George Santayana famously wrote, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Santayana's point in this much misunderstood phrase, according to historian Ted McAllister, is that without memory each generation is forced to learn from scratch what the previous generation learned from experience. As Santayana wrote immediately following that famous quote, In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted, it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in which instinct has learned nothing from experience.
To live a fully human life is to remember. So we are lucky that we have songwriters like Ben Bedford. Ben is a folk singer from Illinois who has made it his life's business to tell stories of events and people who have made an impact on the American people.
Take, for example, Ben's signature song, Lincoln's Man. This tells the story of a man from Virginia who, during the Civil War, decides to enlist in the Union Army despite his family's Confederate sympathies. He goes to war with a lover's note, a mother's prayer and a father's curse. But I'm Lincoln's man, for better or for worse.
This song helps us remember that the American Civil War really was a fight among family members.
Or take the story of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being too friendly to a white woman. The two men who murdered him were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury, but only a year later they confessed their crime to a journalist.
In Ben's song of the incident, Land of the Shadows, Ben sings of Till, Just a Northern boy didn't mean a thing, only seen Mississippi in magazines. Gonna tear his momma's heart apart, in the land of the shadows, light and dark.
Ben's poignant song helps us recall past injustice and recognize the humanity of those around us.
Ben is at home singing songs about Amelia Earhart, Jack London or the father of Delta Blues, Charlie Patton. He can weave a whole song out of Dorthea Lange's famous Depression-era photo, Migrant Mother, or about the Sangamon river in his native Illinois. His songs help us remember who we are and where we've been.
Luckily for Aberdeen, Ben Bedford will be here on Friday, playing at the Sixth Avenue Gallery. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. If this sounds like an advertisement, that's because it is. I have grown to admire Ben's musical talent, and having seen him perform a couple times, I know that he puts on a good show.
Ben likes to joke that if a song's character dies at the end, it's a folk song, but if the character lives, it's a pop song. This shows that Ben has a sense of humor about his songs that often depict the more gritty side of life. So come to the show and let a master storyteller entertain you and help you remember.
Jon D. Schaff is professor of political science at Northern State University in Aberdeen. The views are his and do not represent those of Northern State University.