It’s Not As Simple As It Seems – Singer/Songwriter Neal Hagberg stirs up new thoughts

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by singer/songwriter Neal Hagberg.  Hagberg, who Midwesterners and folksy NPR listeners might know better as one-half of Neal and Leandra, came to my dad’s library here in Bemidji, MN last night to share his solo project.  This new venture focuses on social issues, putting a human perspective to global issues through song and story.

I was blown away by the way that Neal allowed the audience of 50 to experience his point of view.  Each song brought up every hot-topic issue through a different set of eyes – war, religious fundamentalism, poverty, intolerance, abortion, homophobia… you name it.  I assumed that the ensuing discussion would stir up controversy and debate, but Neal encouraged the audience to stick to “personal experience”… and I don’t know whether it was the power of the music or the openness of Minnesotans… but they started sharing!

After each song, Neal asked us to speak to “what the song brought up in us”.  So what did it bring up in me?

One song in particular made me think about something that I struggle with back in BK – how to deal with homelessness and beggars.  If you live in New York, the accepted theory is that if you give money to beggars, you are either A) a tourist getting scammed or B) fueling their drug habit, so the best thing is to just ignore them and carry on your day.

It’s easy to say, when you’re sitting in a group of middle-class white people in some small town, that you’ll be a good Christian and carry on a conversation with them, buy them a meal, etc.  That’s what I would’ve said if you’d asked me at 16, when my view of homelessness in NH was restricted to the Salvation Army soup kitchen.  But when you’re approached with the same “pity stories” day after day, when you’re trying to buy groceries or get to work in the morning, it’s hard not to simply avoid eye contact and breeze by them.

The dilemma is… how to you maintain their humanity – and your compassion – in an urban area like this?  Is it realistic to think that one should engage with the homeless and the beggars… or is it inhumane to think that one wouldn’t??  I don’t know.

I have a lot of thoughts about how Neal’s approach to addressing world issues through story and song could be translated into my own work and children’s books… but I think it merits a second post.  Stay tuned.


photo by Ann Marsden


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