Carters Vintage Guitar Store, sits off the main strip in Nashville, in a part of town where maybe you wouldn’t want to hang around after dark. It’s a long, low, non-descript building, like so many others along the side streets. There’s a car park outside, a railway line clatters nearby. But it is the island of Anthemusa and its sirens are made of wood and gut and steel and bronze, although their shapes are no less winsome than those who would have enticed the hearts and loins of sailors in classical times.
I tried to protect and brace myself against what I knew would be overwhelming temptation. The usual precautions of tying yourself to a mast or plugging your ears with wax did seem a little counter-productive, so I made a mental list of why I did not need another guitar and asked Dinny to physically prevent me from jumping if she saw me tottering on the edge of surrender.
My second line of defence was that I believed Dinny would soon get bored in there, creating that distracting sense that somebody wanted to go but wasn’t saying anything… yet.
It really is the most extraordinary place. Hundreds maybe a thousand or more guitars hang from racks upon the wall looking mournful and desperate to be loved like so many dogs in the pound. Each one silently beseeching ‘play me!’ If anything can rival the Colt 45 revolver and the Winchester rifle as a symbol of American identity, it has got to be the guitar. It has become the weapon of dissent, of solace, of escape and ultimately rebellion. It is possibly impossible to estimate the shape shifting impact of America on both global music and in particular the voice of youth. From jazz, to rockabilly, to rock ‘n’ roll to blues, to rhythm and blues, to swing, the Western swing, to grunge, to folk, to protest song, to heavy metal, through them all America entered into a conversation with the young of the world and the young of the world talked back.
And at the heart of it all was the wood, the wire and the shape of the guitar. Its image is etched in the consciousness of generation after generation. It sits under the spectacles of Buddy Holly, as the bleeding pen and ink and paper of Dylan, it is a flaming light as the sun goes down with Jimi Hendrix. Not for nothing did Woody Guthrie write on his Gibson, ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.’
And one thing more than any other, a guitar captures the essence of America and makes it available to all; you don’t have to play great to communicate. Sure, people get unbelievably adept but, at its heart, a guitar is a simple thing and playing it easy. When I was seventeen, I learnt three chords and wrote a song. One of the greatest of Chuck
Berry’s songs, lyrically a work of sinewy art, ‘You Never Can Tell (C’est La Vie)’ consists of a magnificent two chords.
And to think the definitive instrument of American music might just have been the banjo!
So, I was window shopping for a lot more than handbags and hats, I was looking at the instruments of magical revolution. The sort of thing that gave everyman wings. And when the first guitar I picked up was a trial model, semi- acoustic and the tag on which said, “Previously owned by Steve Earle,” I knew I was surrounded by holy relics. I was not being called upon to buy a guitar, but make a statement, a testimony if you will, to who I was.
Which is how I came to be the owner of a forty year old National Steel resonator guitar. It wasn’t my fault! Dinny mischievously snuck off and found an eloquent employee of the store whilst I was just introducing myself to its rusty old strings. He appeared at my side, nodding appreciatively at my clumsy picking. I handed it to him so I could hear it from a distance. He tuned it to an open tuning and picked a lazy pattern and the vocal sound of a nation declared itself.
The National Steel is voice of the dispossessed, the plantation worker, the guy on the assembly line, the hobo, the long train coming. Incredibly loud, four times louder than an ordinary guitar, it is made to be heard.
It is strange thing of wonder. The guitar, the body of which is highly polished metal with the ghosting effect of palms trees on the front and back, has a wooden neck the head of which bears the blue and red shield of the National. Two ‘f’ holes are cut into the top of the body.
It’s a sound like a multitude. It hums as you play, like there is a motor in it, the bottom strings a Baptist choir from the land of the delta, the top strings aching with hurt and lost love.
Incredibly this monster was built to accompany Hawaiian music.
Last October, I hit the road again. Not on one of the long treks that have been my way for the last few years, this time it was in a hired campervan with the aim of exploring the deeply lovely and mysterious New Mexico. I was going to spend a few days on an Indian reservation, take two and three-day hikes into the fantastic wilderness areas of the state and search out the legends and ghosts of a region which had seen at least four different civilisations flourish and often fade within its magnificent landscape. Coming out after a few days trek into the Bandolier wilderness, I headed down to Las Vegas; not the Las Vegas of one armed bandits and Tom Jones stripped to the waist, that is in Nevada but, maybe a more interesting Las Vegas, once one of the most lawless places in America. A place where people like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday used to hang out and Billy the Kid would enjoy the company of dark-haired Spanish ladies. A place where you can be shot for looking at the wrong person in the wrong way, or perhaps even the right way. It turned out to be a day of serendipity and magic; a day in which you look for one thing and to your delight find another.
