Jefferson Berry Brings Urban Tales To Dreams of Modern Living
Philadelphia-based songwriter, musician, and bandleader Jefferson Berry is usually hard at work on the next set of songs for Urban Acoustic Coalition (UAC), and the last year or two have been no different in that regard, which will soon result in their new album, Prairie Fire. However, in the wake of his retirement from teaching, Berry gave more thought to storytelling and simultaneously embarked on creating a solo album. Titled Dreams of Modern Living, the collection was recently released. There will be an April 1st double-album launch for Dreams of Modern Living alongside a premier of some of the songs from Prairie Fire in Philadelphia hosted by the Folksong Society.
While there’s a permeability to these songs that enables them to move in an acoustic Folk vein or into a bigger band sound, particularly in live performance, Berry wanted to present them story-first in this release. This focus enabled him to take an earlier song “Locks and Guns,” about the gun problem in the USA, into a more intimate version, as well as telling similarly urban-inspired tales of the characters he encounters in life. Added to that are songs that finally found their place in the sun, like “Water in the Well,” a historical piece drawn directly from Berry’s family history. I spoke with Jefferson Berry about the move to create these solo songs, how that fit into his songwriting practice, and what inspired the stories behind the songs.
Americana Highways: Last time that I spoke to you, you were still teaching in Philadelphia, as you’ve done for many years, but I understand that you’ve now retired. Does that give you a freer feeling regarding your music?
Jefferson Berry: A lot of times I was teaching kids what to say to the cops when they have a flashlight their face at three in the morning. It was very rewarding because they really needed that information. But yes, I’ve retired from teaching. I went with a plan, since I’m a published historian on Colonial Pennsylvania history, to go back and get a Ph.D. I got back to grad school and was really crushing the work, but I just did not fit in. I didn’t feel they were focused on the things that matter. Right now, there are large segments of our society that seem to want to rewrite American history and that didn’t seem to really matter to them. I abandoned that idea for becoming a full-time musician instead. I made that transition within about ten days.
AH: Having reached this point, what was the first thing you set for yourself to do, musically?
JB: Well, we were in the process of putting together a new band album, and it was going a lot slower than I wanted it to, so I said, “I’m going to put together a folk album. I’m going to put together a solo singer/songwriter record where the stories really stand out.” I think on any band album, particularly when you have guys who are as good as the guys in the Urban Acoustic Coalition, sometimes that story gets buried in the arrangement. I wanted the stories to stand out, so that’s why I produced both of these albums simultaneously.
AH: I was reading recently about the year 1971 and the explosion of singer/songwriters. It was suggesting that the directness and the texture of that first wave got lost later in over-production.
JB: Right. There are a bunch of singer/songwriters, along the way, who also pulled off that transition where they did produce band albums, and really sophisticated ones. They didn’t necessarily lose the story.
AH: So it’s a fine line? It’s also about goals. You can go through different periods in your life where you want to do different things.
JB: That’s absolutely where I’m coming from, but that’s not where the market is coming from at all. People really want the same thing from an artist. I have a bunch of friends who are off doing tribute bands and if they do original music, it’s in a very narrow, genre-specific thing to the point that the songs kind of all sound the same. That’s not true of the songs I’m writing and that’s not true of the songs that the band’s playing.
AH: Was a more folk style something that you have done in the past and were returning to? I know you’ve done folk festivals.
JB: If you’re a guy who sits around his room playing acoustic guitar, then you’re hooked into the folk thing. I’ve been going to folk festivals for the last 25 years.
HMS: I think you all played festivals in 2022.
JB: Yes. And we’ve been to Kerrville seven times. But the folk community kind of looks at me as a hybrid deal. I’m a folk rocker. So the idea that I would play and record an album that was strictly voice and guitar was sort of unusual. That was sort of new.
AH: When you said to yourself, “I want to do this folk thing.”, did that change the way you were writing the songs, or did you write in the same manner that you write all your songs in early stages?
JB: Musically, I will approach a song and say, “This song is really going to fit this player, or that player.” The songs that I wrote for this record were not so much that. The stuff that’s on the album coming up, Prairie Fire, were written with specific spots in mind, the Americana jam tradition. There you are thinking about who you’re playing with.
Some of the songs also work both ways. The song that I created a video for, and is the first cut on Dreams of Modern Living, “Locks and Guns,” is also kind of a kick-ass song on Double Deadbolt Logic. When I play it with the band, it’s a rock tune, but when I play it solo, I’m happy with how it came out. The video won a bunch of film festival awards.
AH: I remember that song being a significant one for you on the previous album talking about gun violence. What led you to create this alternate version?
JB: Maybe 1800 shootings in Philadelphia last year? It’s a huge problem. I feel like, if you have a platform, you need to address that problem. On the other hand, people coming out to hear you play aren’t coming out for that, so you have to keep people upbeat. You have to put a little beat in it. To a certain extent, that’s better accomplished with a band than solo. The video, however, worked really well solo.
