Eric von Schmidt

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Famed Artist and Musician Eric von Schmidt Dies at 75

Eric von Schmidt, a renowned Westport artist and pioneering figure in the folk music explosion of the late 1950s and early 1960s whose works touched the lives of generations of musicians, died Friday at a Fairfield convalescent home. He was 75.

Eric von Schmidt (c) posed with Westport artist Howard Munce (l) and Mollie Donovan of the Westport Historical Society in September 2004 prior to the debut of an exhibit of his paintings from his “Giants of the Blues” series.

His daughter Caitlin von Schmidt of Westport said her father had been in ill health since suffering a stroke in September. She said a memorial service will be announced later.

Eric von Schmidt, a Westport native and 1949 Staples High School graduate, was the son of the late illustrator Harold von Schmidt whose rustic portraits of the American West appeared on Saturday Evening Post covers and in other magazines.

He perhaps became best known as a folk and blues singer-songwriter of the folk/blues revival of the 1960s, a key part of the East Coast folk scene and crowd that included Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Von Schmidt’s 1969 album “Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky.”

Dylan wrote liner notes for von Schmidt’s 1969 album “Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky.” “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’s first album, “The Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt,” was released in 1963. And one of his better known songs, “Joshua Gone Barbados,” has been performed by several other artists.

In 2000, von Schmidt, who was once described as having a whiskey-preacher voice, developed throat cancer and became unable to sing. A bout with Lyme disease made it difficult to play the guitar.

In recent years, he worked on a series of paintings called “Giants of the Blues.”

Two years ago, the Westport Historical Society held its “Giants of the Blues 1920-1950” exhibit featuring works by von Schmidt.

Last March, the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection Committee installed several large-scale paintings from the series in the hallway outside the Staples High School auditorium.

In a fine arts coup for the town, the committee received seven of the paintings on “indefinite loan.”

Last March, the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection Committee installed several large-scale paintings by Eric von Schmidt in the hallway outside the Staples High School auditorium. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Emily Hamilton Laux for

An obituary in today’s New York Times described von Schmidt as “a frisky, bearded figure who combined a successful career as a painter of big pictures of historical subjects with an exuberant musical style he liked to apply to American folk classics.”

It said Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the legendary cowboy singer, lauded his spirited approach to the songs of Leadbelly, the legendary blues artist, and the folk songs of Woody Guthrie.

“Eric’s got that wild spirit, and he doesn’t water the music down for polite society,” Elliott told The Boston Globe in 1996, the Times said.

As a small child, von Schmidt watched his father performing miracles week after week in his studio across the driveway from the family’s main house on Evergreen Avenue.

(IMAGE) Eric von Schmidt seen in his 1949 Staples High School yearbook. Underneath he wrote: “Oh what a rogue am I.” Contributed photo

The young von Schmidt painted beside him, sketched with him and often posed for him.

Von Schmidt’s foundation in music came from his mother, Forest Gilmore.

He had bought his first guitar after hearing Leadbelly sing live on a New York radio station in 1948 when he was 17.

Von Schmidt once said of his first time hearing Leadbelly: “This incredible voice ... was honey-smooth but had the bite of a buzzsaw cutting through a cement block. It was Leadbelly ’live’ and it changed my life.”

As a teenager, he was encouraged by his parents to visit the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., where he discovered a body of forgotten archival blues recordings. There his second career was born.

Following his graduation from Staples, where he wrote under his senior picture “Oh what a rogue am I,” von Schmidt went briefly to the Art Students League in New York City before being drafted during the Korean War.

After Korea, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study painting in Italy in 1956-1957.

Upon his return, he moved to Cambridge, Mass., and became a folk and blues singer in the Cambridge coffee house scene and entered the Boston literary field.

His books, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” co-authored with Jim Rooney, won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 1979, and “Notes for American Folk Music” won a Grammy in 1998. In 2000, he was honored with the ASCAP Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

In addition to Caitlin, von Schmidt, who was twice married and divorced, is survived by another daughter, Megan Richardson of Greenfield, Mass., and three grandsons.

“He’ll be missed by a lot of people, and he had a very full and vital life with no regrets,” Richardson told The Associated Press.

Caitlin von Schmidt added, “He did what a lot of people can’t do, which is pretty much live his life by his own rules. That made it hard on the people involved with him ... but he was a very loving and generous man.”

Posted 02/03 at 10:16 AM

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