War between the states of mind: Dave Brooks swims out of the streams of history
By Hank Hoffman
Rock musician Dave Brooks, who leads the band The Streams, has history in his musical history. Some 20 years ago — inspired by the Ken Burns documentary series on the Civil War and his reading of Shelby Foote’s account of the conflict — Brooks wrote an album’s worth of songs from the varying perspectives of participants in the war.
In the early 1990s, The Streams played the songs live, released a couple of seven-inch 45s, and placed one or two other songs on compilations. And then life took over. Brooks went to culinary school, bought and ran Judie’s Bakery, and, with his wife Jami, devoted himself to raising their two sons. For almost two decades, there was little time for music. The recordings were put on the shelf.
In the past few years, that has changed. Two years ago, Brooks revisited the recordings of his Civil War songs, had them remastered, and released them as the CD “Today I Died.” Recorded simply and with not a lot of studio affectation to eight- and sixteen-track tape in the late 20th century, the record still sounds vibrant and contemporary in the 21st century, notwithstanding its 19th century subject matter.
The songs are chiming, heartfelt, rocking. One hears the sweat, the fear, the courage.
‘I invented my own language with these chords.’
The Streams are playing regularly again; the current lineup features Bill Beckett on lead guitar, Jeff Wiederschall on drums, and Dean Falcone on bass, as well as Brooks on acoustic guitar and vocals. Brooks has written a lot of new material. But don’t expect a bleak ode about Andersonville or a furious rave-up inspired by Sherman’s March. Most of the new material is more personally oriented.
“At the time I wrote and recorded these songs, I thought I was on to something I hadn’t seen before and that was exciting,” Brooks tells me in his music studio at his Branford home. “What if we just do songs about the Civil War?”
Brooks says that the writing of “Tired Boy” was the first time he took something “topical” and crafted a song rather than mining the standard singer-songwriter material of the self.
“It was almost easier to look through the eyes of a character or a situation. It was a freeing experience,” says Brooks.
“Once I started writing these songs, I didn’t want to have a perspective that was one-sided,” says Brooks. Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, Brooks notes, “was not judgmental. It was about people and their experiences.”
Similarly, multiple perspectives are voiced in the songs on “Today I Died.”
In “After the Standard,” the protagonist is a Southerner, anguished and angered about the forces invading his land.
“My sister writes when the yanks broke in/split the door in two and set the place in flames,” sings Brooks.
The perspective in “Willards,” on the other hand, is that of General Ulysses Grant, visiting Washington, D.C., after overseeing battles that turned the tide of war in the North’s favor. Like many of the songs on the record, it was sparked by a passage in Foote’s book.
“He’s taken aback by the pomp and circumstance and the politics,” Brooks recalls reading in Foote’s book.
The song gets its title from the hotel where Grant stayed, taking whatever room was offered.
“I wanted to project him as a humble guy,” Brooks says. “He’s exhausted on a mental level and on an emotional level, coming from the war into a city where there is a crazy cocktail party at the White House where elitists are discussing this in an intellectual way while for him it was his everyday struggle.”
In remastering the recordings, Brooks came across a song or two he had almost forgotten, including “Powder Monkey,” which reads as a recollection years after the fact of a sailor who lost a hand loading a ship’s cannon when he was a boy. It was the job of the “powder monkey” — often a boy 12-14 years old — to fetch the gunpowder from the powder magazine.
“If we’re going to sit around here and drink all night/and discuss our misdeeds and misfortunes/you see this stump here at the end of my arm/it nearly stretched me to my furthest tether,” Brooks sings in the opening verse.
“The whole song was inspired by a picture of a boy standing in a cocky way on a ship by a cannon. It’s one of the clearest pictures I’ve ever seen from the Civil War,” recalls Brooks. “As cocky and proud as the kid is, I tried to read between the lines.”
Brooks didn’t turn up much in researching the term “powder monkey.” But indicative of the danger these boys faced, he did learn that they had to wear felt slippers.
“The shoes back then had nails in them,” he says. “If they went into the powder room and you scuffed a nail and it hit something steel, it could ignite the entire ship.”
Brooks didn’t arrange the songs in an old-timey fashion, although he did add some mandolin and banjo licks on a few tracks. But every song on the record was written with his guitar tuned to dacgce rather than the standard E A D G B E.
“It just seemed to go with all these songs,” he says. “It had that drone-y kind of evocative chords. I invented my own language with these chords.
“For me, playing in standard tuning sounds like every other song I’ve ever heard. I’m always thinking about how to get away from that and to make it my own,” says Brooks.
“I don’t want to be about just one thing. I’m not a historical songwriter,” says Brooks. “But I did do that with this body of work.”
For now, writing Civil War songs is history.