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originally published in the "Fairfield County Weekly News" on
people are drawn to the past like moths to porch lights. They find
something there, in the old record bins and the yellowed pages of
library books, that is more real, more tangible, than the present.
There are stories buried in the past, waiting for someone to dig
them out, blow the dust off them and tell them, in their own words,
and pass them around so others can tell those stories, too. Eric von
Schmidt makes the past hum again. He is a storyteller, both in
songwriting and painting, a connecting point between the old blues
artists and the 1960s folk scene that sprung up in Cambridge, Mass.,
so embedded you could almost miss him. His influence, though, is
everywhere. In Bob Dylan's country blues riffs and remade "Baby, Let
Me Follow You Down." In the collage-style coffee-shop folk art
illustrating each song in the Joan Baez songbook that became the
trademarked look of the psychedelic generation.
invented the '60s," says Chance Browne, standing outside the
Georgetown Saloon on a drizzly Thursday night, where he helps host
an open mic. Browne, 56, is dressed in black and lanky; he followed
in von Schmidt's footsteps, musically. "I have this picture of
him...and he's holding this painted guitar. This long hair like
Buffalo Bill and patched dungarees. Eric was living that
life--traveling like [Ramblin'] Jack Elliott. The folk art look
wasn't around before him. He was the first to take old folk songs
and put in radically new words...He's a compulsively creative guy.
They don't make them anymore."
rustic studio in Westport where von Schmidt has been living for the
past 19 years. Beside it is a sprawling house, where his daughter
Caitlin and her fiancé moved in a few months ago. But von Schmidt
prefers the studio. Once his grandfather's, it's now piled high with
records, books on all his historical and musical fascinations,
animal skulls, Indian carvings, liquor bottles and jam jars spread
across table tops, studies for paintings, prints of paintings and
huge painted canvases hang from the ceiling on a pulley system. A
narrow staircase leads to a loft that overlooks the studio and
serves as von Schmidt's bedroom. It's cozy and hopelessly cluttered.
"We're all packrats in this family," says Caitlin, laughing. Looking
every bit the bohemian, von Schmidt wears a paint-splattered apron
and sports a scruffy beard. Four years ago, he was diagnosed with
throat cancer and had his larynx removed. The 73-year-old blues
legend now talks with great difficulty, and some translating help
from his daughter.
von Schmidt: The artist as a young man.
I heard him on the radio," he says, pointing to his childhood wooden
short wave radio on a work table, half-buried beneath papers. He was
17 years old when he began playing guitar, which he blames on young
love. "I was going with a girl called Irene," he says and he
practiced Leadbelly's song "Goodnight, Irene" until he could play a
convincing rendition. But von Schmidt wasn't one to dabble. Once he
had a taste of Leadbelly, he pursued his music with a single-minded
time, his father, Harold von Schmidt, a celebrated illustrator for
the Saturday Evening Post , traveled back and forth to
Washington, D.C. He'd leave his son at the Library of Congress where
Eric would devour all the folk and blues recordings ever compiled,
including Alan Lomax's 1930s field recordings of folk songs. Like
Lomax, who traveled the world as an ethnomusicologist, capturing
authentic folk--popular songs with rudimentary or no
instrumentation--von Scmidt was compelled to discover the core of
country blues. He immersed himself in the music, learning the
personal stories of its well-known and obscure performers, from
Robert Johnson and B.B. King to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill
imitate them in song, capture the essence of that pure, spiritual
sound, where the songs seem to creep up, quiet and persistent. The
guitar encourages the voice, the voice pulls the guitar along and
the musician seems caught in a personal transformation that catches
the audience by the throat with its rawness and humanity. This isn't
the electrified blues-rock that would come later, when the style was
co-opted by the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. This was an
exploration into a song style more back-porch country than black or
white. Where mandolins and washboards, acoustic guitars, upturned
buckets and harmonicas all made music together. Both untrained and
un-tethered, country blues was the model that the Cambridge-bound
folk singers favored, and von Schmidt, the most researched, brought
self-portrait done in Florida in the 1980s
Hammond Jr., a 42-year career blues musician, met von Schmidt on the
coffeehouse circuit in Cambridge, Mass., in the early '60s in spots
like the legendary Club 47 (renamed Club Passim). He credits von
Schmidt with opening the door to traditional blues for musicians
of those trailblazer guys who brought down the barriers that
stereotyped blues as an antiquated black art form that had no
relevance," says Hammond. When asked what it was about blues music
that touched him and von Schmidt, Eric von Ronk, Dylan and others,
Hammond says: "You think of blues as like the sky and the
ocean--deep and far. Profound. And intensely personal."
years ago an album that von Schmidt recorded in 1971 for Poppy
Records (which folded the following year) finally found release.
It's called Living on the Trail, and, from its extensive
liner notes by Greenwich-based mandolin player John Kruth to its
truthful, rambling songs collaborated with the likes of Paul
Butterfield on harmonica and The Band's Rick Danko on back-up
vocals, the album encapsulates a moment in time that might have been
relegated to the dustbin of history. Kruth resurrects in his notes
something Dylan famously wrote for von Schmidt's 1969 liner notes
for the album Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky ?
sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire," Dylan
reverently penned. "He can separate the men from the boys and the
note from the noise. The bridle from the saddle and the cow from the
cattle. He can play the tune of the moon. The why of the sky and the
commotion of the ocean."
songs rise up like steam off hot pavement. The opening, "Living on
the Trail," invokes a sense of solitary wandering. "I'm headin' for
the mountain, you'll find us there somewhere, oh won't you light up
that peace pipe one more time, old friend?" von Schmidt sings in a
deeply resonant voice with a hint of a drawl. The music is simple
and clean, a bit of crashing cymbal and solid-strummed guitar. It's
brimming with the vitality of a life fully lived. He'd been to Italy
on a Fulbright scholarship in '55, returned to the Cambridge scene
and later hit out for London with Richard Farina. In '65, he played
his first Newport Folk Festival.
and back-room circles, von Schmidt honed his storytelling skills. On
"Lost in the Woods," Amos Garrett's mandolin skirts across
everything, while von Schmidt's voice drives deep; back-up vocals
and instrumentation by Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Rick Danko and Bobby
Charles provide a haunting vision of the dark night of the soul. At
one point in the song, von Schmidt just howls and the effect is
chilling. He's a balladeer, too, who weaves a poignant tale in
"Joshua Gone Barbados" about a bribe-taking union boss who betrays
the sugar-cane cutters he represents. The choruses, backed by an
array of voices again, rise up in soft, lulling swells: "Joshua gone
Barbados, just like he don't know, poor people on this island, ain't
got nowhere to go."
as a traditional black music form experienced a lot of
transformation in the '60s. And as Browne noted, puffing on a
cigarette outside of Georgetown Saloon, there was a certain stigma
attached to playing the old country blues stuff. "After rock 'n'
roll, and the Beatles," says Browne, "[the old-style music] was
embarrassing to rural Southern people. It was hokey... I love the
feeling of blues, rock 'n' roll, bluegrass and church music. It
doesn't matter if it's black or white. It's a lot like love. If you
hit the spot, you know it. It's an altered state."
doubt von Schmidt reached altered-state territory, but music, while
it moved him, would never define him. Friends disagree about whether
it was von Schmidt's music or his artwork that was his primary
passion. Until the recent loss of his voice, it was anybody's guess.
"I think he
could have been more recognized," says his 43-year-old daughter
Caitlin. "I feel that way about his art more than his music. Because
I think more people know about his music than his art. And he's done
some really amazing work in illustration."
Caitlin; Chance Browne performing at Georgetown Saloon.
past six years, von Schmidt has struggled in his studio to complete
a series of detailed blues paintings, now hanging at the Westport
Historical Society in an exhibit,
Giants of the Blues,
1920-1950. Like all his paintings, von Schmidt is faithful
to history and full of respect for his subject matter, investing the
blues artists with individual personality and magnetism. In
"Going to Chicago," Big
Bill Broonzy has one arm raised, Big Joe Williams is seated wearing
a beatific expression and Muddy Waters stands, pursing his lips as
if pulling a particularly sweet note out of his guitar. In "The
Blues Women," the singers look exuberant and proud--"Ma" Rainey with
a fan in one hand, Bessie Smith, head thrown back, her hands planted
on her jeweled hips.
watercolor runniness to the paintings' backgrounds, as if they are
emerging from, or receding into, the past. The paintings, depicting
blues greats from a specific area, are done in muted colors (Texas,
in reds; New Orleans, done in browns) the faces and body language of
the players giving insight into their mannerisms, their names
carefully painted beside them in long, thin letters. It's possible
to find von Schmidt, situated among the musicians in a particularly
crowded montage called
"Cambridge Tapestry." In this piece he merges blues and country
players, black and white, a pleased-looking Woody Guthrie, the
Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jackie Washington, and an
almost ghost-like Joan Baez. Merged in the bottom left is von
Schmidt, holding his guitar, backwards, to show the image of
Leadbelly he's painted. Just one among many.
"He was a
great painter and doing wonderful work all these years, and the main
thrust of his creativity, I think, went into his art," says Paul
Geremia, 60, a country blues guitarist and harp player who watched
and learned from von Schmidt's music. "But he probably isn't a heck
of a lot more known as an artist than as a musician, really. He's
not a high-profile kind of guy. But people who know what good stuff
is know of him."
devotion that von Schmidt gave to the blues, he gave to historical
moments that captured his interest. In a series he envisioned as
geographically based, he painted
"Custer's Last Stand,"
"The Alamo" and
"Seminole King Osceola signing the Treaty of
Removal" in giant (15-foot and 23-foot) murals. He intends to
paint the Battle of Lexington to complete the series. As with his
musical forays, von Schmidt is interested in telling the true story
through his paintings; he researches each historical event until he
becomes an expert on the subject.
was researching the Custer and Alamo paintings, he became a rather
pre-eminent expert in those fields to the point where he actually
lectured on those subjects," says his daughter. "When he does these
historical paintings, which the blues paintings are also, he really
just dives in head first into the research."
It was the
stories always that drew him in and captivated him. "I was always
interested in getting them [the stories] right," says von Schmidt.
"What fascinated me was the clash of culture."
explain why von Schmidt shows apparent sympathy for the Indians in
"Custer's Last Stand" and his "Seminole" painting. He himself was a
wanderer, remaining on the outskirts of a scene he so heavily
think it would be too much to say that he has sort of a kinship with
displaced people somehow," says Caitlin.
Schmidt just discovered a way to go back through the vaults, find a
beat-up, worn-out story, dust it off and bring it back to life.
Maybe he just wants to pass it along.
An early photo of Eric von Schmidt and his daughter.
Eric and Caitlin in his studio today.
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