On Letitia Vansant and the Bonafide’s “Parts & Labor”

Since the time when Letitia Vansant released “Breakfast Truce” (review here) in 2012, the Baltimore-based songstress has expanded her band to comprise a trio of male musicians, including Tom Liddle, Will McKingley-Ward, and David McKindley-Ward. Known collectively as Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides, the group released their first joint effort entitled “Parts & Labor” today. The new album still resonates with Letitia’s folksy sound and her heart for social justice but shows greater depth and complexity with the inclusion of the Bonafides.

With “Parts & Labor,” Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides strike the perfect balance, treasuring both the old and the new in equal measure. To the casual listener, some of these songs might sound like tracks off one of grandma’s old bluegrass records. Belying the traditional folk sound, however, are the group’s acutely relevant lyrics, tackling head on some of the modern world’s most pressing issues, and an infusion of cross-genre influences. Vansant excels in metaphor, subtly channeling this skill into nearly every track but never to the point of exhaustion. This group of talented musicians blurs the boundaries between folk, country, bluegrass, and americana with effortless ease. The dichotomy between their old-fashioned leanings and the incredibly current, spot-on content of their lyrics makes this compelling album quite the rare find.

“Parts & Labor” deals largely in human heartache and suffering. But Vansant and the Bonafides approach heavy topics as varied as terminal illness, environmental degradation, poverty, and homelessness with a deep empathy rarely seen in the musical arts. The album is like a series of intimate portraits, each one highlighting the story behind a particular type of struggle. Taken as a whole, the tracks from “Parts & Labor” issue a sharp challenge to the notion that we are all simply disposable cogs in an indifferent machine, an image that Vansant brilliantly plays on throughout the album.

“Step in Line” opens the album with plucky banjo sounds, the twang of the slide guitar, and intriguing harmonies. Singing of the monotony of endless days spent working, the band likens time consumed with labor to a prison in lyrics like “the lines on the calendar are the bars on my cage.” But this tune also speaks to the promise of escape and the “green pastures of plenty” that await, an undercurrent of hope that finds refrain throughout the entirety of this album.

The first track I ever heard from “Parts & Labor” was “Rising Tide,” a song featured on Baltimore’s local independent station WTMD with gusto. Though track deals with the heartache of cancer, Vansant makes strong allusions to the profit over people mentality that wreaks devastation through means as varied as chronic illness, violence, and greed. The song swells to a beautiful, plaintive cry in which all members of the band join: “I am a cog in this machine that ruins lives of people unseen/I can’t stop it but Lord let me try/It’s a sad sad feeling comes to visit at night.” Not only are these lyrics endowed with beauty and hope, they’re delivered on the back of a remarkably unforgettable melody. One of the things I find so compelling about Vansant is her advanced wisdom, and the track’s most resonant line comes as she sings about acquiring that very thing: “As a measure of time, well, what good is age/It takes so many years to learn to hold on the days.”

There are plenty of remarkable tracks on this release, like “Tea Still Sweet,” a ballad that meditates on our increasingly urban nature, the resultant longing we feel for the countryside and the damage done to our family ties, and “When I Was Your Age,” a song full of nostalgia for an irretrievable past long before the singer’s own lifetime and ripe with regret about a lost future we can never hope to recover. But in my humble opinion, “Parts & Labor” is the showcase track off this album. I never thought a song with such a highly developed social conscious could be as gorgeous as this record’s title song. Every aspect of this ballad feels heavy and exhausted, the band’s mournful playing a perfect complement to Letitia’s weary vocals. While this may not sound like the stuff of conventionally beautiful music, I love that the song itself so perfectly reflects the feelings Letitia’s lyrics evoke as she meditates on injustice, her heart burdened by the way we take the comforts of our lives for granted. She considers the laborers down the lines of production that yield these comforts, a population far too often overlooked in all mediums of art. Letitia poignantly captures the tragedies of inequality and helplessness on “Parts & Labor” with lines like: “Is there anywhere on God’s green earth that I can pull my weight/A place for everyone and everyone in his place” and “I built a house of mud and straw/It cracked in the freeze and thaw/So I retreat on my knees/To the city I withdraw.” And like any great work of art, each time I revisit this song it reveals yet another layer of depth and beauty.

