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Thread: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

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    Default Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Today would have been Eric Von Schmidt's 90th birthday. He was one of the original members of the late 50s-early 60s folk scene. While the main focus on the scene often seems to be on New York's Greenwich Village, there were other centers of activity, including Cambridge MA. Eric was instrumental in the operation of Club 47, the main folk club there. If he did nothing more than provide a place for travelling musicians to stay when they passed through, his place in history would have been assured. But of course, he did much, much more. He had put in a lot of time researching the blues at the Smithsonian Institution, and was a walking repository of knowledge in the genre. He was a personal friend of most of the key performers of the folk revival. And he was a dear friend and mentor of mine. (And yes - he played mandolin. )

    For much of the mid-80s to the mid-90s I was playing in a jug band based in the New Haven CT area, Washboard Slim And The Blue Lights. Indeed, I hung that name on our fearless leader, as both parts of that moniker were obviously accurate - he was slim, and played washboard, as well as harmonica, and soon brought a small drum kit into the act as well. Also in the band were Howard H. Horn on washtub bass and jug, one of the few people I've worked with blessed with perfect pitch - a big plus when those loosey-goosey instruments are your task - the late great James Velvet on rhythm guitar and vocals, and the extraordinary Miss Dee on vocals and percussion. The estimable multi-instrumentalist Brooks Barnett would join the band a few years hence. Slim and HHH had been in another jug band previously, and wanted to start another one, with more of a concentration on blues than the usual novelty tunes. I got tapped because of my experience in that genre, as well as swing music, from my two previous bands. We soon became known throughout the Northeast, and were doing gigs all over the region. If someone wanted a jug band for their event - yes, it happened, including a couple of weddings - they pretty much had to call us.

    Sometime in the late 80s Slim learned a few things about Eric: he was alive; he lived in Westport CT; he had a listed phone number. So he called him up, to see if he would like to do a few gigs with us. He had been semi-retired from music, devoting his time more to painting and illustrations, in a way carrying on his father's heritage, Harold Von Schmidt having been an accomplished illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post and other publications. But the notion of playing old-time style blues intrigued him, and he jumped at the chance. We had great fun together, and this turned into a much longer-lasting association than originally conceived, continuing for nearly a decade.

    In addition to our gigs, we had several unusual experiences. We made an in-studio appearance on the Sunday night blues show on listener-supported WPKN in Bridgeport - which included fielding a call from Jerry Wexler (the one-and-only record producer and industry mogul, and apparently a personal friend of Eric's), who was listening in from his home on Long Island, to correct an erroneous statement. We played at the 1991 Winnipeg Folk Festival, where we opened the Friday night mainstage show. We also did a jug band workshop on Sunday afternoon with The Jug Band, everyone from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (except Kweskin, who had renounced the "devil music") - Maria Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, Bill Keith, and Eric Weissberg as their utility man. We opened for Geoff and Fritz a few times, whenever their duo came around our area. We helped launch the Westport Blues Festival. We played the most extraordinary multi-cultural show of my life - a St. Patrick's Day gig at a Mexican restaurant. Imagine this - I was a Jewish guy with German/Hungarian roots, playing African-American-derived music on an instrument of French/Italian origin, backing a singer with Prussian ancestry, in a Mexican restaurant on a day honoring the patron saint of Ireland. So what did we do for dinner? Went to the Chinese restaurant next door. That's America!

    Eric had spent time in New Hampshire, then Sarasota FL, and ended up in Westport, on a sprawling acre of land remarkably close to downtown. He rented out the big house and lived in his father's old studio, which he named Minglewood. He held musical hootenannies a few times a year, notably on New Year's Eve, which were wild, rambunctious affairs. He knew an astounding number and variety of musicians - his black book held the phone numbers of a who's who in the folk community - any of whom might show up. Rambling Jack Elliot came one time, for instance. And since Minglewood had an open-door policy, anyone might stop by without warning. I was visiting one afternoon when Peter Rowan walked in the door. My word, he was an imposing presence. I often stopped by on my way into or from New York, and if things ran late, I'd crash on the couch. We had a great many conversations over the years. He inspired me by virtue of his example and acquired wisdom, and became a de facto mentor. This friendship continued long after my time in the jug band had come to an end.

