The Mekons’ Jon Langford fights for scholarship at the Antioch School Auction Gala
By Amanda Dee
Photo: Jon Langford’s ‘Star, Map, Cowboys,’ at Emporium Wines March 4
His work, whether he’s playing with British punk rock group The Mekons or Chicago’s alt country Waco Brothers, among many projects, reacts to his present world.
Today, in Chicago with two kids of his own, Langford expresses concern about the current state of education, pointing to the political attack against the U.S. Department of Education. So, when friends asked him to perform at the Antioch School’s Auction Gala, he decided to finally appease their requests to visit Yellow Springs. The gala, March 4 at Antioch College’s Foundry Theater, raises scholarship funds though auctions and ticket sales, and includes hors d’oeuvres from Current Cuisine, an open wine bar, and dessert.
Take note: The Antioch School isn’t your run-of-the-mill elementary school. Students work with teachers to establish the rules and curriculum. Report cards don’t exist; students learn through experience. They ride unicycles.
Excluding the unicycles, Langford similarly describes a seminal class at Leeds University and immersion in ’70s and ’80s punk rock culture.
“You had to be able to explain yourself, talk about it, place it in a context,” he recalls of the class taught by a renowned art historian. “He was quite forceful about the idea that you made art about the world around you and your relationship to power, money, sexuality, etc. …And at the same time, we have punk rock, which inspired me to become a musician… which was this great, democratizing force on music, on rock and roll… The idea of punk rock was to question authority and to make art that described our immediate surroundings in the world we lived in. So these two things kind of came together for me, and it’s all stuck with me, with my painting and my music.”
Despite the “rigorous, intellectual, and very left wing” ideas Langford absorbed, he started college “on the horizon” of Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the states. And despite his observation of punk philosophy to challenge systems of power, he wasn’t interested in its nuclear offensive strategy. Hence, the unthinkable happened.
“We became drawn to resistance music like reggae and blues and even white, American country western music, which I’d always thought was some sort of repellant right wing nonsense that I wouldn’t like,” he says. “I found it was just another branch of folk music with people telling great stories with amazing characters in it, like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.”
When Langford traveled to America and met Cash during the country icon’s era of relative obscurity, he got what listeners got from him: “everyone is welcome.” “That’s what impressed me with him,” he continues. “He could make a country western album about the plight of Native Americans, or take the music into prisons, or go and visit aboriginal people in Australia.”
The man in black haunts some of Langford’s music and appears in Langford’s paintings, as well, particularly in his early work.
Regardless of medium, “I think it all comes from the same part of my brain,” he considers. “I was looking at country western music as something I was trying to explain to myself, what I loved about it and what I hated about it.”
In the ’80s, when The Mekons faded out, then back in, they started a string of benefit concerts for U.K. coal miners on strike. That string is tied to Langford, who shines a little light on causes he cares about whenever he can.
“I feel very political, sometimes with a small ‘p,’ in the sense that it’s not like chest-beating political activism but I’m part of a conversation,” he explains. “I like the idea that the culture and the art that I’m involved in is a big pool, and there’s room for conversations and description of the world, rather than just ‘smash the system.’”
When Langford moved to Chicago in the ’90s, he joined more bands in addition to the anti-death penalty movement, when he met violinist Jean Cook, who brings melody to his drum-like guitar playing at the Auction Gala.
Another art form that attracted Langford, especially as a child, was the comic strip. He illustrated one under the pseudonym Chuck Death, and his original band derived its name from the panels of another, the Dan Dare series, which followed a space pilot of the future. The Mekon, the band’s namesake, always manages to escape, only to return with another plot to conquer the planet. “So it was kind of a Thatcher/Trump figure,” he jests. Multiplying that all evil-encompassing villain was the band’s joke.
Langford manifests in Yellow Springs this weekend, but if he appears to be everywhere, it’s an illusion of light, as he shines some on what he considers the next Mekon, which will always be back with a vengeance.
The Auction Gala takes place Saturday, March 4 at Antioch College’s Foundry Theater, 920 Corry St. in Yellow Springs. Tickets are $55. Jon Langford’s exhibit opens from 3–6 p.m. at Emporium Wines/Underdog Café, 233 Xenia Ave. in Yellow Springs. He performs with Jean Cook Saturday at 6 p.m. To buy tickets or for more information, please call 937.767.7642 or visit AntiochSchool.org. For more information on Jon Langford and his work, please visit