Then there’s “Go Darling,” the tongue-in-cheek tune of a deserted husband hoping for his “ungrateful woman” to return home. Armed with the knowledge that this was a song about marital abuse, the lightness of this little ditty surprised me at first. Letitia’s clever composition plays from the naively optimistic perspective of the bad husband, his false confidence reflected in the track’s upbeat tempo and carefree feel. While decrying his wife’s domestic shortcomings, the husband fails to do a single thing for himself in her absence, believing she will be back any minute. Lyrics like “Go darling go, it’s a long lonesome road/But the fire in your heart, and the trouble it would start/Would burn this old house down” hint that the struggles this broken woman will undoubtedly face for leaving are far less than what would come to pass if she returned home. It’s a refreshing variation on the classic country themes of a broken heart and desertion.

Despite the heaviness of the subjects Vansant and the Bonafides boldly tackle, there is still a strain of optimism through the end. The final track “Promised Land” critically examines the fearful way that we isolate ourselves from one another: “We’ve all been told there’s not enough for everyone/We guard what we hold dear with laws and with guns/Instead of all these walls, let’s build the kingdom come.” The brilliant simplicity of the song’s final two lines proposes a return to a more communal and generous time: “Now we build our own house/One with no walls that will shelter us all.” Part traditional folk ballad, part incisive social commentary, “Promised Land” is the perfect conclusion to a record so evenly steeped in both the modern and the days of yore. 

The album is available today. Learn more about how to get your hands on a copy here.

On Food Costs

Many people among the foodie sect decry the ways in which our spending on food products has changed. In modern day America, people spend less money on food as a percentage of their total income than they have at any time previously in history. And we Americans spend even less on food proportionally than our counterparts in other developed countries.

This is a fact I’ve long been familiar with on account of my love for foodie nonfiction and I was recently re-exposed to these statistics via an Upworthy post featuring the famed Michael Pollan. Now I’m a fan of Pollan’s and I completely understand and agree with the basic premise of his argument – you get what you pay for and, if we decide as a society to pay so little for our food, the quality and nutritional value of it will suffer, resulting in increased medical costs and poorer health. But what irritates me about this little clip beyond compare is the argument Pollan brings up but swiftly glosses over without due consideration – that some people cannot afford to pay more for food. The food expert makes it sound as though a minor proportion of the population falls into this camp, and though I don’t have the statistics to back my contention to the contrary up, I highly doubt that it is as inconsiderable a number as Pollan would hope.

The issue goes beyond the mere price of food to encompass some much larger social issues – income inequality, rampant corporatization of the agricultural sector, increases in the cost of living. You can approach the alarmingly low percentage of our incomes spent on food in a few different ways. While I don’t believe that Pollan’s perspective is the product of an inaccurate assessment of the issue, he certainly omits pertinent information with which sociologists and inequality theorists would likely take issue. We devote less of our spending on food because of the increased cost of living in other areas – housing, transportation, insurance, education, technology (sometimes a luxury, but other times an absolute necessity for finding work). If we look at changes in the actual dollar amount that the average American has spent on food over time and in comparison to other nations, I wonder if Pollan’s argument would hold as valid or sound so alarming. Because the issue isn’t just that we spend less money on food and thus have lower quality diets, but also that food is supremely expensive, forcing many among us to eat the cheapest and poorest quality offerings.

In the 1960’s the absolute poverty threshold was developed and poverty levels were calculated relative to the cost of food. It was determined that households typically spent one third of their income on food. Therefore the poverty threshold was set at three times the cost of an average “thrifty” food budget for families of a given size. And that equation has not changed for the past fifty years. Although many people, both within and outside of the public policy realm, recognize that the barebones cost of living for a family in 2013 surpassed three times their total food budget years ago, the standards we use to track poverty and determine eligibility for social programs has not followed suit. A cost is still attached to the carefully calculated thrifty food plan, then multiplied by three in order to determine where the absolute poverty level falls. This level has created a significant gap between who is defined as poor and who is  living in impoverished conditions though not classified as poverty-stricken. Adhering to such an antiquated formula leaves millions of Americans unable to qualify for public assistance yet unable to cover their basic expenses. In turn, we clearly see how relative spending on food has not remained static over the years, but has actually fallen significantly in relation to the cost of other necessities. After all, Mr. Pollan himself claims that the average American only spends 10% of their total income on food these days, as opposed to the 18% during his childhood and the 33.3% from days of yore. While Pollan argues that this signals a decline in food quality, I’d argue that the most pressing and pertinent issue these statistic signify is a hefty rise in cost of living; the price of life’s basic necessities has increased such that even poor quality foods are unaffordable for many Americans.

