It was the true story of a horrific murder, but Ben Bedford sang the tale to a gentle melody.
“Pulled by four strong arms from sleep/where he prayed to the Lord his soul to keep/to that half-ton Chevy on a starry night/in the land of the shadows, dark and light.”
Kenowa Hills students listened quietly while Bedford sang of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was murdered in August 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman in Mississippi. Two white men were accused of kidnapping him from an uncle’s house, brutally beating and shooting him before throwing his body in the river, but were acquitted by an all-white jury. The woman in question recently recanted part of her story.
In Bedford’s song, “Land of the Shadows,” Till was “just a northern boy, didn’t mean a thing” who had “only seen Mississippi in magazines” (see video below). It was his way of relating history, along with other stories of Americana, in performances for Kenowa middle and high school students. The Springfield, Illinois singer-songwriter was brought to the high school for a day of short concerts to supplement what they learn in class, including the murder of Emmett Till.
Bedford said he enjoys interacting with students and giving them a different perspective on history.
“Obviously you’ve got to have a certain amount of context, and know your dates and your wheres and whens, etcetera,” Bedford said. “But when it comes right down to it, history is a story – it’s a bunch of stories, quilted together. If I can get them to see the humanity in history, that’s my goal.”
Art Enhancing Academics
Bedford was invited by Jason Hammond, a high school social studies teacher and guitarist, with the support of Principal Brett Zuver, also a guitarist. It was the third time Hammond has had Bedford perform as a way of broadening students’ understanding of academics.
“Ben’s performances challenge students to consider how the content and skills they learn in the classroom (many times in isolation) have broader impacts outside of the school’s walls, and many times in capacities such as music, art, poetry and literature,” Hammond said.
Students from social studies and other classes were invited to the concerts, which featured a screen projecting images of Till and his mother along with historic figures including Woody Guthrie and Abraham Lincoln.
Bedford sang other topical songs including “Letters from the Earth,” based on a book by Mark Twain, and “Blood on Missouri,” about the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Students asked several questions of Bedford, who has recorded four albums. Asked his purpose in writing songs, he said one reason is to illuminate the story of history.
“All of us are part of history,” he added. “It’s ordinary people like us living our lives that enriches the study of history.”