Watersheds of south Florida

Behind the song

Behind every great song …

Is the story behind the song.

Bobby Angel discusses his song about the Gunpowder River

In this exclusive interview, singer/songwriter Bobby Angel provides cryptic clues and other nuggets about the making of the song. Topics include why he chose the Gunpowder River over the Mighty Susquehanna River right next door, why the song shares similarities to a parking lot at a trailhead, and why the Gunpowder River is more complicated and has a richer history than at first glance.

Backstory: The song took about a week to write from the start to finish. The opening line came to me while hiking the river trail on the Little Gunpowder with my brother a few days after Christmas. I abandoned an early “simpler” version of the song a day later in favor of a more complicated tale between the “old mill” run of the river and its upstream modern-day reservoir. But it wasn’t until a week later in Florida that I tied the song together with a few tweaks and the final two lines of the last stanza.

But a song is never complete for a “nature folk” troubadour as myself until sit down for the “interview after the song.” I’ll also have to sing it a couple dozen times to really seer it into my memory. And even then, songs have to be played over and over again to really meld the vocals with the guitar and bring the true meaning and feeling of the song out.

Read the lyrics

Listen to the song

bobby angel

Ode to a river
Pretty Boy and the Gunpowder music video

To be honest I was miffed:

How could cartographers leave the Gunpowder out?

Words and music by Bobby Angel

My response was to right this song. Yes, the Susquehanna River is the Chesapeake Bay’s largest tributary, and the Potomac River is bigger too and also drains the Shenandoah Valley. But to look at a map of the drainages of the Chesapeake Bay and to leave the Gunpowder out downright irked me on too many levels to count. But what is a hydrologist to do? And who do I complain to? My philosophy: Never complain and never explain, and rather get down to the business at hand. And specifically, that means telling the story of a pretty special river that sadly people don’t know exists, or sorely misunderstand. The opening line to the song came to me while hiking the river trail just above Jerusalem Mills. I refined the lyrics in the following days in the loft overlooking a brook that feeds the river. But it wasn’t until returning to Florida that I finally put the final touches on the song, and in particularly the last two lines.

Where does this song rank in the Maryland song canon? Behind the Star Spangled Banner and Maryland My Maryland, I’m having trouble coming up with a third. That being the case, I’ll rank it 2nd since Maryland My Maryland is a knock off of Oh Tanenbaum.


Outdoor classroom
And why this plateau isn't flat

Harford County is awfully hilly

for being on a plateau.

Rapid run on Big Gunpowder River
Yazoo tributary on Big Gunpowder
Dry meander scar on Little Gunpowder
Logjam from a collapsed undercut bank
Small tributary feeding into main stem

I never really thought about that as a kid. But looking back, we were always taught that the Piedmont Plateau was the region’s dominant physiographic landform. That would imply a certain amount of flatness that the region noticeably lacks. Even the rivers and creeks are hilly, rapidly ascending in grade. The hills are most noticeably from the river beds. Except they are not hills: they are the top of the plateau!


Floodplain features
Working river returns to nature

Hiking the Gunpowder River …

is a study in floodplain dynamics.

Cross section of the Gunpowder River Valley

Not just a single or simple valley that the stream sometimes overtops, a hike along the trail is a living textbook on the many features and geomorphic processes in action. Rapids for example usually occur where larger rock outcrops are visible on the hillside. And it’s not just a single channel. Also periodically present are yazoo tributaries, oxbow lakes, backswamps made soggier by logjam pools and dry meander scars that the river once cut out. But maybe my favorite feature is the older terraces that form a stairstep from the modern-day floodplain to the adjacent hillside. Today, the terraces are home to very large trees. So they haven’t flooded for quite some time. But how long? Was it a feature from the higher flow rates experienced in the waning days of the last ice age? Or has upstream Pretty Boy and Loch Raven Dams reduced river flows below a point that water makes it up onto that second step?

Another feature I didn’t show was the many archaeological remnants from the pioneer days. They too leave me to wonder: Today, the corridor is a nature preserve, but for the original settlers, it was a working river that powered many a mill.

Stream’s biggest fish

While other fathers took their sons hiking in the woods, or fishing in streams, and for an elite few, golfing at the country club …

My father found a unique way of combining all three.

The waters run deep

First, he’d roll the car to a stop at an undesignated shoulder of twisty country road. Then he’d cut off the engine. The “official” entrance of Winters Run country club was just over the rise, and, more importantly for my father

Out of sight.  

Two doors down, my friend’s father was an “official” member of the club.

Father and son time for them was perfecting the fine art of the golf swing.

Meanwhile, there I was  at the same golf course, but instead of sizing up the distance to the flag out on the middle of the fairway, in plain sight (with golf clubs and sporting the latest trend in spiked shoes), I was following my father under the cover of the tree line, wearing our oldest sneakers and holding my telescopic ball scoop.  By the time we reached the crooked run of rapids right in front of the 16th green the objective of our clandestine mission was clear.

The treasure trove of golf balls that had fallen short and lay submerged beneath.

Can you see the golf balls?

In short order we’d collected our fill.

Easier than catching fish from a bucket, it didn’t take long to pull to shore a good dozen or two balls, all the while marveling at the hubris of the golfers for so cavalierly leaving them behind.

Meanwhile, my father made the discovery of the day:

The mother lode of golf balls! The bounty was apparently corralled by an eddy collected in a hole, where they rested, predictably, just out of reach of the telescopic arm.  And so it was, my father walked across the plank of rocks to give it a better look.  The next thing I remember was a very big splash.

Father and son.  My dad had a thing for brightly colored ties.

Part karma and part fate:

My father got completely wet.

And yes, on that day (and many others) he was the biggest fish in the stream.

End note: My father insisted I play hole 17 and 18 on the way out.  And who was I to argue with my father even though I knew it wasn’t right?  Between looking for my friend, a country club official, and even the police (none of which showed up), I remember striking a good iron shot up onto the green of the 18th hole, and “one putting” it in.  By that time it was pretty much completely dark.  And yes my dad was still completely soaking wet.

Happy fathers day!