    A few years later, I saw Lucinda Williams for the first time, at the Mercury Lounge in New York, 9/16/97. I talked with her for a bit after the show, and somehow mentioned Eric's name. I had seen autographed copies of her CDs sitting on his coffee table, and thought it would make a good conversation opener. His name made her eyes light up, and she called over her bass player Richard Price (they were a couple at the time too). I soon learned that Eric had been a mentor for him back in his Sarasota days, and helped steer him away from some pretty sketchy behavior and toward music. Also, an album Eric had been on ages ago ("The Blues Project" - the 1964 album, not the band; some of the people on it founded the band afterward) had been one of the first ones to introduce Lucinda to the blues. It was clear he meant a lot to both of them.

    I had the brilliant idea to do what I could to get them together. This took a while, owing to scheduling difficulties and such. In the meantime I got to see lots of shows, as they were happy to guest-list me every time she came through the area - and believe me, I was willing to drive a ways, even if I couldn't get Eric to go. Back then I was a writer and editor of a small independent music monthly, and this was while "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" was on its way to completion - exciting times indeed - so it was beneficial for me as well.

    But finally, all the stars aligned, and we managed to get together, this night, 10/24/98, at the Tarrytown Music Hall. We had front row seats. Eric enjoyed the show immensely. In fact, the exuberant joy on his face and the way he cheered for her are memorable images I recall clearly to this day. After the show we went backstage and reunited mentor and mentee for the first time in over twenty years. And when Lucinda met Eric, the mutual admiration was palpable. I hadn't understood until then how much meeting him meant to her. It was equivalent to Bob Dylan meeting Woody Guthrie.

    Before we left, she thanked me profusely. I hadn't really thought it was that big a deal. I just saw it as a possibility, as something that could and should be done, and I had it within my means to make it happen. But ever since then she has been ever so kind and generous to me, as if I had done her the greatest favor. I saw her at maybe 15 or 20 more shows, even after I moved to Key West to resume my musical career. She really opened up to me, more than I ever expected she would, more than I ever thought anyone of her stature would. And it all came to pass because of this simple act. This has been a source of pride and satisfaction for me, one time I really did just the right thing.

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    1) Yours Truly, Eric Von Schmidt, Richard Price, Thom Wolke; 2) Lucinda Williams, Eric Von Schmidt. Backstage at Tarrytown Music Hall, 10/24/98. Photos by Thom Wolke.

    Thom Wolke was the promoter of this show, and through his posting these photos on his facebook page 13 years later I got to relive this magical moment. Thanks to him, to Richard for all he did to help bring this to pass, to Eric for all he did to inspire all of us with his music and life lessons, and to my gift for the obvious, for thinking that just because a thing is possible and good that it should be done. This is one time that everything worked out just right, and I am grateful and glad that this moment was recorded.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    This has gotten rather long, but I've got a couple more stories before I wind it up. In the late 90s, Eric developed throat cancer, and had to have a laryngectomy. This is a horribly cruel fate to bestow upon a singer, but it was necessary. He could still speak with the help of a device, but it was such a shame. On the upside, Eric was awarded the ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, with a ceremony held at Club Passim (which had formerly been Club 47) in Cambridge, MA, on 6/11/2000. Tom Rush was the MC, and among the performers honoring the great man were Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, and - I daresay not by coincidence - Jim Kweskin with his new band, Samoa. At some point, someone suggested Kweskin play a few songs with the rest of his old band, and they did - for the first time in maybe 30 years! I don't know if it was planned, but it happened. And for the finale, Tom Rush invited everyone who wanted to come up on stage to sing, "Wasn't That a Mighty Storm." I just happened to have my mandolin with me, and joined them. I ended up right between Maria Muldaur and Tom Rush. Somewhere there are photos, maybe even film, of this occurrence.

    [Due to length, the story continues and concludes below]
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    I'm not sure how much Eric and Lucinda kept in touch, but I got him to see her again. In fact, my memory of 9/11 starts the night before, seeing Lucinda Williams in New Haven with some friends, including Eric, whom I'd brought to the show. Afterwards we hung out backstage a bit, then I drove him home, an hour to the west. Owing to the late hour I stayed over. Driving back east to work in the morning, I was feeling really good about my life - great show, nice folks, so much going right in my little corner of the world - and I distinctly remember there was not a cloud in one of the bluest skies I'd ever seen.

    Then I got to work, just before 9 AM. People were freaked out, and had dialed up live coverage on the internet. I saw the second plane hit live. Stunning. Shocking. Devastating. And I had been feeling so good about life, so soon before this. Within months my grandma died, then my mom's health started failing, so she sold the family home so she could afford assisted living. I quit my job partly to help take care of her, but also because I'd learned how short and fragile life could be, and time not devoted to pursuing one's dreams (in my case, my brilliant musical career) was time possibly wasted.