Las Vegas was the scene of the melancholy and mysterious tale of Paula Angelo, the story of whom I had come across by accident once before. It is wrongly claimed she was the first woman to be hanged in New Mexico. Hanged she certainly was but maybe not the first to so end her days. Even so, in the peculiar and skewed morality of the times, when it was perfectly okay to shoot, stab, strangle, scalp, bludgeon as well as hang men, executing women was not seen as the “done” thing.
Her portrait shows an evocatively beautiful face. She had killed a married man, probably a soldier, who had jilted her, and her execution was ordered by a judge who was in a hurry to move things along and get back to his drinking and gambling. She was allowed to appeal, though rather thoughtlessly, the date of execution was not postponed whilst the appeal was held. Thus, in front of a crowd of onlookers, both curious and appalled, she was strung up from a cottonwood tree, standing on the back of the cart that had transported her there with her coffin. The jailer and executioner who seemed to have some antipathy towards her, maybe he was a relative of the soldier, had botched the job and her hands were left free. When the cart was driven away to leave her swinging in the air, the onlookers were appalled to see her grasping at the noose around her neck in an effort to relieve the fatal pressure on her windpipe. Angrily some bystanders cut her down and whilst she struggled to recover an argument broke out between those who said that as she technically had been hanged she could now be set free and those who said the judge had called for her to be hanged until she was dead, and therefore the whole ghastly business should continue. In the end the latter argument prevailed, and the poor girl was finally killed
The story had been intrigued me and in my mind it seemed a great opportunity to write a ballad in a traditional form – something that often has a dozen or more verses following a fairly strict structure. So plenty of material required and I hoped that in Las Vegas to find out more about Paula and her melancholy story.
I had read that after the excitement of the late 19th century when Las Vegas had stood as one of the key cattle towns at the top of the Santa Fe Trail and railhead, that it had fallen on hard times as history had moved on to other stories and tales. But this adversity seems to have had a positive consequence, many of the old buildings along the main street and in the central area called the Plaza, had not been pulled down but hung in there waiting renovation. This is now happening as gradually the buildings are restored. With polyglot names like Stern and Nahm, Kortes, and the E Romero, Hose and Fire Company 1882, the great old buildings stand in that distinctive American western style and in sunburned colours of blue, olive and red. At the end is the old Plaza Hotel on the edge of a grassy area where perhaps once the stagecoach pulled in and horses moved restlessly in the heat. I had lunch in the old hotel and is now a rather genteel establishment. It is hard to imagine that once upon a time the legendary Doc Holliday, gambler, gunslinger and most improbably, dentist – his surgery was out the back of the hotel apparently - hung out in the saloon bar once killing a man in an argument.
I asked the manager of the hotel if he had heard of Paula Angelo but he said he was afraid that he hadn’t. I went into one or two old bookshops asked the same question got the same answer. I tried some antique shops with no luck either. I then headed to the museum confident that they would be able to help me, but they were cleaning it and despite my best pleading, they would not let me in. Somewhat despondently, I wandered back along the Main Street and paused outside a shop that appeared to house some sort of local history exhibition. Going inside, I saw promisingly that there were lots of old photos and exhibits about the Santa Fe Trail and Las Vegas itself on the walls. At the back of the store two old men sat watching me. One was short and rather dapper -looking; the other seemed incredibly ancient, with sprouts of hair appearing everywhere including on top of his nose. He was wearing blue-bib dungarees and his eyes were red rimmed and rheumy. He was, I thought, the oldest man sitting upright I had ever met.
“Can I help you?” said the first guy, who I later learned was called Leroy Ledoux.
“I’m over from England,” I said, “and wonder if you knew anything about Paula Angelo?”
“Sure”, he is said, “a bit, sit there and we will tell you what we know.”
Offering me a chair, he went to the front door and locked it so that we might not be disturbed.
Returning he spoke to the other guy in Spanish after introducing him as Joe Lopez.
“I asked him if he knows anything” , Leroy said to me
Joe looked at me slowly and shook his head.
“Why don’t you tell me what you know”, said Leroy, “and I will tell you anything I know in addition to that”
Which I did.
“That’s about the whole of it’ said Leroy when I finished.
“She came from Loma Parada !” Said Joe suddenly in English.
Leroy questioned him in Spanish and Joe repeated himself and added:
“It means grey hill in Spanish, was a wild place, 5 miles from the soldiers stationed at Fort Union. There was a casino and bars for the soldiers, and it was the closest place to find a woman.”
Leroy nodded “soldiers would all head over there.”
Joe looked at me again as if summoning up memories.
“Soldiers used to fight with the local ranchers. There was plenty of hanging done out there - the locals didn’t like the way the soldiers treated their women.
So if Paula had come from Loma, Parada, she would have come in regular contact with US Soldiers I wondered aloud.
“He had five children”, said Joe.
We both looked at him.
