Great Chicago Fire—the new record from the Waco Brothers and Nashville, Tennessee, singer-songwriter Paul Burch—is pretty damn good. Rollicking and passionate, the record tears through Americana tropes like, well, the Great Chicago Fire. Because The A.V. Club can never turn down a chance to talk to Waco Brothers frontman and bon vivant Jon Langford, we snagged him for a few minutes to discuss the record, as well as his hopes and dreams for our fair city. Read the interview while listening to the album, which is streaming below.
The A.V. Club: What’s the song “Great Chicago Fire” about? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?
Jon Langford: It’s actually referring to the last election. The fire swept away all the crap in the city, so it was actually a good thing. Maybe we need another one. Obama’s election might be the spark. Who knows, though. Songwriters and artists are incredibly naïve in such things.
AVC: So it’s not about the soccer team?
JL: I was hoping the football team would pick it up, make it their anthem, and give us lots of money.
AVC: How much do you know about the actual Chicago fire, the event?
JL: I know that it was a good thing, and that there were no cows involved. I mean, it probably wasn’t good for the cows that died, but it started the modernization of Chicago. The London fire in 1666 got rid of all the remnants of the plague.
AVC: What was the thought process behind the title track, then?
JL: I just thought we should have a song called “The Great Chicago Fire.” Paul’s in Nashville, so he didn’t have the soccer team connotation. When he thinks about Chicago—Paul’s basically a solo singer-songwriter craftsman in Nashville. He did some gigs with the Wacos, and he liked our fierceness and noise. He said it was like he was strapped to a jet engine. He wanted to write something that epitomized that sound, that was barbaric. So he thought of the Great Chicago Fire. The Wacos have written a lot of songs that dealt with historical nonsense, so we thought it was a great idea.
We were talking in those terms right after I took my kids to Grant Park the night Obama was elected. There were guys on the street shouting, “There’s a black man running tonight, and he ain’t running from the police!” It was like a giant love-bomb went off. There were people saying we shouldn’t go, because if he didn’t get elected, there would be riots—but screw that. It was a beautiful November night sitting in the park. So I was talking to Paul about that, and we were referring back to the old fire.
AVC: Do you still feel that way about Barack Obama’s presidency? Like that there’s a magical air about it?
JL: I just think something will come about now. I think people will pick their sides. It’s still an amazing thing, if you have any understanding or knowledge of American history. There’s a black president now, and no one can take that away.
I was down on the Ole Miss campus, standing with my mate looking at statues of the glorious dead of the Confederate cause. I’d like to take a sledgehammer to those. There’s no record of the integration of the university. I mean, James Meredith went to Ole Miss in ’64 and needed helicopters and the National Guard to get him to class. He was harassed all the time. Now there’s a statue there of a black guy walking toward a door. At no point it says what he did, but it just looks like a black businessman that “opened the door to higher education.” I mean, for who? Why was the door shut? It’s a coy memorial to something fundamental and monumental. There are still people who haven’t come to grips with that. That applies here, too. Chicago is an extremely segregated city.
History moves in kind of a sluggish way, but Obama’s election was a start. You can’t say it’s never happened.