A Murder of Songs: Rebellious American Folk Music by Grant Peeples
Grant Peeples has been a keen and critical observer of the American condition for five decades ever since a friend introduced him to Bob Dylan songs. Through many years on the road, running a night club/music venue in Tallahassee, and after a ten-year stint on an isolated island off the coast of Nicaragua, Peeples returned to writing with a vengeance. He wrote poetry and songs that turned a critical eye on American culture and identity, the very definition of contemporary folk music. I remember about ten or twelve years ago, before I became familiar with his music, seeing a friend wearing a black t-shirt inscribed with a Grant Peeples classic line from one of his songs:
“It’s hard to start a revolution when your face is six feet from your television.”
Like many other cultural critics, his songs and shows are less about presentation than they are about substance. His granular vocals are a perfect vehicle for his fearless opinions and humorous observations. One reviewer famously noted that Peeples was the only songwriter he “…ever thought to call ruthless.” Another reviewer called him “…the Woody Guthrie of the New Millennium.” He’s is credited with eleven studio albums, three books of poetry, several live recordings, and a series of multimedia extended videos made during the pandemic called “Clay Tablets.”
His new album, Murder of Songs, is a collection of nine songs recorded over two years in the throes of the pandemic and in ten different recording studios. Despite that challenge, the album provides a cohesive message of reflection, anger, and wistfulness about current socio-political conditions in the U.S.
The album’s opener is the only non-original song, a slow, somber, spare redo of Mark Knopfler’s classic anti-war anthem “Brothers in Arms.”
Now the sun’s gone to hell, and the moon is riding high
So, let me bid you farewell, my friends, every man, he has to die
But it’s written in the starlight and every line there in your palm
That we’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms
“This is the Good News” reflects the uncertainty and sadness of life today.
Anything is possible when nothing is for sure
Anyone can do these things, things never done before
This is the good news, this is the bad news.
Listen to the children, hear what the children say.
They’re crying out for peace and love, they’re crying for today
Might have to leave here soon – start a new old way.
We gotta make it out so it don’t catch up with us someday
“Revolutionary Reel!” was written shortly after the death of George Floyd. The sprightly music, provided by banjo player Scott Anderson and fiddler Christian Ward, belie the primary message: it may be time for action.
Though I’m not here to say I know what a dead man feels
Might be time to abandon caution, a little action instead of talking
Play a little revolutionary reel.
Peeples’ comment about “Dear Sadie,” written for his grandniece, is that it might be the most complete song he has ever written. A nod to the ancestors who were on the wrong side, a prayer for her future, it evokes the threads of what contemporary folk music should be.
There’s just two kinds of people in the world, little girl
But both of them are in you, the two are right there beside you
And you’ll become which of the two you choose to be you
Which is part of what I’d hoped to have the chance to teach you
That, and how to sharpen-up a word, sing a ringing Dylan verse
Read some Mary Oliver, play an E chord on guitar
I’d hoped to try, but I’m afraid we’ll miss that ride
“Insurrection Song” was written shortly after the storming of the capital in 2021. With the support of some of northeast Florida’s finest musicians, Lis and Lon Williamson and Michael Lagasse, it’s a take-no-prisoners scream at the purveyors of lies and violence behind the attempt. I suspect Kristofferson would be pleased with the repurposing and revision of some of his best-known lyrics.
It was an insurrection, so patriots must stand
And heed the call for justice and let leniency be damned
Cause freedom’s just another word for all we have to lose
Let the sonsabitches rot in jail for what they tried to do.
A manifesto in support of his rebellious friends is the theme of “The Restless Ones.”
I’ve always run with the restless ones
Those whose dreams won’t let um sleep at night
Misfits and wanderers, and wrestlers of Time;
Artists & rebels who will pick a fight
I keep’ um close, don’t let ‘um slip away,
Cause they got ‘it’ and it’s the only thing
The only thing I ever count on, cause…
I’ve always run with the restless ones.
Repurposing an older song may not be done very commonly, but 2007’s “Liberal with a Gun” fits perfectly with the theme of this album, and in fact much of his ethos.
No, it wasn’t without warning, now it’s officially begun
They better look out though, for liberals who still have guns
I know they’re locked and loaded, but they ain’t the only ones
I say, no, they ain’t the only ones
“Elisabeth,” written to a close friend and fellow traveler, is the very definition of what friends are for.
Elisabeth, is it just the coffee talking?
As I struggle thru the fog of yet another brutal morning
I am wishing I was there, with you in your sacred garden
Sipping from that cup of wisdom that we have come to share
Anything we choose to sing can and will be used against us
The swing-infused “Let’s Start Killing Each Other” is a classic Peeples song: a touch of shock, humor and sarcasm that is over-the-top… but not by much.
Got your leftwing, rightwing, your black and white
Conservatives and Liberals just itching for a fight
When you know they’re wrong and they swear they’re right
You can bet there’s gonna be trouble
So, just whip out a switchblade, pull out a gun
Pistol whip some sumbitch just for fun
And don’t stop dealing till the dealing’s done.
Till we start killing each other
It’s always a temptation to stereotype artists. Peeples is an activist, a humorist, a poet, a folksinger, a protest singer, even a touch of performance artist (at some of his homegrown shows he castnets mullet beforehand and cooks them for attendees). He’s all of those. One of his favorite sayings is “make art, people.” Fundraising on Kickstarter for this project, he hired an artist to create an outside wall with individual crows with names of those who helped fund the project. So I think the best simple description of Grant Peeples is that he’s an artist. And this album, like most of his art, is meant to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” borrowing a line from Finley Peter Dunne, and that’s what it does. His songs are the antithesis of hooks, ear candy, and popular music in general… but they make you think, whether you agree with him or not. And that’s the purpose of art.