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A War Song for Our Times from Gretchen Peters

December 31, 2014

blackbirds400Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters’ new album “Blackbirds” is out early in the year, but I am not going to review it as a whole. Suffice it to say that it is good and that parts of it were redolent of Leonard Cohen, which, from me, Peters should take as the highest compliment.

But rather than talk about the album, I thought I would focus on one track – “When All You Got Is A Hammer” – which strikes me as a song for our times.

A bit like the Mel Tillis song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”, made famous by Kenny Rodgers and The First Edition, “Hammer” is about the effluence of war, the soldiers discarded by a supposedly grateful country once their duty is done. Living in America as I did in the 1970s and 1980s, you did not have to look very far for such people. Vietnam was still an open wound with its troubled veterans quietly haunting the place.

Tillis’ “Ruby” may or may not be about Vietnam. It refers simply to “that crazy Asian war”. I have seen a least one reference to it being Korea. But it doesn’t matter. Similarly, Peters’ protagonist “came home from the desert with a medal on his chest”. It could be Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The men in both these songs have been maimed – but in very different ways. In “Ruby”, the damage is physical, so bad that he can’t keep his wife from wandering to get what she needs. From the start of “Hammer”, though, we learn that Peters’ ex-soldier is crippled by something psychological.

There’s a Bible on the table, there’s a bottle on the shelf
There’s a woman in the kitchen, crying quietly to herself
Down the hallway, in the bedroom, he can hear his children wail
When all you go ist a hammer, everything looks like a nail

One of the more biting comments in the song refers to something that most people who have been through something unreal feel when they return to “normality”. Peters’ veteran returns from thr desert with a medal and (unlike his Vietnam counterparts) widely hailed as a champion. But he “felt more like a guest”.

Lest any of your reading this think that it trendy or overstated, allow me to refer you to the Journal of Clinical Psychology of June 2012. Researchers collected data from  1,388 Iraq and Afghanistan War  veterans from all 50 U.S. states and military branches. It found a third of respondents said they had committed an act of aggression toward others during the past year, albeit mostly minor aggressive behaviour.

As Peters so beautifully puts it:

They show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill
They don’t show you what to do with this hole you cannot fill



From → Music, Music Review

One Comment
  1. That song should go to the Wounded Warrior Project as a theme song

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