The Storyteller

Webmaster's Note: This article is graciously provided to for use by its author, Brita Brundage. It was originally published in the "Fairfield County Weekly News" on October 21, 2004.

Some 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.

"Eric 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."

There's a 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.

Eric von Schmidt: The artist as a young man.

"Leadbelly, 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 focus.

At the 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 Broonzy.

He could 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 the material.

A self-portrait done in Florida in the 1980s

John 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 like himself.

"He's one 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."

Just two 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 ?

"He could 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."

The album's 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.

In clubs 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."

What began 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."

There's no 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.

Over the 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.

There's a 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."

The same 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.

"When he 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."

That might 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 influenced.

"I don't think it would be too much to say that he has sort of a kinship with displaced people somehow," says Caitlin.

Maybe von 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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