to such a place and the potential of it. Turn full on and face it. Accept what it affords. Accept that in the process of embracing it, you will sometimes be scared and want to turn away, but in turning away you lessen who you might be. Accept that it will ask you who are you, what do you seek and what must you put away as the baggage of the past?
You asked us from the stage to remember ‘who we are’.
You are practical dreamers...
On top of a Kasbah in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, shade provided by a four sided pyramid roof open at the sides so you can see up the mountain passes and the huge cracked mountains beyond, there is, carved into a beam on one side of the roof, the words ‘dreams are only the plans of the reasonable’.
Americans came, few at first as optimistic pioneers, many under the long, dark shadow of slavery or servitude, and dreamed of something better. You sharpened your axes, saws and pens and got to work on it. Free and individual, you bent your backs and tried to make something fine.
Perhaps people in the old world find it hard to be practical dreamers. We have for so long been servants.
America’s greatest triumph is that it forged such a practical dream from the disparate and distinctive peoples of the world and this dream as a shared purpose; a sense of uniqueness and a commitment and love for something that transcended this diversity. Peoples did not come ‘clean’ to this new land. They came, from Europe, Africa and Asia, with suitcases, carpetbags, trunks and holdalls of deep beliefs, prejudices, ethnic suspicions and hatreds - a strong sense of a malevolent other. Yet, at its best, America has managed to forge a deep belonging to something more transcendent. Successive waves of: Japanese, Chinese, Irish and Scots, Jews from Russia and Poland and so many more have all come with their baggage and all contributed to a powerful and deep sense of ‘Americaness’ - something I find profoundly moving.
You asked us to remember ‘who we are’. For me? For me you are the great experiment in what ordinary folks can do to build a better world. A huge experiment in which a self-reliant, rebelliously questioning, community-minded people who recognize human contradiction as true authenticity and try to fashion something fine amongst the dark forces within us and without us.
And the music of America is the evidence, the symbol, the fireworks, the blossoming, the fizzing excitement, the midnight call, the mysterious holy manifestation of this. As the songs and tunes and words from all over the world have landed on your shores they have not been taken up by the elite and made into something pretentious, but become the voice of our hope, our experience, our distress and our believing.
So, if you fail we all fail.
And there is a dark parallel, not alternative, narrative to this experiment. The ‘authentic’ human being is capable of terrible things: the genocide inflicted upon the Native Americans, the Klux Klux Klan lynchings, the Jim Crow laws and the idea of a wall to keep people out suggest that seeing ‘others’ as lesser than oneself and a threat flourishes in more than the shadows.
It always has been so, but it seems that the world has become absurd or perhaps it just that the absurdity has risen like a bog gas to the surface. Lying is seen to serve not destroy. The truth now it seems is what a person wants it to be. This is true in America, but it is as true the world over. I wake each day to be lied to. I am held, as we all are held, in contempt by those in power.
The great act of involvement which is democracy, based on reasoned argument and open-hearted listening, is no longer cherished and loved.
If there is an American Dream it is a broken one. Abused and angry people wonder why?
“This land was always our land,
or so we had believed.
We put our trust in something fine,
but we were all deceived.”
This is our fight, not just yours.
But as it always was for the little boy from Bromley Street, Derby, everything in America is the light and dark of all our futures.
Do we ask too much of you? There was no golden age of America to be lost, ideals always intermingle in time with failures and flaws. The myth of America deceives in this respect. We have to believe in ourselves and that fear and selfishness will win the battles but will lose the war.
One of the things I have learned is that opposites strengthen each other. Always.
The worst in men brings out the best in men.
You make lawmen out of your outlaws.
We are our most humane when we are mindful of the dark side of our own position and the positive of the other. Not to abandon one for the other, but to acknowledge the inherent paradoxes of our human existence which are irresolvable and to choose a path through them with as much wisdom as one muster.
It is this that I like to think of when you asked me to remember ‘who we are’. The willingness to accept the inevitability of failure and press on.
To keep dreaming.
Can we be that of which we dream? Can we catch the wind in our sails and sail to the far horizon of who we might be? There are those who would say this is foolishness, a manipulative God has made plans for us and these we must follow. But then why do we dream when a dream can lead us away from the embrace of the familiar and the acceptable? Why dreams such that the speaking of them can run through the hearts of millions and we take the ships, cross mountains and deserts and sometimes die in the pursuit of them? A dream is a call to arms, a bugle call in the crisp, cool new dawn of possibility.
