Dan Schatz - now where have I heard that name before? you'll be thinking… Well in my case it was in association with two exceptional (and deservedly widely-acclaimed) multi-artist album projects which were conceived in celebration of Jean Ritchie and Utah Phillips respectively, and in the production of which Dan played a key role. What I didn't realise then was that Dan had previously also recorded two solo albums (2007's Sing The Morning Home and 2010's The Song And The Sigh) that in their inspirational choice of material both reflected his deep respect for tradition and voiced his strong sense of social justice.
The Promise Of The Sowing is to all intents and purposes both a deliberate sequel to that pair of solo albums and a perfect companion to the Ritchie and Phillips projects. It brings together the various strands of Dan's repertoire, while expressing at every turn the spirit of determination and hope and the rock-solid integrity of his beliefs in an eloquent and thoroughly accessible musical language that's firmly in the folk tradition of Guthrie and Seeger, while taking cues and deriving inspiration from not only Dan's aforementioned key role-models Utah Phillips and Jean Ritchie but also other important latter-day exponents of the craft of songwriting like Si Kahn, who has himself, in the disc's liner note, prominently endorsed Dan's own "gift to be simple". Dan repays the compliment here by covering Si's 1970s classic of hope and renewal Gone, Gonna Rise Again, whose eternal theme chimes so well with Dan's own composition which constitutes the CD's title track. This, although originally penned in direct response to the 2010 BP oil spill, is still all too relevant today in its detailed consideration of the wider implications, cultural and environmental, of extracting fuel for energy (by whatever means).
That title song is one of only three of Dan's superb compositions to grace the CD, all of which share the quality of true perspicacity in their observation of change, chronicling hard times with a degree of nostalgia for better years but also telling of perseverance, justice and respect. The earliest of these, One Last Look Behind, dates from 1993, and poignantly voices the plight of small farmers at the mercy of banks and changing cultures (destined to be a kind of honorary companion to songs like George Papavgeris' Empty-Handed and Stan Rogers' Field Behind The Plow from my own personal songbook); while In The Old Days, written in 1998, laments the decline and fall of the commercial fishing industry on the eastern seaboard, and again to my mind carries distinct resonances of the writing of Stan Rogers (and a comparable melodic facility too).
The legacy of Frank Profitt also figures large for Dan; here he covers Frank's simple but powerful Poor Man - a song examining the theme of climate change, which incredibly was written right back in 1968 - while also turning in a spirited version of the traditional Cluck Old Hen (learnt from Frank's singing). Further evidence of Dan's keen aptitude for unearthing the best of other songwriters is provided by the inclusion of Gordon Bok's powerful opus The Kind Land (a song which originated in a dream), concerning the displacement of farming and fishing cultures by successive waves of newcomers, and 1800 And Froze To Death, Pete Sutherland's setting of a poem telling of an early (1816) example of climate change occasioned by a natural phenomenon (a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia).
Finally, bringing together the twin themes of the effects of change and man's relationship to the land, Dan closes this album (which is dedicated to Jean Ritchie's memory) with a magnificent (and brand new) arrangement of Jean's iconic Now Is The Cool Of The Day. On this track, Dan and his banjo are joined by a seven-strong vocal chorus (Mara Levine, Kim & Reggie Harris, Geeta Shivde, George Stephens, Dick Swain and Kathy Westra), some of whose members also variously bring supportive harmony vocals to a number of other songs (notably a strong a cappella rendition of the Lomax-collected chain-gang song Ain't No More Cane On The Brazos, and the "quiet cowboy song" Doney Gal). Dan conveys the crucial messages of his chosen songs through a vocal delivery that's considered, earnest and intense and yet capable of exercising a quiet restraint in its expression. And as far an instrumental accompaniment is concerned, aside from very occasional upright bass (Charlie Pilzer), all backing comes from Dan himself, playing six- and twelve-string guitars, autoharp, banjo, Appalachian dulcimer, cittern, laúd and bass (now there's consummate musicianship for you!).
The Promise Of The Sowing is one of those truly lasting folk albums, a recorded artefact where everything comes together to make a magical whole, a unified sequence of songs that forms a consistent world-view. (And how fitting that a portion of the royalties from the album's sale are being donated to a number of organisations that support environmental and cultural conservation.)
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