As a breed, folksingers seem to be most easily recognized by a congenital tendency to burden themselves (and others) with their pet personal and political issues. Mutations do exist, however: It’s probably safe to assume that no other so-called singer/songwriter “preaches” with the zeal of Dan Bern — but don’t look for any standard-issue piety.
In “One Thing Real” (from his 1998 Sony release Fifty Eggs, produced by Ani DiFranco), Bern envisions a fed-up Jesus taking a load off his back in order to take a jaunt downtown. Curious about the whereabouts of the cross, the singer queries, “But ain’t that your uniform?” The answer? “He offers me a toke/He says, ‘2000 years is long enough for this particular joke.'”
But it would be easy to take Bern out of context. To be sure, his own press kit plays up the “stinging social commentary” in his songs; yet the melodies are often pretty, and the voice delivering the wit can sound almost shyly gruff, sometimes recalling the rough ebb of Palace Brother Will Oldham’s vocal stylings, or even Paul Westerberg’s — with liberal amounts of a Dylan-informed wheedle threaded in to melt the singer’s delectable sarcasm with a pervading sense of bittersweet world-weariness.
Bern, now in his 30s, has traveled around the country playing songs for most of his adult life. Though he was initially reluctant to grant pre-show interviews for his current tour (“I just didn’t feel like I had a lot to say this time”), once we finally managed to reach him by phone, the singer had quite a bit to relate about his penchant for shocking people.
In Fifty Eggs’ opening track, “Tiger Woods,” Bern wryly extols a certain ostensibly impressive aspect of his own anatomy, quoting Mohammed Ali in his assertion that “‘it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.'” Not surprisingly, the singer is also well-endowed with a breathtaking capacity to offend. “It happens daily,” he notes. “People have prior expectations, maybe something they’re afraid of, and it’s usually pretty easy — amazingly easy — to kick people off their sense of balance. As people get older, they lock in their own sense of what’s acceptable: what life is like, what people should be like. And when they encounter something that doesn’t fit that, something that upsets them, they want to eradicate it, not look at it anymore. … This country was founded on the idea of tolerance, but they had to write it in [the Constitution], because they knew it’s not a natural instinct to be tolerant: They had to make sure people would be tolerant.”
Listening to pieces like “No Missing Link” (Bern’s fresh take on evolution, a song whose chorus concerning alien-monkey copulation is purportedly popular among schoolchildren), it’s easy to get the impression that there’s nothing this guy won’t say. But when it comes to embracing his fan-imposed role as King of Irreverence, Bern grows decidedly reticent.
“If it’s true [that many singer/songwriters come across as self-righteous], then it’s not just true of that scene,” he posits. “A lot of people don’t have a sense of humor.” Political correctness, Bern points out, “is a [recently] made-up term. What people are hearing is the same, but people are trying to be more conscious about what they say. In trying to be sensitive, though, they go too far. They lose their sense of humor, so it has to be balanced out.”
New evidence suggests that more and more people are ready to admit Bern’s unique brand of “balancing” into their lives. The singer arrived at the Philadelphia Folk Festival “a virtual unknown,” according to one review of the event, but almost immediately became the show’s indisputable star. The owners of Asheville’s Whizz Records — who are co-sponsoring Bern’s appearance at Stella Blue, along with Wingnut Productions — aren’t exactly known for their infatuation with modern singer/songwriters. Bern’s punk ethic, however, wins their wholehearted approval. Describing Bern’s music as “a little dangerous, a little infectious, even a little sexy,” when compared to standard singer/songwriter fare, Whizz’s Letitia Walker asserts that folk music “was [never] meant to be taken too seriously.”
But Bern harbors no notion of himself as any kind of anti-folksinger. An unconscious iconoclast, he seems the least likely candidate to “mean” anything specific by his lyrics. Toward the end of “One Thing Real,” he expresses his restlessness with agendas this way: “And I’m up here singing these songs every night/Sometimes I want to just make them up on the spot/Maybe they wouldn’t run too good, they might not make sense/But at least then I wouldn’t be repeating myself.”