AH: For me, this new version is a song, but I almost think about it in a spoken word way because the lyrics all get their moment. I saw a hint that there had been some controversy about this video for you.
JB: All the gun freaks came after me, trolling me on Facebook.
AH: I was watching the video and thinking, “What’s controversial here?” And I was wondering, “What’s more controversial about the video and the folk version than the previous version?” I do get a little more of the sense of how this is affecting children and that feels more shocking.
JB: Yes, the commentary in the song is not so much about taking people’s guns away as it is asking, “Why do you have a gun?” The answer is that you have a gun because you’re afraid. You put locks on your doors for that reason. My door is double deadbolt locked 24/7. When people have guns, they feel safe. But the statistics on that are embarrassing. Only three percent of shootings are defensive. If you have a gun, they’ll shoot you. So that song was written for the band, but the issue continues.
AH: How did you decide what other stories you wanted to tell on this album?
JB: Well, there’s “Sleeping in Public.” It goes into a situation in the urban acoustic theme, meaning stories about the city. People’s fortunes rise and fall in the city. That’s the story of two guys in “Sleeping in Public” who are essentially the same guy. There’s the commuter and there’s the broken broker. They meet. I like that song a lot. That’s a storytelling song that’s not really a band song at all. Then there’s also a broken-hearted love song, “Rendezvous with Destiny.”
AH: Regarding “Sleeping in Public,” do you think people are unaware, or just unwilling to think, “That could be me,” when they see a homeless person?
JB: What I’ve seen with that song is that audiences think, “That’s interesting,” the first time they hear it. Then the second or third time that they hear it, they start to identify with their gratitude and their levels of empathy. Also, in performing this song, you need to get eye-contact and make sure that every word is poignant. In a band situation, I have to pay a lot of attention to my guitar playing instead. Here you’re really conveying a story.
AH: It’s a song that really reflects America because there are no safety nets for people. It seems like one turn in a person’s life could totally upend them. I’m talking about lack of health care, lack of mental health resources, etc. But we act like people deserve misfortune.
JB: And spending more than you make. We’re all aware of the dog-eat-dog aspects of life. It’s a rough and tumble society, with winners and losers. And I think the vast majority of Americans look at these people and think, “They’re born losers.” But then if you talk to them, you’ll find that very few of them are born losers.
AH: So is observing your immediate environment a major source of songwriting for you?
JB: For me, what I look for are stories in the cities, whether it’s for the band or for solo stuff. There are so many great characters and so many familiar circumstances that you can weave a tale around.
AH: I notice that “Sleeping in Public” is in the third person, but it’s like an omniscient narrator. We can see inside their heads a little. That’s helpful. But “Sand in My Shoes” is in the first person. That’s a zinger! It makes you feel like you’re face-to-face with this person.
JB: [Laughs] That’s a co-write with Charlie O’Hay. We’ve both experienced “that guy” who’s completely psychotic. When that kind of crazy goes untreated, you’re right, it’s a zinger. But to talk about him “over there” rather than “right here” doesn’t give you the taste of crazy.
AH: Instinctively, people draw away from that. They are scared of it.
JB: They should be! He says, “The person I hurt had me arrested.” There’s a song where the story really comes through and you know that you’re inside of crazy. When we play that as a band, and I do it almost every set, it is a kick-your-face-in Hard Rock song. It has big drums, big guitar, blazing harmonica, and it very different.
AH: It’s almost like the internal is made external. The guy’s state of mind is very loud.
JB: Absolutely! I did write it as a Hard Rock, Blues Rock song and I needed something shocking to go with it. It was a period of time where I was reading the poetry of Charlie O’Hay, and I thought, “His poetry would go with that riff!” I got permission and made them work with the songs. Once the song came together, I thought, “This is a delicious level of psychosis.”
AH: I notice you covered Elton John’s “Come Down in Time,” which is a nice story-feeling song, too, and “Water in the Well,” which is a historical story.
JB: Yes, I wrote this song about my great-grandfather being pistol-whipped by Jesse James. I wrote it and researched it in grad school. Every last detail in there is backed up by primary sources and first-hand accounts. But that song didn’t fit on any album that I’d ever done. I have been holding onto it for a long time and it’s a seven-minute song. Remarkably, Folk radio is now embracing it. It’s getting played almost as much as “Locks and Guns.”
AH: Maybe peoples’ interest in Westerns and frontier stories on TV and film have contributed to that. Were you tempted to update the song in any way before putting it on the album?
JB: It’s exactly the way that I originally wrote it. It went down really quickly, since it was perhaps the most familiar one to me. I haven’t played it out yet. I’m thinking about opening our April 1st show with it, solo. We are going to open the show on April 1st with songs from the solo album before the band comes on.
The June California tour will have me solo playing a lot of the songs off Prairie Songs out there, testing them out as a solo songs. I was raised in California so those shows will be like going home and seeing friends.
Thanks very music for speaking with us, Jefferson Berry. Find more information and tour dates here on his website: https://www.jeffersonberry.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Jefferson Berry “Dreams of Modern Living”