Steven Gellman spent years writing songs about what he calls “safe” topics: tea, love, dogs, nature and the elderly. But recently, the Germantown folk singer-songwriter decided to use his music to take a stand on issues he feels passionate about — even if it leads to a few walk-outs.
Although Gellman’s 2010 album is titled “Peaceful World,” several of its songs evoke gut-wrenching images and thought-provoking ideas. It is the first of his five albums to have political messages.
“I tried to take a bit of a left turn this time, and it is exciting and scary at the same time,” he says.
While still softly strumming the guitar, Gellman sings about a little girl with animal blood on her hands, and a boy who gets shot in the back of his head for being gay, topics that leap into territory that have inflamed some audience members.
The most controversial of his songs is the impassioned “Suffer the Children, Suffer the Animals” which he wrote after reading a story in The Washington Post about a young girl who killed a bear while hunting in the mountains of Western Maryland after her father took her out of school for the day.
“The media and the news was all about, ‘Look, look, this 8-year old shot a bear!’ and really glorifying it, and I was reading it and I had tears coming out of my eyes because I thought, ‘What is it teaching this child this violence?’” Gellman says.
The song has earned him some disdain from the gun-rights and hunting communities, and even caused one of his shows at a West Virginia venue to be canceled temporarily. He later worked things out and has played several shows at the venue.
“This is a first for me, actually having a song where people will get up and leave, that they will not like it, feeling very strongly about it,” Gellman says. “It’s exciting and terrifying.”
Another song, “Things We Don’t Understand,” is about anti-gay bullying, originally inspired by the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. While Gellman wrote part of the song years ago, he revamped it when a recent string of youth killings and suicides associated with gay bullying made headlines.
Some of the political tunes may not be favorites across the board, but Gellman’s live performances are successful because he tailors his music to fit the crowd, according to his friend Lynda Cozart, 66, of Takoma Park.
“I don’t know if he is the type of person to alienate his audience just to make a point,” she says.
After meeting Gellman more than eight years ago at a concert for the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, the two became close friends, bonding over their passions for animal rights and veganism, Cozart says. She is proud of the “super nice guy” for taking a stand with his music.
The feedback Gellman is used to hearing about his music is usually positive. His 1997 release “Photobook” was nominated for four awards by the Washington Area Music Association (WAMA) and for Debut Albumn of the Year by The Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards (GLAMA). At the 2010 WAMA awards, “Peaceful World” was nominated for Folk Album of the Year and Gellman, for Folk-Contemporary Male Vocalist of the Year.
It may make some people squirm, but Gellman believes folk music is supposed to inspire discussions.
“Folk music tells stories. You don’t listen to folk music for the beat. You don’t dance to folk music,” Gellman says. “Folk music makes you think, and it tells a story and it draws you in just like a novel.”
But Gellman’s latest release isn’t all grim and gory. The 13-track “Peaceful World” includes many of the fun, lighthearted, uplifting tunes fans of his earlier work will find familiar.
The Montgomery County native picked up the guitar in high school and originally played in various rock garage bands. He eventually ditched his less committed band mates and unplugged his guitar.
“At the time I really wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll,” Gellman said. “I put together different bands and we were all learning to play our instruments together, but no one was ever quite as serious about it as I was.”
Gellman later launched a career in folk music, writing and producing his own albums on his label, Hidden Poet Music. Now with five independent releases under his belt, he is not usually one to upset people with his music. He often performs in local nursing homes, schools and churches as a way to pay the bills without taking a “day job.”
“A lot of people can’t believe I’m still doing this and making a living at it,” Gellman says.
He sings oldies for Alzheimer’s patients, performs for inner city church groups, even though he is Jewish, and even had a gig playing at the White House for people waiting in line for their tour to begin.
“I’m just happy playing or singing anywhere,” Gellman says.
As he looks ahead toward writing and producing a sixth album, Gellman plans to continue writing songs that inspire him, and are meaningful to him, regardless of the reaction to it.
“I write music and songs because I love it. I have such a passion for music and I write what moves me and if someone else likes it, that is just icing on the cake.
Steven Gellman will perform a free concert at 7 p.m. Saturday at the City Hall Concert Pavilion, 31 South Summit Ave, Gaithersburg. Call 301-258-6350 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov.