Friday, November 26, 2010
The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt (Prestige, 1963)
Not to take anything away from Bob Dylan, but people sometimes forget that his songs and performing style didn't just come out of thin air. Like any significant artist, he had many influences, with his efforts being a synthesis of other musicians' works combined with his own unique vision. One of the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman's most important mentors was Eric Von Schmidt, who obviously made quite an impression on the young Minnesotan prior to his professional breakthrough. So much so that Dylan offered tribute to him by dropping his name during the introduction to "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down" on his eponymous Columbia debut as well as including a copy of this album, The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt, among the odds and ends on display in the cover photograph for the landmark Bringing It All Back Home LP.
Such accolades are completely appropriate considering Von Schmidt's importance to the postwar American folk revival. Indeed, his involvement in the movement goes back to at least the 1950s, which makes him an important transitional figure who acted as a bridge between the old guard from the 1930s and 1940s like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and the Young Turks from early 1960s Greenwich Village. The remarkable thing about this important cross-pollinator was that he was seemingly everywhere in the scene but left behind a relatively scant recorded legacy for someone who cast such a long shadow. Much of this is attributable to the fact that Von Schmidt followed in the footsteps of his father Harold, a prolific illustrator for Saturday Evening Post magazine, as a successful artist, which meant that he could pursue his musical interests in a largely recreational fashion. I think that's a big part of the reason why I like this record so much. Unlike so many other white blues efforts, Von Schmidt does not fall into the pitfall of trying to sound overly earnest or authentic and making a pretentious ass of himself in the process. Instead, the listener can plainly hear that the tracks comprising his first LP were songs that he simply enjoyed playing for the sake of playing, which can often result in extraordinary things happening in the recording studio.
In spite of its title, The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt features a variety of material that also includes self-penned compositions, an Anglo-American ballad, calypso, a cowboy song, and gospel. Although the titles of many of these tracks will doubtlessly be familiar - and perhaps overly so to the jaded record collector - one must remember that such traditional numbers had been in this artist-musician's repertory since at least the 1950s, long before folk music became fashionable with mainstream white America. In addition to his own singing and guitar, mandolin, and harmonica playing, Von Schmidt is joined by Boston folk scene veterans Geoff Muldaur and Robert L. Jones on guitars and/or Fritz Richmond on washtub bass on several selections. "Crow Jane" is a capable reading of the East Coast blues standard, whereas "Gulf Coast Blues" relates Von Schmidt's maritime adventures in a boat built by his own hands during the mid 1950s while residing in Sarasota, Florida. The Seven Years' War piece "Brave Wolfe" must have made its rounds on both sides of the US-Canada border as demonstrated by its inclusion here and bears comparison with Ian and Sylvia's equally somber version on Northern Journey. The venerable New Orleans blues of "Junco Partner" has been interpreted quite frequently over the years, but Von Schmidt was probably one of the first white guys to adapt what was originally a boogie-woogie piano tune for guitar. "De Kalb Blues" is a decent enough rendition of something learned from Lead Belly, although the album reaches a low point on the lame white calypso of "Lolita," which is an example of a sub-genre that has not aged well, its occasionally humorous lyrics notwithstanding. "Champagne Don't Hurt Me, Baby" is an interesting variant of "'Tain't Nobody's Business If I Do" (recorded by Bessie Smith, Frank Stokes, and Mississippi John Hurt, among others) notable for drug references that were extremely candid for 1963, the year in which this LP was recorded. "Buffalo Skinners" effectively evokes images of the Old West, and "Jack O'Diamonds" puts the spotlight on Von Schmidt's tasty slide guitar technique. It would be interesting to find out how many aspiring folkies (and, in many cases, eventual folk rockers) learned "He Was a Friend of Mine" from the version featured here. I'd be willing to bet quite a few. "Cocoa Beach" reprises the musician's recounting of his adventures in Florida, with "Down on Me" being another example of a traditional piece that he helped popularize among musicians who started out as folkies in the early 1960s. The album concludes with a rousing ensemble version of "Titanic," which actually equals the emotional intensity of William and Versey Smith's vintage performance of the similar "When That Great Ship Went Down" from 1927.
**Note: This LP is pretty beat up, so I judiciously used audio software to remove as many of the snaps, crackles, pops, and clicks as possible without adversely affecting the music. Additionally, it's a mid to late 1960s reissue in which the original mono recording was electronically remastered for stereo, a hideous practice that was all too widespread at the time. Once again, I have used said software to restore this LP to its initial monaural format. I hope that you will find the results acceptable. The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt is one of too many neglected classic albums from the 1960s that is in desperate need of a proper vinyl and CD reissue. In the meantime, music bloggers such as myself will attempt to help fill the void on what will hopefully be only a temporary basis.
1. Crow Jane
2. Gulf Coast Blues
3. Brave Wolfe
4. Junco Partner
5. De Kalb Blues
7. Champagne Don't Hurt Me, Baby
8. Buffalo Skinners
9. Jack O'Diamonds
10. He Was a Friend of Mine
11. Cocoa Beach Blues
12. Down on Me