I loved the gig,
 The Last in Line © 2018 Steve Bonham and Kevin Moore
The Gone to Look for America project consists of A trail journal "A Beautiful Broken Dream' and two albums The Girl With The Rattlesnake Heart plus live performances of 'stories and songs' and music only. Steve appears both solo and with his amazing band The long Road. Books, LPs, downloads and CDs are available from the website and usual distribution sources. (Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon etc)
This is another draft piece from Gone to Look for America project. A few days into our trek along the Benton Mackay trail Dinny and I came across a clearing in the forest. Here we found a rough and ready open-sided wooden chapel and the graves of mostly three or four settler families Despite being in the middle of nowhere and apparently no longer used as a cemetery, there was evidence that the graves were still cared for and plastic flowers cast about by a recent storm had been placed on most graves. We spent about 45 minutes there thinking our own thoughts before heading on again.
On This place, on the hill
Where the old settlers lie,
They had built
A wooden chapel
Open to the world
On all four sides
So that the wind could brush
Away the dust and the nails
It stood In the silence of a slumbering forest
On a sharp pebbled floor
Where rough worn pews
Once red or green
But still humble
Were shaded from a remorseful sun
And someone had placed plastic flowers
On each and every grave that lay around.
An act of memory or remembrance or regard.
For whatever the sin, the error or the folly
A truth lingered here amongst the smell of the pine.
The illusions of light, and the ebbing of the year.
Laid low by the storm, we righted these simple gifts
That honoured the time-worn epitaphs to
Whole families who lie named and unnamed
As in life, in their place and together.
In the wilderness small churches stand
Narrow and belligerent
The final homestead and
Witness to the Pattersons, the Infant Milsop
And Old Man Dyer
Taken from work in progress on "A ‘Beautiful Broken Dream’ This will be a book about the America of our dreams and how in those dreams we can discover more about ourselves.. It roughly follows a month trek mostly on foot through the great forests of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and in parallel the writing and composing of a collection of ‘Moonshine’ songs. to be released as two collections: 'Reliance,' and 'The Girl With A Rattlesnake Heart.. The whole project is called Gone to Look for America and will be progressively released through 2018
I have just got back to England from a 4 1/2 week ramble through the Southern States of America, through Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. The first three weeks were spent trekking along the Benton Mackaye trail backpacking, camping and looking out for bears. One of the several reasons for the adventure was to walk though the land of the Cherokee Indians who had once lived in these forests, creating a distinctive and rich of culture of their own, They had tried valiantly and intelligently to accommodate the growing influx of settlers into their lands but were betrayed in treaty after treaty by the new American government, in the end most shamefully by President Andrew Jackson who forced them move out of their homelands and across to the west on a trek known as The Trail of Tears in which 4000 people died. After that vast areas of the old forest was cut down by logging companies and settlers clearing farmland. A few of the Cherokee managed to cling on living in remote and inaccessible places to now form the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. And in many places the forest has returned growing back over abandoned settlements, into designated National Parks and on land returned to the wilderness. Much of this poem was written in my head as we trekked through the greenwood. I would scribble remembered lines down in my notebook by headtorch light as I lay in my tent at night listening to the song of cicadas and distant sound of animals in the dark. This is still a draft
Mist damp and warm,
Eddying in clouds
Through gaps in the trees
My knees aching, and the tendrils of the wood
Grasping at my weary boots.
I crossed the line into the wildness of trees.
In the borderlands,
In the bear darkness.
And amongst the Hickory and the Hemlock,
Watched by the unblinking salamander
Where the sacred cedar holds the spirits of those,
Who slept upon this springy earth,
I trekked through with my light-footed companion
Up the broken trail.
Gasping and cursing in the pagan heat,
Pausing for breath as the sweat
Ran into my eyes,
Already sticky with spider’s webs and dirt.
I envied her grace and her weightlessness
And the way the greenwood wrapped itself around her.
Whilst I, a temporary alien,
Bending double, leaning on sticks,
Empty of thought
Looked down and saw
Mica glistening like desperate snow flakes
On the steaming griddle,
And pushing through the long earth
Hearts-a-bustin’ and Jack‘O Lantern
And purple Aster.
Which made me pause
Sling off my pack and rest against a rock
And look up through the tumultuous leaves
And listen for those who once slipped through the shadows
Vanishing like fireflies dancing in the dark.
These trees are not that old I am told,
And the brown river is bursting’ with water dredged
With the rising of the last moon from the deep Atlantic,
So that each prodigal moment is carried back to the forgiving sea
The Jewel Weed and Poison Ivy are of this season,
Each day ends
What then really remains then of the memory of the Cherokee?
