Preview of a new CD from Dan Schatz
and WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS Playlist for August 23, 2015
There are numerous songs that address the frailty of our environment. Numerous collections have gathered songs that point out the human impact upon our planet. Songs that address topics such as global warming, fracking, strip mining, oil spills and other ecological disasters might draw the spotlight to these concerns, but I find many often they miss how these issues directly impact you and I.
Dan Schatz has created an album that shows the connection between our treatment of the environment and the lives of the people who bring us the food we eat. On his new CD The Promise of the Sowing, Dan sings both to and for the “farmers, field hands and fisherfolk” – the people who depend on the ability of this planet to produce the food that each of us rely on to survive. The collection addresses the symbiotic relationship we all have, and does so in a highly entertaining and inspiring fashion.
By day, Dan is a minister at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Kensington, Maryland and later discovered the active folk community in Washington, DC. Since his early days, Dan has been immersed in folk music, first by singing songs with his family and by the age of 12 he was performing in concerts and festivals. He eventually started writing songs that are rooted in the traditional styles he came to love. In addition to making music, Dan was a 2010 Grammy nominee for his work as co-producer for two-CD set Singing Through the Hard Times – A Tribute to Utah Phillips. In 2014, he co-produced another critically acclaimed tribute CD: Dear Jean: Artists Celebrate Jean Ritchie.
Dan released his first solo CD in 2007, Bring the Morning Home, a collection of originals and favorite traditional and contemporary folk songs that were part of his performing repertoire. In 2010 he released a stunning CD and accompanying book called The Song and the Sigh that was inspired by his work as a Unitarian Universalist minister. The songs focused on hope, meaning and community and featured collaborations with Magpie, Lisa Null, Charlie Pilzer and others.
With his new CD, The Promise of the Sowing, Dan builds upon the community aspects of folk music by turning the focus on the shared human connection with the environment. The lives of the people who give us our food are celebrated and explored in this collection. Taking the commitment to community a step further, Dan worked with several songwriters to identify organizations that support environmental and cultural conservation so that portions of royalties can provide help to their efforts. Organizations that will benefit from sales of this CD include Appalachian Voices, Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, Young Tradition Vermont and the Southern African American Organic Farmers Network among others.
The title song was written during the BP oil spill of 2010 (Dan also sang it on an earlier visit to my radio show) and it explores the impact extracting fuel from the earth has on both farming and fishing communities. The song ends on a note of hope by pointing out that by working together, we can reverse the damage that has been done so that waters will once again run free, and the fields will be restored with “the promise of the sowing.”
There are 3 songs written by Dan that appear on this new CD, the remaining songs are a mix of traditional folk songs and contemporary songs from the likes of Si Kahn, Gordon Bok, Tish Hinojosa, Pete Sutherland, Jean Ritchie and others. It is interesting to see the perspective of age-old songs and how they deal with current situations. Songs like “Boll Weevil Holler” which Dan learned from the singing of Vera Ward Hall, tells about the destructive spread of the boll weevil which led to devastated crops and ultimately contributed to the Depression of the 1930s. Some of the other traditional songs that Dan includes are “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” (a chain gang work song from a sugar plantation), “Doney Gal” (a song sung by the fieldworking cowboys who experiences all kinds of conditions), and a lovely version of “Cluck Old Hen” (gotta love the chickens!). I remember singing versions of some of these songs as a child, blissfully unaware of the meanings behind the words. Today, as Dan beautifully illustrates on this recording, these songs serve as reminders and warnings while often celebrating the subjects an entertaining the listener.
Dan also sings a song written by Frank Proffitt called “Poor Man.” The song, written during the 1960s, tells the story of a farmer contending with a drought. The song gives us a sense of perspective since issues like climate change and extreme weather conditions were not being discussed when Proffitt wrote the song. In the song, the farmer walks up a hillside and looks at the sky and asks the Lord “what makes you let it get so dry?” Today, we ask the same question concerning the California drought but now we argue over whether or not mankind had a hand in creating the situation.
The CD concludes with one of the most inspiring versions that I have ever heard of Jean Ritchie’s “Now is the Cool of the Day.” Dan’s respectful version of this song features a simple banjo accompaniment and a chorus of the guest artists. Jean wrote the song that uses a biblical image of the earth and explores the covenant we have with the land. It is powerful and fitting way to bring this CD to a conclusion, and also a tribute to Jean who passed away on June 1.
Dan took a brief sabbatical in the summer of 2014 to record this CD. Holed up in his basement studio, Dan recorded all the tracks including harmonies from guests Kim and Reggie Harris, Mara Levine, Geeta Shivde, George Stephens, Dick Swain and Kathy Westra. With the exception of some upright bass from Charlie Pilzer, Dan performs all the instrumentals on his new CD: autoharp, dulcimer, cittern, laúd, banjo and guitar. Dan also provides a booklet with lyrics and some brief background about the songs, plus Dan’s original sources in some cases. He also provides links to the organizations that benefit from this recording.
Today when we listen to the news, pickup a newspaper, or read comments on Facebook pages, we often find disturbing stories about the condition of this planet as well as arguments from individuals who disagree on the path to take. A listen to The Promise of the Sowing remind us that we are sustained by a family of individuals who harvest the field, fish the streams and oceans or tend the cattle that eventually makes it to our table. Knowing where our food sources come from and learning about the lives of the people who make it possible may give us a greater respect for the way our planet is treated. It may sound over simplified and clichéd, but the reality is that we are all involved, and as Dan points our through his music, as a community we can make a difference.