[3 May 2009]
Danny Schmidt says that his new collection of songs concerns the value of money and work and its relation to the meaning of wealth. That’s a heavy topic for a folk artist, but not an unusual one. The connection between folk music, work songs and the evil of greedy capitalists has been a 20th century trope.
But this Texan lives in the 21st century and understands the relationship is not so simple. Things have become, well, surreal. Who’s to praise and who’s to blame is not so clear. If everything has gone south, is it the southerners—you know, those below the border—who are to blame? Or maybe it’s those Eastern bankers? Or how about ourselves, who let the water and air get polluted as long as there was money to be made through hard labor? Schmidt doesn’t claim to know the answer. He just illuminates the problem and wonders why in “Southland Street”.
It’s that “Serpentine Cycle of Money” he tells us on the song of that name. Schmidt knows you can’t buy love for dollars, but it is amazing what you can purchase. “So wash the sheets in baby tears / And paint the grapes in virgin’s blood” he eloquently sings. People will do or sell anything to survive. The world is a hard place.
Of course Schmidt acknowledges that most people understand money isn’t everything. You may need it to survive, but you need more than that. He offers paeans and platitudes to that notion, saying “You’re better off broke with soup in your belly / Than sitting there hungry around a pot of gold” as he sings on the opening track, “Better Off Broke”. But these moments are the less interesting parts of the record, perhaps because they are not very profound thoughts. The Austin singer songwriter is best when he’s raising conundrums and pointing out our weaknesses more than when he’s pointing out what we already know.
The deepest value we share as human beings, Schmidt suggests, is that we share a love and concern for each other. That goes beyond money or enlightened self-interest, and is often beyond our control. On “Firestorm” he says that he used to rage against greedy club owners, bureaucrats, and those that did him wrong, but he’s calmer now. His love for another has opened his eyes to a kinder view of humanity. That is, unless you mess with the one for which he cares. Then you better watch out, buddy, because that will cause him to explode. Schmidt’s aware of the irony and the song trades on that conceit.
The songs on Instead The Forest Rose to Sing suggest that money can’t buy everything, but comes damn close to it. To counteract this and maintain our humanity, we need to pay attention to the natural world and hold close those we love. That’s a simple lesson most people already comprehend. Schmidt’s songs work best when he stops preaching and simply expresses the complex problems that present themselves when we try to maintain ourselves in the modern world.