.I remember someone once told me
That the skin on your hand,
Renews itself every five years,
Replicating the scars and stories,
Of childhood and adolescence.
Your hand holds memories not artefacts
And so it may be
With the forest of the Cherokee,
The tale before the tears is still written
Upon the endless forest which is
A serpent coiled around the,
Like a dragon around a hoard
Of copper, iron, gold, manganese and garnets.
Written also so it
Lingers in the tangled growth and the way of the fox
And the falls and the path to
Asginayi - ghost place - which is also Skeinah
And with these memories
The smoke rises,
In the space between the longing
In the dreams of old fires
In the shiver in the waters of the forgotten creek.
.And as the trees danced in the light of Autumn
I heard in the chant of the cicada and frog
A old remembering and their song,
“There was wildness in us
Wild in the way our blood
Flowed with the Red Wolf and the Black Bear,
Wild as the dappling light
Flickering on the Copperhead
Wild in the sacred moment and the awareness of being seen
Wild as we rose with the smallest of things
To great heights.”
'Cherokee Smoke' is the first output of my Gone To Look For Americas Project: an exploration in poetry, prose, song and performance of the Beautiful Broken Dream that is at the heart and soul of America and in all of us. Planned are two albums, a book and a tour.
For further information contact Steve at email@example.com
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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A new poem still under 'construction'. I have recently moved my lovely battered old boat 'Emeline' down to Cropredy on the Oxford Canal. I have dreamed for years about having a narrowboat and this dream is one of the lucky ones that when achieved is all that it is supposed to be. For my money there is no better way to see the wonderful arcane, mysterious place that is England than pottering along at the steady pace of BMC engine chuntering to itself.
It was a Kingfisher morn,
A low mist, the lingering breath of a summers night,
Hung like a ragged eiderdown upon dark waters,
Before evaporating at the new day’s calling
Leaving the canal dappled in the shimmering light
Falling through willow.
As Emeline, steady and measured and awake
Moved to the call of heavy horses whose
flickering feathered remembrance lingered in the hedgerows
And ducked under the swing bridge from field to cow
A Kingfisher morn,
a dominion of sorts,
Where the Capdockin and Flapperdock, the names of old England
As much as the church on the hill and site of the mill,
Stand rhubarb proud at the border, a raggle-taggle audience
To the sublime.
And in the sour green depths of the lock – whose out stretched arms
Wait for the Fisher King, the luscious waters ooze
That all may be healed and transported.
These are halcyon days in the unreliable summer,
of the Damsoiselle fly flitting in ultramarine for the fluttering of brief romance
Dandling in the air amongst the white dog rose and the azure flax
And fussy moorhens and scolding Mute Swans.
When around us, the fields of Oxfordshire
Unbound and close to paradise
Rose expectant and ruddy
Into a time of exuberant flourishing
Flush with the joy of sunlight
An anthem for the vanishing King.
Twelve years ago I found myself on top of Mount Toubkal, the highest point in North Africa. It isn’t a difficult climb, just needing decent shoes and decent lungs. But it is ‘a highest spot’, and though I like to ramble and explore, getting to the top of things is usually beyond what I do. So perhaps that is why, as I sat there looking out over the High Atlas through air as clear as the day it was made (?), there arose the notion that I might travel over these ancient time-shattered peaks all the way to the desert. And it was immediately obvious that it was one of those ideas that must be nurtured and adapted to, like an unplanned child. To walk from this ‘highest spot’ into the great, sprawling wilderness of the Sahara Desert was an offer from the gods which I could not turn down. Twelve years passed, until this year I decided the time was right to accept it.
I am an obsessive note- taker and the following are excerpts from the Moleskine notebook I carry with me on every journey. (This post is a version of a recent article: see http://www.kasbahdutoubkal.com/news/
April 29th 2017
Maybe it’s me or maybe it’s Berber culture but establishing a specific itinerary and timetable is always elusive and I have found it more my style to embrace the ambiguity and happenstance that seems to go so easily with my time in Morocco. So it was after a good breakfast, some decent coffee and well-wishes of Abdul and his friends at the Kasbah du Toubkal I set off back down the hillside into Imlil to drive to Telouet, where we would visit the remains of the Kasbah of the ‘Lords of the Atlas’, the fearsome but compelling Glaoui family. Moha and I would also rendezvous with two mules and possibly one or more muleteers before and setting off on the 500 km trek.