    I mean, there are enough office managers in the world, but not enough mandolinists. Maybe I should have held onto that 50K job (that pays for a lot of studio time), but I wanted to immerse myself in playing music, so I came here to Key West. Besides, I never would have met all the wonderful people I have and experienced all I have since then. Though I no longer have the sense of home and belonging I had enjoyed for so long before all this happened, I have managed to start over here. The events of 9/11 affected millions, directly and indirectly, and affected me profoundly then and now. These effects resonate to this day. It was a life-changing experience.

    So was knowing Eric Von Schmidt. The twenty or so years he was part of my life were filled with all manner of memorable interactions. My life has been immeasurably richer due to the transformative nature of our friendship. He left us much too soon, on Groundhog Day 2007. But he will live forever in the hearts, minds, and souls of the people whose lives he touched. He was a truly great man.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Found some pics of Eric with a mandolin. I'm guessing the one he's got there backstage at Symphony Hall, Boston, with Jim Rooney, is Geoff Muldaur's. I think Eric just had a beater. The performance photo includes Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, and Richard Greene. The third phot is from a trip to England in winter 1963. That's Richard Farina on harmonica, Blind Boy Grunt in the middle, and Eric on mandolin. Then there's a young Eric entertaining one of his daughters.

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    A bit more artistic license here. First, an album cover of him playing a heavy metal mandolin. And him posing with his Leadbelly guitar - appropriately, a 12-string on which he painted a portrait of Leadbelly on the back.

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    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

    Furthering Mandolin Consciousness

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    Lucinda Williams and Eric Von Schmidt (who would have turned 90 5/28/21), the night devotee met hero (and both my heroes)

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Great stories; thanks so much for sharing them.

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Thanks. Sometime things happen in life that turn out to be worth talking about, you know? I don't even think about these as stories, they just happened, pretty much that way. I watch interviews on talk shows or in documentaries and I'm just amazed at all the things some people have done and experienced. I feel fortunate to have had some portion of those sorts of things in my life. The Eric-Lucinda meeting is one of the most satisfying experiences I've been a part of, somehow. I had no idea how much it meant to them, mostly her; it just seemed like it should happen and I could make it so. It was just that simple.

    I wish there were more mandolin content. I've got some other things in the works. We'll see what turns up.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Lucinda Williams and Eric Von Schmidt (who would have turned 90 5/28/21), the night devotee met hero (and both my heroes)

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    As promised - threatened? - some more photos.

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    A better quality version of the previously posted one; a slightly different shot moments apart; a different angle; yet another angle. This last shot clears up the mystery of the signage in the background - Bass ale, of course. It's clear from the two photos on the right that Eric is playing an F-2 or F-4; I've no idea whose. I doubt he'd invest that much in a mandolin.

    It turns out this was Richard Fariņa's gig, at a club called The Troubadour in Earl's Court, London. The two people to the left are Ethan Signer (back turned) and Martin Carthy.

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    Here's a better shot - portrait, really - of Eric's Leadbelly guitar. And another claim to fame, via a "mention" by Bob Dylan. Some of you may recall Bob mentions him by name in his introduction to "Baby Let Me Follow You Down," that he learned the song from "Rick Von Schmidt." It was pointed out to me that he also put his album "The Folk Blues Of Eric Von Schmidt" on top of the stack of records on the table in the cover photo of "Bringing It All Back Home." Nice of him to honor his friend and influencer that way.
    Last edited by journeybear; May-29-2021 at 11:15am. Reason: further research
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Thanks for each post and sharing with us this colorful history. I enjoyed every word.

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    One of the first non-commercial folk LP's I bought was von Schmidt's collaboration with Rolf Cahn; I still perform Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, Poor Lazarus, Wasn't That a Mighty Storm (Galveston Flood), and Who's That Yonder, songs I learned 60 years ago from that album -- still download-able from Smithsonian Folkways.

    And if you want an entertaining and informative retrospective of the Boston/Cambridge folk scene in the early 1960's, I recommend Baby Let Me Follow You Down, the book he co-wrote with Jim Rooney. That's where I got started, and von Schmidt and Rooney's book evokes many a great night at Club 47, concert at Sanders Theater, etc. etc. (Did I ever tell ya I once jammed with Dylan -- sorta...?) Coupled with the excellent For the Love Of the Music documentary about those times, the book and DVD can take you back to an era when folk music was growing, exciting young musician-wannabes like myself.
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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Absolutely, on all counts. "Baby Let Me Follow You Down" is a tremendous book, the authoritative compendium on the scene. It was a treat to drop by his place during the year or two he was compiling it, photos scattered all over, talking with him (mostly listening to him talk) about those days.

