Danny Schmidt,
Instead the Forest Rose to Sing
(Red House, 2009)

Psychic powers need not be engaged to empower predictions that Danny Schmidt will soon be a major star on the folk end of the singer-songwriter spectrum. ("Folk star," of course, denotes something between the relative and the oxymoronic. It does, however, characterize some independent-minded musicians whose greatness is not defined by mass adulation and attendant wealth accumulation, most recipients of which, as we know all too well, aren't actually all that great.) Instead the Forest Rose to Sing, Schmidt's debut on the dependably quality-conscious Red House label, showcases his rather stunning aptitude for creative wordplay and memorable melodies.

Every song here is -- at minimum -- a good one, but chances are it's "Swing Me Down" that will first tip you off to how exceptional Schmidt's gift is. The melody radiates joy, spinning around till the listener is dizzy with delirium. And when you then pay heed to the lyrics, it dawns on you that this is the kind of song one rarely heard in that dark age (can it really be over?) that stretched between January 20, 2001, and January 20, 2009: an expression of heartfelt love for America, yet devoid of cliche, heavy-handedness, bellicose nationalism, sentimentality or mopishness of any kind. Dare one say this feels Whitmanesque -- patriotism touched by cosmic light? Under the circumstances it could only have been an extraordinary expression of faith to imagine something like this in the first grim decade of this misbegotten century. "Swing Me Down" is not a political anthem by any conventional definition, but then neither is "This Land is Your Land." Were he alive today, Woody Guthrie would praise this song and probably wish he'd thought of it first.

With hardly any exceptions worth noting, Guthrie's melodies were stolen more or less in their entirety from traditional models. Schmidt's aren't, though they sound as if they could be; by that I mean they seem much older than they are. Like so many, I was first drawn to folk music because the lyrics struck me as so much more interesting than the ones I was hearing in pop songs. But equally seductive were the melodies, which felt built to last as if forever and as if as natural as the wind. Like few I've heard in recent years, Schmidt captures the durable quality of folk melodicism -- enduring strength built on bare-bones simplicity. It helps, too, that the arrangements are well nigh perfect: acoustic, sometimes full, but always affording the sense of sailing light and confident.

Schmidt's lyrics lean to the opaque, which will surprise those who first hear the sweet, straightforward tunes to which they're set. Still, one infers that most deal in one way or another with wealth and poverty. Two songs, "Grampa Built Bridges" and "Southland Street," put elusive meanings aside to address, in heartbreakingly blunt images, the fate of American labor in the early 21st century. More characteristic of the rest of the songs, "Oh Bally Ho" requires listener attention and translation, perhaps leading to the inference that Schmidt is singing about Americans' eternal but always failed quest for spiritual enlightenment on the cheap. Whatever it's about, it is -- as always -- gloriously tuneful.

If I were to offer him unsolicited advice, it would be to write more open lyrics. After all, the best writers are able to conceal bottomless complexity in apparent simplicity (for one luminous example, consider Bob Dylan's "Red River Shore" on last year's Tell Tale Signs). But then, Schmidt doesn't need any songwriting help from me.

review by
Jerome Clark

14 March 2009

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