Within a couple of days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the police, a group of musicians from the Santa Cruz Mountains released an exhilarating and inspired—not to mention supremely well-produced—music video that serves as a balm against the violence and chaos now engulfing the country.
How did they do that so fast?
Answer: They didn’t.
The video is certainly the result of the talent and hard work of Summit resident Louis Niemann and his musician friends and family. But its timing and relevance to the police protests gripping the nation is purely coincidental.
Released on Friday, May 29, on YouTube, the uplifting version of the 1971 Cat Stevens hit “Peace Train” was conceived, recorded, and produced throughout the month of May as a nod to encouragement and solidarity in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The link to the police protests “never crossed our minds,” says Kevin Arnold, the videographer who originally sparked the idea.
Nevertheless, the video attracted more than 50,000 views by Tuesday, June 2, perhaps because it was offering an antidote to the strife and ugliness of the national news.
“It has definitely exceeded all expectations in terms of how many people have seen it, but also the effect it’s had on people,” says Arnold, also a resident of the Summit area of the Santa Cruz Mountains. “This was really a way to distract ourselves from the whole Covid-19 scene and be able to concentrate on something other than world events.”
The video features around 20 performers, including several taking turns at lead vocals. It works not only as a showcase for a small circle of talented musicians in one particular community, but also as a gift from that community to the wider world.
Louis Niemann is the patriarch of a musical mountain family that includes his wife Jean and his adult children Teo, Sean, Maggie, and Oliver. Together, the Niemanns put together the Santa Cruz Mountain Jam, a free summer musical festival in the area. Louis and Jean also play in their own bands, the Summit Boys and the Summit Sisters, respectively.
Arnold, a friend who has helped with the Mountain Jam in recent years, called Louis with an idea. Why not produce a music video where musicians could come together online in a way that they cannot while sheltering in place? Arnold had been particularly inspired by a version of “The Weight” by the Band that had been released in the summer of 2019. That video featured such luminaries as Ringo Starr and Robbie Robertson jamming with musicians from all over the world.
Louis loved the idea, and enlisted his family in finding the right song. After floating and then rejecting a few songs, Louis credits his son Teo with the idea for “Peace Train,” a buoyant ode to optimism in the face of darkness. (Teo is the first musician seen in the video, playing the guitar with his mother Jean at the Niemann family home.)
The Niemanns called in several friends and neighbors in the area—he called them “the A Team”—to contribute, with lead vocals shared by Louis, his daughter Maggie Niemann, singer/guitarist Isaac Cornelius and vocalist Marisa Thompson. The video also include a wide array of instrumentalists playing banjo, mandolin, Hammond B3 organ, violin, slide guitar, harp, drums, and electric and upright bass. Bassist Antonio Rodriguez served as the video’s arranger and sound engineer. Most of the performers were shot in natural outdoor surroundings.
“The song really has some tremendous dynamics to it,” says Louis Niemann. “It starts sort of stripped down, then builds up as this great way to have the community all join the Peace Train.”
Arnold says that he has been working at a startup to figure out a way to take some of the negativity out of social media.
“I was really blown away by how many people responded to it,” Arnold says, “and how much it meant to them. I knew we had something special because even after it was all done and posted, I’d still go back and watch it, enjoying it for the umpteenth time.”
Louis Niemann acknowledged the coincidental linkage to the political unrest in the country and says he hopes that the “Peace Train” project can bring about a sense of hope and joy.
“It’s just this tremendous storm right now,” he says. “All these things happening have this addictive effect to them. I think back to the ’60s and the Watts riots and the convergence with the anti-war movement and the flower-power movement. The difference now, by comparison, is that young people of today are constantly bombarded the 24-hour news cycle—oh, here’s another person getting their head bashed in. (As a result), young people are really sad and distraught over this. I witness this is my son and daughter. Overwhelmingly, the comments (on YouTube about the video) reflect something that is desperately needed.”