You may not realize it, but if you’ve loved folk music from the 1960s on, you probably owe a debt to Eric von Schmidt.
Haven’t heard of him? Here’s just a brief look at the impact the late, longtime Sarasotan had on the music scene. While living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the seminal early 1960s, he met, befriended and played with the likes of Joan Baez, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin (of Jim Kweskin Jug Band fame), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Tom Rush and many more (some of whom later visited and played with him here as well).
As a songwriter and performer, Von Schmidt’s free-ranging approach to country, blues and folk won him fans including Bob Dylan, who credited “Rick” von Schmidt with teaching him the song “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down” recorded on Dylan’s 1962 debut album. Later, that was the title of a book Von Schmidt co-wrote with Jim Rooney that became the definitive history of the Cambridge folk music scene.
Von Schmidt also performed at the same 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Dylan (in)famously went electric. In obituaries published at the time of his death at the age of 75 in 2007, The New York Times called him “a frisky, bearded figure” with “an exuberant musical style,” and The Guardian eulogized him as “a man of huge generosity to his fellow musicians.”
But Von Schmidt, who will be remembered this month with an event Feb. 16 on the New College campus, was more than a musician. An artist, a writer and a peripatetic traveler, he was, in the words of one of the event’s organizers, New College alum Vernon Woodworth, “a Renaissance person, who was able to write, perform, play instruments, paint, produce children’s books, all of it. He was a free spirit. That’s why I want to see a renewed interest in the work he produced,” both here at his Siesta Key home and elsewhere.
Von Schmidt grew up in Westport, Connecticut, where his father, Harold, was a Western painter who did illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post. The younger Von Schmidt began producing his own art while still a teen; he won a Fulbright scholarship to study art in Florence, served a stint in the army, built and sailed a boat up and down the Gulf coast, and later in life spent years painting large-scale works depicting such historic moments as the Battle of the Alamo and Custer’s Last Stand.
But his love for visual art was always balanced with his passion for music, fired when as a young boy he first heard the singer Leadbelly deliver “Good Night, Irene” on the radio. According to Von Schmidt, it changed his life.
During his time in Sarasota, he frequently performed free concerts at New College for the students, which is one of the reasons this month’s “Strictly von Schmidt,” featuring live music by performers still being lined up at press time, along with home movies, spoken memories and audiotapes (one of Eric and Bob Dylan “having a good time,” says Woodworth), is being set there. His connection to the area goes back to childhood visits starting in the 1930s.
“I was about 12 in 1964 when my mother, Kay, and Eric met at a party in Sarasota,” recalls Von Schmidt’s stepdaughter, Kittie Kelley, who lives in Sarasota still. (His two daughters, Caitlin and Megan, reside in Massachusetts and Orlando, respectively.) “After they married, he was here pretty much all of the time, although he went to Cambridge to work, too. I think his first love was art, and it sustained him financially, but music was more of an enjoyment for him, although they were always intertwined. He and Ben Stahl, Thornton Utz and Syd Solomon founded the Famous Artists School in Sarasota.”
Like Woodworth, Kelley points out the diversity of Von Schmidt’s interests: “He loved fishing, played bocce on the beach, was involved in politics—I remember walking down Main Street with him and my mother protesting the Vietnam War in 1967. He was passionate about a lot of things, even cooking. He and Syd put on amazing New Year’s Day parties. He got along with a lot of very different people; he had that knack. He immersed himself in whatever he was doing.”
In his later years, Von Schmidt was plagued both by Lyme disease and, eventually, the throat cancer that silenced his singing voice. The man who Dylan wrote in the liner notes for Von Schmidt’s album, Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky, could “sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire” still performed, though, and in 2000, the same year he was diagnosed with the cancer, he was honored with the ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He also earned a Grammy in 1997.
For the latest on the Feb. 16 celebration and how to attend, check out Strictly von Schmidt on Twitter or the Eric von Schmidt Facebook page, or call Vernon Woodworth at (617) 750-0402.