"Livin' on the Trail"
by John Kruth
These notes from the CD are reprinted with the author's permission.
Never underestimate the impact a harmonica in the bottom of a Christmas stocking might have on an unsuspecting youth. Or the fate one's life might suddenly take after receiving a gift of a ukulele, courtesy of an adoring aunt. Of course the power of the media can be overwhelming – in Eric von Schmidt's case, it was radio, having grown up before the proliferation of television. His love of music began with pop songs heard on the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. Hiding under covers late at night, he listened to the Grande Ole Opry, against parental orders, (not that his folks had a problem with hillbilly music – they just didn't want their son staying up past eleven). Before he'd even heard of the folk process Eric was improvising lyrics to old songs – mostly dirty limericks to entertain his older brother Pete and his gang of buddies. Von Schmidt's illustrious illustrator father Harold, whose portraits of the rustic American west regularly graced the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, soon bought his son a fifty dollar Gibson guitar. In 1948 Eric caught an earful of Leadbelly's "honey-smooth" voice on WQXR out of New York, inspiring him to track down Huddie Ledbetter's album Negro Sinful Songs. Just six strings short of the King of the 12-string guitar, von Schmidt dubbed himself Leadbelly's devoted disciple and worked up a killer rendition of "Good Night Irene," in hopes of charming a comely high school lass by the same name. A spirited teenager, Eric was not deterred when Irene failed to put out or by the lack of applause from the atrophied audience at his debut gig at the local Methodist church.
When a friend claimed to have seen a big black man with a head of wooly white hair much like Leadbelly's just ten miles away in Wilton, Eric scoffed at the tale; doubtful the Southern music legend would be found in the uptight white suburbs of Yankee New England. A few days later von Schmidt sadly discovered his hero's obituary in the newspaper. Ledbetter it seems was survived by his wife, the former Martha Promise, of Wilton, Connecticut.
During a stint in the army beginning in 1952, von Schmidt happened to read Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and began ordering peyote from Moore's Orchid Ranch of Laredo, Texas. Five dollars bought between one hundred to one hundred and fifty buttons, including shipping costs, delivered with love by the U.S. Mail. Amazingly enough the vision inducing plant was completely legal at the time! With an honorable discharge, Corporal von Schmidt headed to the sands of Sarasota to paint, frame pictures and build a boat named for John Hurt (the blues man, not the actor).
By '55 Eric had won a Fulbright Scholarship and took off to Italy with paintbrush and pallet, only to discover much to his dismay that his five-string banjo pickin' drove the locals crazy. Back in Cambridge by the summer of ‘57 von Schmidt lived the carefree bohemian life, gigging regularly at local coffee houses (although Eric has emphatically stated that coffee has never been his idea of "a real drink." As Eric, Geoff and Amos wisely advise, "Better stick to rum"). He soon became a fixture at the legendary Club 47, all the while painting and drafting the occasional poster for Joan Baez's concerts.
In 1961 he collaborated up with communist scholar/guitarist Rolf Cahn (who already recorded for Folkways) cutting an album of country blues and folk songs. Showing up on von Schmidt's doorstep like a ragged, pudgy Huck Finn was Bob Dylan who crashed on his couch while taking a crash course in the folk blues, making quick studies of Eric's renditions of "He Was a Friend of Mine," "Wasn't That A Mighty Storm" and "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down."
On New Year's Eve 1963, Eric flew the coop, hooking up with his irrepressible compadre the Cuban/Irish dulcimer strumming/ songwriter/author Richard Fariña in London, where they played hoots, a communist wedding and recorded an obscure album, accompanied on harmonica by a trans-Atlantic troubadour named Blind Boy Grunt (AKA Bob Dylan). That same year Dylan cut his debut album for Columbia, dropping von Schmidt's name on the spoken intro of his version of "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You" (It seems the song's title as well as its author has changed from time to time over the years. Although it's been attributed to von Schmidt, Dylan and Reverend Gary Davis, the tune originally appeared on a 78 by Blind Boy Fuller).
'63 also saw the release of The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt on Prestige Records, best known as the home of cutting edge jazzmen like Eric Dolphy and Cannonball Adderly. Accompanied by Geoff Muldaur on guitar and Fritz Richmond on washtub bass of the Kweskin Jug Band, the album is a classic of its genre.
He was soon off to the farm in Henniker, New Hampshire, to make art and babies, all the while illustrating kids books, songbooks and dozens of record jackets for Vanguard (dig those fine-lined portraits of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Reverend Gary Davis).
1965 was clearly a watershed year for all. In the wake of last year's Eric sings von Schmidt, (his first album of all original material) Ric made his first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, growling "Grizzly Bear" to a capacity crowd, while Dick and Mimi Fariña's fans danced wildly in the pouring rain and mud, three years before the blissed out hippies at Woodstock. But it was Dylan who held the trump card, electrifying the folk world with a little help from Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. His fifth album, Bringing It All Back Home, hit the street spreading the on von Schmidt with an ad campaign better than any Madison Avenue agency could ever have dreamed up. On the album's surrealist blurred cover sat Bob in his finest British mod guise, caressing a gray kitten surrounded by a batch of his favorite records. Lotte Lenya, Robert Johnson, Ravi Shankar, The Impressions and Lord Buckley were all represented as well as his own Another Side of Bob Dylan and The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt. And that's where I, and most of my generation got on board. I begged my mom to drive me over to Two Guys From Harrison, a discount department store and with the money I had saved raking leaves, bought every disc on that record jacket I could find. After all, they came recommended by Bob himself. Eclectic as Dylan's taste was, (having just passed my first decade, I wasn't quite ready for Lotte Lenya and Robert Johnson, I must admit was rather scary) many of those artists have remained life-long personal favorites.
