Monday, July 25, 2011
I first heard the resonant, staccato name "Rick von Schmidt" (more frequently "Eric") on Bob Dylan's debut album back in 1962, when "the Zimmer Man" intro'ed one song, "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," thus: "I first heard this from Rick von Schmidt... He lives in Cambridge... Rick's a Blues guitar player... I met him one day in the, uh, green pastures of Harvard University!" (And thus did the fledgling folkie not only publicize von Schmidt, but also craftily announce the Chaplin-clown-wiseass persona of an unknown kid calling himself "Bob Dylan.")
Somehow Rick's name took on a mysterious incantatory power... and I'll bet I wasn't the only listener to wonder "Who's this Cambridge guy? Dylan's weird enough; is von Schmidt his mentor or something? Could he be that strange too?" Gradually, as Dylan and Joan Baez and Judy Collins and others replaced the various Trios and Belafontes of folk music, word got out about Eric too--a somewhat eccentric bearded painter/illustrator who also wrote folksongs and sang, part of the amazing coterie that included Richard Farina, Dave Van Ronk, Rolf Cahn, Tom Rush--and Jack Elliott whenever he rambled through. Eric's father Harold was a wellknown and respected cover artist for The Saturday Evening Post (like his pal Norman Rockwell), and the son wandered off on his own illustrative path, which included stays in Europe and England and the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, as well as his Boston-area home turf.
By the time Dylan mentioned him, von Schmidt already had one album out in the States and another soon to be recorded in England, and in 1963 there would be a Blues LP on Prestige Records' folk line. Also recording for the label about then was another new face, Tom Rush--who always knew a good song when he heard it. Within a couple of years, Tom and other singers from DeShannon, Jackie, to Dylan, Bob, were mining Eric Sings von Schmidt, his Prestige follow-up, for Eric's originals... and that's continued for 40 years, with many covers of "Cold Grey Dawn," "Light Rain," "Rattlesnake Preacher," "My Love Come Rolling Down," even the sarcastic mock-doowop "Acne," but especially his island-rhythm, Caribbean hard-times tale--a true classic--"Joshua Gone Barbados," about an out-for-himself union boss, who rouses his followers to action, then flees the violence that follows:
Yeah, Joshua gone Barbados
Stayin' in a big hotel
People on St. Vincent
Got many sad tales to tell...
But Joshua gone Barbados
Just like he don't know
The people on the island
Got no place to go.
(Another beautiful number worthy of new versions is "Blues for Kennedy," written in the wake of the assassination. Support musicians Geoff Muldaur and the infamous Mel Lyman are major assets on this track and elsewhere.)
Comic, cryptic, rhyming liner notes by Richard Farina, and von Schmidt's self-portrait, line-drawing cover complete a great album package. Look close to see that Eric holds a small piece of paper which quietly states, "All my own work." An artist indeed. And gradually his impetus switched from performing to painting as he became the artist of choice for many in the folk world. His impish portraits adorned albums celebrating Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Cisco Houston, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Dave Van Ronk, the Reverend Gary Davis, Paul Geremia, and many others, and for the one-and-only album by country-rockers the Blue Velvet Band, he designed a complete board game citing anecdotes true and otherwise from the lives of real country/bluegrass musicians.
One of the Blue Velvets was Jim Rooney, producer, musician, and Bill Monroe expert. In the late Seventies Cambridge scenesters Jim and Eric teamed up to compile the definitive history, photo-rich, of the Cambridge folk era; they called it Baby, Let Me Follow You Down (yes, same title as the von Schmidt song that Dylan made famous). An oral history comprised of thorough interviews with some 60 folks who were there and had many a fine tale to tell, tied together by the wry and hip commentary of the author-editors. But the small print run meant a quick out-of-print status--such that when an ex-Boston recording engineer borrowed my copy, he decided not to bother to return it! But demand for the elusive book eventually led to a revised second edition issued in 1994. (Yes, I own a copy and, no, I'm not loaning it out.)
So writer-artist Eric began writing and illustrating children's books too. And he recorded several more solo-with-friends albums over the years, but without ever snagging the gold ring or, really, recapturing the magic. While his arts/painting career went ticking merrily along, von Schmidt's reputation in folk music sputtered to an undeserved halt. His last two albums were (1) a mid-Nineties, newly recorded attempt at a career greatest-hits overview and (2) the 30-years-late release of an unissued album--a good one too--recorded back in 1972 or so.
But the earth's orbit did not alter, and Eric died suddenly, less than a year later, on February 2, 2003--Ground Hog's Day (my birthday too) become an unwelcome part of history yet again. His unexpected death may have marked an ignominious end to a solid folk career, but we'd do well to remember there was a time when a younger, questing world was ready, baby, to follow Eric von Schmidt downtown, up the country, and all around--from Cambridge to St. Vincent and points east, but west to Minneapolis and on out to Oregon too.
And wasn't that a mighty time? There was magic in that name, and that man.