While this post may sound like a rant against the stagnant poverty threshold formula (which I certainly can rant about without end), my argument here isn’t so much that we don’t know how to calculate poverty levels. Rather, my frustrations rest on the fact that we don’t recognize how our small proportion of food spending is completely unaffordable for a sizable proportion of our population. Sure, we should demand better quality from our agricultural suppliers, distributors, and storefronts, and yes, doing so may require that we spend more for these higher quality goods. But we can’t leave behind the millions of people who already struggle to afford low-quality foods, who can’t budget fresh produce into their weekly trips to the grocery store, who are unable to eat healthy, fresh, organic, or whatever other genre of high-quality food they would like because of the cost. Because the conclusion of Pollan’s argument is more universally sound – that healthcare costs have risen in correlation to decreasing food spending, that our poorer diets equate with poorer health outcomes.

And this issue of the cost of food doesn’t only effect those toeing the poverty line. I constitute one half of a duel-income-earner household, one with two working adults, a cat, a dog, and no children to feed. We rent for a generously low monthly rate and are fortunate enough to not be burdened by car payments, student loans, or any other considerable debts. But I’m aways looking for ways to cut corners when it comes to grocery shopping on our two modest incomes. After all, if we can save $100 a month on food, that’s more money we can put into savings for the down payment on a home – a dream that feels years away at this point given our meager financial outlook – or for that vacation we haven’t been able to afford for the past few years. My husband and I are by no means destitute, but we also can’t afford to do plenty of the things we’d like to do, let alone some of the things we need to do to get by. I believe in much of what Pollan preaches – that organics are the way to go, that we should buy local and consume as many whole foods as possible. If practicing these tenets is so difficult from my relatively comfortable vantage point (and I’d warrant a guess that our food spending already comes in over that average of 10% of total income), how can those with less income and higher expenses hope to afford improved eating patterns?

Something needs to change in the way we grow our food, the way we distribute it, the way we advertise it, the way we eat it. But these changes need to occur simultaneously with changes in other financial matters as well. We need to get realistic about the cost of living. If not, more people will find themselves unable to receive necessary benefits and unable to meet their basic needs without them. The ripple effect of such will not be insignificant – it will mean less money going back into local economies, more people living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, children growing up impoverished, malnourished, and unable to reach their fullest potential. The repercussions, especially when we factor in the ways that an impoverished upbringing can significantly curtail possibilities for children in their adult lives, are seemingly endless.

Rethinking food economies is one step of the process. Sourcing food items locally allows for increased quality since they won’t be shipped for days before making it to your plate and the likelihood of eating things in season will increase. Increasing the viability of small-scale, local agricultural enterprises has the potential to help stimulate local economies, putting more money in the pockets of the American people and less in those of the corporate agribusiness giants. Community gardens are an efficient means of making high quality food more available to people, sometimes at lower costs. Driven by my passion for both food studies and inequality, I researched urban agriculture projects in Baltimore City last fall to evaluate their effectiveness in overcoming barriers to food insecurity. Though there are obstacles to these arrangements, from landownership issues to profit margins and labor costs, certain models have been highly successful in bringing healthy, low-cost food to those who typically can’t afford fresh produce. In particular, those farms that offset the discounts offered to their lower income customers by selling to high-end restaurants and upper middle class locavore consumers are largely sustainable.

Changing the equation by which poverty thresholds are calculated is also a necessity on the road to equality and an improved American diet. Nearly every day I see it as a Baltimore City social worker – low-income individuals and families don’t qualify for food stamps but can barely afford to stock their pantries with basic grocery staples. Their income and expenses are equations that never add up; I have trouble fathoming how social security checks and near-minimum-wage salaries can be expected to cover groceries after rent and mortgage payments, insurance, gas and electric bills, car payments or transportation costs, and cell phone bills. There is a growing and increasingly visible segment of the population that fails to qualify for public assistance but realistically has no hope of making ends meet. If we allow them to remain stranded without a safety net, Pollan’s dream of improving how we spend our money on food and the quality of what we buy will never become a reality because so many people will be unable to afford it on their own.

Though I’m certainly entertaining many possibilities, I don’t profess to have all (if any) of the solutions. But considering the problems from an inequality perspective is one of the first steps in the long, difficult, but ultimately necessary journey to increasing the health, quality, sustainability, and affordability of the American diet. Michael Pollan is certainly a compelling and commanding figure when it comes to food issues, whether you’re reading one of his best-selling books or watching him explain the connection between food costs and health. The crucial piece he fails to recognize, however, is the way in which current food prices are outrageous for many among us. We cannot demand better food at higher prices without overhauling the larger economic system that renders healthy food a privilege for the few.