Back in the early 1990s, Peter Panyon was taking part in a weeklong workshop for college professors focused on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries when inspiration struck while cruising the Patuxent River.
“It occurred to me: Wait a minute, there’s a story to tell here,” Panyon remembered. “I was thinking, ‘Man, somebody should write a song about that, and nobody’s going to do it if it’s not me.’”
A biology professor by trade, Panyon would write and re-write the song over the years on the way to perfecting “Can’t Work the River.” The ballad tracing a watermen’s struggles was included on his band Big Tribe’s debut album in 2014, and its music video is now part of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum’s special exhibition The Changing Chesapeake.
On Sept. 28 at 7pm, Panyon and his Big Tribe bandmates Bonnie Eyler and Joe Huette will present “Songs About the Water,” an evening of songs and stories with a dose of science at CBMM’s Van Lennep Auditorium.
This “Changing Chesapeake Coffeehouse” concert will feature fare provided by Blue Heron Coffee of St. Michaels and highlight songs drawing inspiration from local rivers to the Gulf oil spill and hurricane disasters.
The suggested ticket price is $15 per participant for this event, which is sponsored by the Upper Shore Regional Folklife Center. To register and get more information, visit cbmm.org/SongsAboutWater.
Panyon has married two of his passions in coming up with a catalog to fill a concert like this.
The Calvert County resident is now retired after a lengthy career teaching biology at the University of Maryland, Catholic University, and Prince George’s Community College.
As a musician, Panyon has written hundreds of songs, dating back to his teenage years. Recently, he’s catalyzed Big Tribe, which has released two albums of eclectic rock tracks with a new one, “Postcards from the Mission,” due out later this year.
Those experiences have helped Panyon carve out a unique lane as a songwriter with something to say.
“Your normal rock and roll about cars and girls, that’s not what we do,” Panyon said. “What we’re really up to is trying to hit people with music that, while they’re having fun with it, there’s a message in there that hopefully we get them to think about.”
The “Can’t Work the River” video debuted in 2016 at a conference on teaching science through alternative media at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
Now, the 5-minute, 25-second video that features two watermen from different generations grappling with the realities of working the Patuxent River is finding a new audience as part of The Changing Chesapeake, which is on exhibit through next March.
“I want to at least crack open the door that leads to thinking about this scientifically,” Panyon said. “Yes, it’s a story about a guy, and he lost his woman, and he’s having trouble making a living, but when you dive beneath the surface of that story, there’s this other story about what’s actually going wrong. Why is this way of life that’s millennia old getting more and more iffy?”
In concert, Panyon aims to expand on these important themes.
While Big Tribe’s albums feature big sound from a full band with bass drums, electric guitars, and an array of complementary instruments, its acoustic shows with Panyon, Eyler, and Huette are more easygoing, free-flowing, and even interactive.
“It’s not just music,” Panyon said. “We’re going to throw a little science in, and we’re totally open to having a dialogue.”
The set list for these live shows goes in different directions with various meditations on the importance of valuing our waterways, including another track with roots in the 1990s and a literal earnestness to its title, “We Are the River.”
As he prepares for his CBMM gig, Panyon is excited that he’s found a perfect partner to help him share these songs that mean so much to him.
“Most bands are looking to play big venues like stadiums,” Panyon said with a chuckle. “For us, it’s museums. We want to do as many museums as possible, and once we’ve conquered the museum world, then we’re going for the stadiums.”