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)