    Speaking of jamming with Dylan, there is this, an hour of the two of them fooling around in early 1964. It sounds rather like some imbibing was a factor. The sound quality is iffy - and believe it of not, improved technologically. But the spirit is there. This is noteworthy among Dylanophiles for it featuring the first recording of "Mr. Tambourine Man," in an unfinished form. Eric does what he can to play some harmonica at opportune moments.

    For Dylanophiles: The owner of this channel (Swingin' Pig) has some remarkable offerings. Dylan at Newport 1965, his Carnegie Hall concert in November 1951 - incomplete, though a soundboard recording, and the opening "Pretty Peggy-O" is up separately. Dylan's first recorded performance, at the Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford CT May 6, 1961 - three songs, none of which I know. Pretty rough sound quality. Supposedly Eric was there. Tons of great stuff. That's how I spent most of Dylan's 80th birthday on Monday.

    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    So I got to thinking ... Wonder if my two mentors, Patrick Sky and Eric Von Schmidt, ever met? It seems they must have, sometime during the years. Perhaps not during my time of knowing them, as their paths were quite divergent then, despite a vague geographical proximity. But back in the day, both active in the same circles ... why not? Well, not surprisingly, I couldn't find any photos of them together. But I did see this - Club 47's event calendar for September 1964. And down there in the bottom right corner - Patrick Sky, Friday-Saturday October 1-2. Eric still would have been involved in operations at the club then. In fact, Patrick may very well have been provided accommodations at Eric's apartment, as was often the custom at the time for travelling troubadours. It's not conclusive, but I'll take it.

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    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    A few more photos from the concert at Boston Symphony Hall in 1985 on the occasion of Club 47's 25th anniversary. You've seen a couple of these already, but there's more. A backstage photo of The Charles River Boys, including the late Joe Val and his F-5. More backstage photos of Joan Baez and Geoff Muldaur rehearsing (separately ). But the real gold is a pdf file of the article about the event in Fast Folk magazine. Scroll down to pp 14-17 for a rollicking account of what sounds like quite a rambunctious weekend. All the way at the end is a performance photo of Peter Rowan on mandola, along with Bill Keith on banjo and Richard Greene on fiddle. (Sorry, don't have the jpg for this one.) All this is courtesy of the author and photographer, John Kruth. Whom I met, by the way, a quarter century or more at one of Eric's house parties.

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    Hmmm ... Sorry - technical difficulties. Having trouble uploading the pdf. Might be too large at 17 megs. Well, dang!
    Last edited by journeybear; Jun-09-2021 at 7:55pm. Reason: technical difficulties
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    OK, let's try this - screenshots of the pdf pages. It'll have to do for now. It's a good read, worth the effort.

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    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

    Furthering Mandolin Consciousness

    Blues Mando Social Group
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    North Florida Mandolin Players Social Group

    Lucinda Williams and Eric Von Schmidt (who would have turned 90 5/28/21), the night devotee met hero (and both my heroes)

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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Great, great stuff.

    The closest I've come to any of this was playing an open mic at Passim's.

    Thanks for sharing.
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    Default Re: Eric Von Schmidt - A Remembrance On His 90th Birthday

    Thanks for appreciating. And responding. Pretty quiet around here.

    I went to several shows at Passim, and other venues around Boston. The Lifetime Achievement Award for Eric was the biggest deal.

    But there were other noteworthy ones, too. Like Juliana Hatfield AT Rounder Records for the album release party of "Bed." They'd put a big brass bed in a room there for her to sit on and greet people. Weird, but thematic.

    Disappear Fear at Paradise on 9/9/99. Sonia had just released an album, and I had an advance copy, She said I was the first person to ask for an autograph for it. I'd always wanted to be first at something!

    Heather Nova at Civic Plaza, like at noon, opening a day-long event. What an amazing voice! And a great band, including electric cello. She needed that time slot as she was flying back to England after doing a few Lilith Fair dates.

    Boston was about the limit of my range for covering shows back then. Didn't go up too much. But no way was I going to miss that event.
    But that's just my opinion. I could be wrong. - Dennis Miller

    Furthering Mandolin Consciousness

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    Lucinda Williams and Eric Von Schmidt (who would have turned 90 5/28/21), the night devotee met hero (and both my heroes)

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