“He went back to his wife so she killed him”
This part of the story I had heard before. Paula was probably about 19 and had fallen in love with a married man who had broken it off. She had asked to meet him one last time and in the course of this meeting had stabbed him to death.
We speculated as to whether the fact he had five children probably meant he had served in the army for some time. Was he a popular man with a strong group of comrades who would want to avenge his death including officers who had the influence to hurry things through to see rough justice done.
It seemed easy to picture the scene in which a naive, beautiful girl is drawn in by an older man and then destroyed by the inevitable narrative of the times.
“Loma Parada is a ghost town now” said Leroy. “Not much remains but you can get out there if you turn off the Interstate 25.”
I felt the warmth breath of history touch my imagination and felt that rush of momentum as another story starts to unfold. But before I got carried away Leroy and Joe wanted something back in return,
Leroy and Joe were both intrigued by my Englishness and the conversation moved on to the origins of names and families. Joe told me his family had moved over from Spain in 1700s and that he was born on an Apache reservation, on land illegally given by the US government in spite of the treaties that were supposed to protect land rights. Leroy was the descendant of French trappers who had worked their way down the western side of the US originally from Canada.
They began to ask me what I knew of the origins of names from the British Isles. Where for instance the Higgins might have come from or the Conways and the O’Neills.
“Where would the Bonneys have come from,? There are Bonneys in my family”, Joe suddenly asked.
I smiled. “You know Billy the Kid was a Bonney supposedly, William Bonney?”
Joe looked at me and nodded.
“He’s the Kid’s third cousin” said Leroy “his grandfather knew him well!”
Joe simply nodded again.
“He was a handsome man, despite that picture, the Spanish ladies loved him.”
And so I had met a relative of one of the most, no, the most famous outlaws that ever lived. Was it true? Who knows? On one of the exhibition stands was Joe’s family tree and his mother was a Bonney. So little is known of the Kid’s life, a man who embarked on a three-year killing spree and was dead by the time he was 21. A man whose grave I would visit a couple of days later only to read that perhaps he wasn’t buried there after all and had escaped to Mexico.
But it was getting late, I could see that Joe was getting tired, and I had a ghost town to visit before the sun had set
My poor England. Where have you gone? These are dis-eased times in which each morning I wake thinking - "surely it will be better today" and find it isn't. This old place is tearing itself apart and what we stand for is being burned and buried. Treacherous, mocking crows call and lie and strut across the grave of something fine.
We are a proud mongrel race. We are of the Celts ,the Saxons, the Jew the Danes; Of Huguenots, and Bengalis and the Caribbean; the sons and daughters of a vagabond heart. I am no less English for being British, no less British for being European. I am not diminished for believing in a world where people come together to build a better one for ordinary folks, I am not empowered when I walk away from my companions.
England is a place of rogues; rebels; thieves and acrobats but deep within it flows something profound and worthy. Those who lead us betray us.
I have felt like this before though not as painfully. 25 years ago I wrote the following song- - the tune was done with my good buddy Tim Gadsby.
We’ve been storm rocked and battered, until nothing else matters,
But to stay here, and lay here, and sleep by your side,
We’ve been cheated
and flattered, our hopes have been shattered,
But I’ll stay here and lay here and dream by your side
Looking Back on England Steve Bonham and Tim Gadsby (c) 1993 Recorded on 'The Moon's High Tide - Steve Bonham
I am writing this in the strange lost lands between Christmas and New Year. Always a time for me of letting go and wondering. It's a slo-mo vortex; a cold wave-tossed beach; a shape-shifting primordial soup of forgotten goals; missed opportunities; little and large regrets and here and there, shining in the mud, the occasional glitter of joy and discovery.
And one question always devils me. How to breathe deeply, face the world anew again and try and make the next one better than the last?!
On the good days I feel, no matter how sorrow stained the last one, however grey, opaque and threatening looks the next one, however intimidated and powerless I stand, that I am on the edge of new adventure. It is a time of renewal, redemption and resolve.
A while back I wrote these words for a friend stepping out into the grace and genie of the long road and I wish the spirit of this to all my good friends as the New Year beckons.
Big Love x
She stands in the window of an early morning
Very still, looking over
To hedges pushing over fences,
The last teasing leaf of Fall
To where the tools of garden combat resting arms on old benches,
Wait for bugles.
Sensing from an impish breeze teasing slow branches
The first belligerent note of spring.
She opens the latch to the thin, chill, aspiring air
Knowing safety is not in caution, in holding things close
But in the expansive unfolding of the great trees and clouds
And the road to the west,
To the mountains, the deserts and the storm,
To America where dreams lie like sleeping sentinels
And the moon is hollow
She shivers at the first kiss, falls headlong
Into the mystery of waking
New-eyed into the kaleidoscope
Of half-forgotten memory
Hears echoing in suburbia’s empty spaces
The purr of the mountain lion
Feeling there is no return, only renewal.
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