Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


SCHMIDT, Eric von

(b 28 May 1931, Westport CT; d there 2 February 2007) Guitarist, singer, songwriter, and painter, and a major player in the blues and folk scene in Cambridge MA in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was the third in his line to take up art, and the first to take up music. His father, Harold von Schmidt, was noted for his illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, especially for Norman Reilly Raine's stories about Tugboat Annie. Eric painted album covers for Joan Baez and others, illustrated children's books (collaborating most frequently with with Sid Fleischman) as well as a series of editions of Joan Baez songbooks, and Come For To Sing: An Illustrated Book Of Folksongs in 1963.

He said he began playing guitar when he was 17, inspired by hearing Leadbelly sing 'Goodnight Irene' on the radio (he had a girlfriend named Irene), and listened to folk and blues recordings at the Library of Congress, where his father would drop him off during trips to Washington DC, and during two years in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in Washington.

In New York City von Schmidt met Ramblin' Jack Elliott and made his radio debut on Oscar Brand's show. He went to Italy in 1955 to study art on a Fulbright scholarship, then landed in Cambridge. His first album, The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt, was released in 1963; his second, Eric Sings Von Schmidt, contained entirely original songs, unusual then. Both albums were on Prestige. He played at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, where Dylan famously angered Folk traditionalists by playing the electric guitar.

Von Schmidt had first met Dylan at his apartment in Harvard Square in Cambridge. He told The Boston Globe in an interview in 1996 that he played several songs for Dylan that day. 'With that spongelike mind of his, he remembered almost all of them when he got back to New York,' von Schmidt said. On Dylan's first album in 1962, he says at the beginning of 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,' that he first heard the song from von Schmidt and adds that he met von Schmidt in 'the green pastures of the Harvard University.' (The song was based on 'Mama Let Me Lay It On You,' by Blind Boy Fuller.) In early 1963, one of Dylan's larks as Blind Boy Grunt was contributing harmonica and backup vocals to an album recorded at Dobell's record shop in London by von Schmidt and Richard Farina, released in 1967 as Dick Farina & Eric Von Schmidt.

Dylan wrote liner notes for von Schmidt's album Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky (1969, on Mercury). He could sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire,' Dylan wrote. '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.

Von Schmidt and Tom Rush worked together on a new version of 'Wasn't That a Mighty Storm?' a traditional song about the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900. One of his better known songs was 'Joshua Gone Barbados,' which Dylan and The Band recorded in the basement at Big Pink. The ASCAP Foundation gave von Schmidt its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

His last album was Baby Let Me Lay It On You '95 on Gazell, with 15 new songs. But he turned more to art as cancer affected his voice, and Lime disease interfered with his guitar playing. With Jim Rooney he produced Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: An Illustrated History Of The Cambridge Folk Years. His paintings include a series called Giants of the Blues, and depictions of General George Custer and explorers Lewis and Clark.