Unquestionably it was Eric von Schmidt that spoke most directly to me. At the time my sister's beatnik boyfriend had already begun taking me to see Mance Lipscomb and Reverend Gary Davis at a local college that sponsored monthly folk concerts. To this day I thank God my sister preferred shopping for shoes at Altman's to witnessing the spectacle of hollering, sweaty Negro blues men.
In case we still had missed the boat, Dylan returned again writing a set of brilliant liner notes for Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky, Eric's 1969 psychedelic folk rock opus. Championing his old pal's cause, Bob claimed "the glad, mad, sad, biting, exciting, frightening, crabby, happy enlightening, hugging, chugging" legend of the Cambridge folk scene, "whose name itself had become a password," "could sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire." In his best Muhammad Ali bravado Dylan continued boasting and toasting like a phat rapper with the mike in his hand. "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." Now what could anyone possibly add to that? One has to wonder why this man wallowed in obscurity for so many years.
No matter how "the voice of his generation" crowed about the magnificence of von Schmidt's music, art would always take the front seat in Eric's Oldsmobile. He soon became immersed in a series of fantastic murals depicting decisive moments in American history such as the Seminole King Osceola signing the Treaty of Removal, Custer's Last Stand and The Alamo.
Von Schmidt did not record again until 1970 when Poppy Records graciously footed the bill for 2nd Right, 3rd Row. With friends like Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Amos Garrett, Paul Butterfield and Garth Hudson of The Band (looking like the re-incarnation of Brahms with a squeezebox) dropping by Woodstock's Bearsville Studio, the sessions resulted in a sonic jewel of pure beatitude.
Which at last, brings us to the disc you hold in your hands. A year later, in the fall of 1971, old friend producer/singer/guitarist Jim Rooney (with whom von Schmidt would soon collaborate on their Bible of the Cambridge folk scene, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down) booked another date with Eric at Bearsville Studio. Joining the jam this time was Christopher Parker, the young drummer who wowed the crowd at Woodstock with his mesmerizing solo on Santana's "Soul Sacrifice." Rick Danko and Crescent City legend Bobby Charles round out the ad hoc Greek chorus of Maria, Geoff and Amos on the haunting "Lost In The Woods." The old standby "Stewball" (originally "Sku-ball" in Ireland, a derogatory name for a horse with no pedigree") was culled from Leadbelly's songbook. Garth bumps the groove with a growling pump organ while Maria spreads the sweetest harmony this side of Mrs. Butterworth's soul kitchen. Speaking of kitchens, this home recording of "Fast Acne" (a hysterical Zorba the Greek-inspired remake of the original tune which appeared on Eric Sings von Schmidt) was cut in a fit of inspiration on Eric's two-track Wolensack at his beachfront house in Sarasota. But with 1972 came the untimely demise of Poppy Records and with it, the unreleased Living On The Trail slipped into oblivion.
Nearly fourteen years later I made the acquaintance of Geoff Muldaur, while the blues warbler was in the midst of some serious bird watching on Martha's Vineyard. He informed me that Eric had recently returned to his parent's home in Westport from Provo, Utah after a strange string of deaths in his immediate family.
Living down the road from him, in Greenwich, I thought I'd pay the legend a visit. He in turn invited me to a gig he was playing with some friends at Boston Symphony Hall that December. And suggested I bring along my mandolin.
It seems Tom Rush had organized a 25th Anniversary reunion concert of Club 47 performers. Among them were Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Mimi Fariña, Peter Rowan, Bill Keith and Jim Rooney and the Kweskin Jug Band (sans Jim and the mysterious Mel Lyman). Not all the great music took place on stage that glorious weekend. There was plenty of jamming backstage and at pickin' parties in hotel rooms until the wee hours of the early morn.
While biding adieu, Jim Rooney kindly invited me to drop by if I was ever down in Nashville. A few months later I took him up on his word, and crashed on his couch for a weekend. At the time Rooney was working for the legendary producer Cowboy Jack Clement. His apartment was filled with music - guitars, old records, and piles of tapes. Most intriguing were the two track masters Rooney had squirreled away from his days in Bearsville. Most of them were marked with the name of the performer, the date and the instruments they played. Suddenly one jumped off the shelf, in an anonymous blank white case with no identifying marks other than a shopping list scrawled in pencil across the back - dishwashing liquid, eggs, beer, potatoes... that sort of thing. I cued up Rooney's reel-to-reel and pushed play. A familiar sounding guitar came bounding out of the speakers and the voice was instantly recognizable but the song was something I never heard before. Indeed, each tune was a revelation.
Upon Rooney's return, I punched play again and watched his face widen into a big easy grin. "Oh yeah…" he recalled, "that's that old record of Eric's that never came out. Where the hell'd you find that?" Needless to say we called von Schmidt immediately while I dubbed a copy of the lost session for myself. In the meantime Eric continued on his earthly mission of painting a dazzling series of murals depicting the legendary blues men and women of yesteryear while releasing a rare new record every once in a blue moon.
Sometime in 2001 I met Kevin Eggers at the infamous Chelsea Hotel. It didn't take long before Eric's name came up. Eggers inquired about the rumors he'd heard that von Schmidt was in poor health so I filled him in on Eric's gruesome battle with throat cancer in recent years. With the loss of his larynx and his ability to communicate reduced to a croak, the importance of this lost recording has never been more apparent. There's no need for tears. Von Schmidt's painting today is more inspired than ever and if you happen to drop by for a visit, he's sure to kick your ass in a round of bocce.
The Taoists have always been fond of reminding us that no matter where it leads or how difficult it may be – we should just continue following the path. If Jerry Garcia (who in latter days with his white beard somewhat resembled an obese Eric von Schmidt) was around today, he'd surely agree, "Yes... yes... What a long strange trail it's been!"
- John Kruth
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