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A Mighty Wind

Would American music have undergone a radical transformation in the middle of the last century, as it did, without Eric von Schmidt? No doubt and no matter. We all know how popular music changed during the first decades of the postwar era: It grew more informal,rougher and earthier, shifting from an aesthetic of burnishedprofessionalism to one of unschooled authenticity. A flashpoint in this mutation was the folk boom of the late '50s and early '60s; anidus of that phenomenon was the Cambridge coffeehouse scene, fromwhich came the early folk idol Joan Baez, and the guiding spirit of the Harvard Square cafes was Eric von Schmidt. However American music might have evolved without him, the fact is that it changedin part because he was there.

Von Schmidt was a minor musician but a major influence on greaterswho brought what they took from him into the culture beyond Cambridge. He died on February 2, at 75, after several years of declining health, and the terse encomia published immediately afterhis death betray the ephemerality of influence, the precious caprice of spiritus. (In The New York Times, von Schmidt's obituaryran below those for Whitney Balliett, the longtime jazz critic forThe New Yorker; and Bob Carroll Jr., a writer for "I Love Lucy.")Von Schmidt is historic for leading others to make history. He wasto the folk movement what Leonard Woolf was to Bloomsbury or whatAlexandre Kojeve was to the post-Hegelians Sartre, Derrida, andFoucault.

Von Schmidt would have relished the latter notion--or debated itpersuasively--because he knew his Hegel as well as his Howlin' Wolf.I got to know Von Schmidt fairly well in the early '90s, while Iwas researching my book about the folk era, Positively 4th Street,and I still remember noticing, in one of my early visits to hishouse, a small stack of library books on a drink- stained old desk.When I returned a week or so later, I found the pile replaced withnew titles, all of history and philosophy, as I recall. We guzzled his drink of favor at the time, rum and orange juice, and once, as a toast, he blurted, "Fuck the structuralists!"

Von Schmidt's home-schooled wildman erudition made him ideallyequipped to serve as dean of the coffeehouses in postwar HarvardSquare. The Cambridge scene was pivotal in establishing folk musicas a college craze in the '50s, because the presence of all those Ivy Leaguers imparted a scholarly patina upon what was supposed tobe a music of the unschooled. At the time, there was a compelling tension in folk's conflicting qualities: It was at once anti-intellectual (made up by working people) and an object of scholarship (catalogued by academics and would-be academics like,respectively, John Lomax and his son Alan). Von Schmidt embodied this contradiction; indeed, he gloried in it.

The son of Harold von Schmidt, a prominent illustrator in the heydayof magazine art, Eric von Schmidt practiced both music and artsince childhood. About ten years older than Joan Baez, Bob Dylan,and their peers, von Schmidt was writing his own songs (in theidiom of his idol, Leadbelly) by 1951, when he was 19. He passed on college, did a stint in the Army, studied art abroad on aFulbright, and settled in Cambridge in 1957, just as the coffeehouses were opening. He was the elder of the scene and impeccably credentialed. While most of the music's young fans knew the folk repertoire through field recordings made by the Lomaxes and released on 78-RPM records by the Library of Congress, vonSchmidt had actually gone to the Library itself, studied volumes ofthe original recordings on the premises, and had came back Northknowing how to play and sing little-known songs like "Wasn't That a Mighty Flood," "He Was a Friend of Mine," and "Ain't No Grave Can Hold Me Down." He was a pilgrim returned home from a holy site with sacred knowledge.

"My apartment became Action Central," von Schmidt recalled in Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, the dual memoir he wrote with the folksinger Jim Rooney, titled for von Schmidt's best-known song (anadaptation of an old blues, "Baby, Let Me Lay It on You"). Everyfolksinger or would-be folksinger in town came to see von Schmidt,and he passed on what he had learned in the Library of Congress.When Baez, a teenage daughter of an MIT physicist, decided to be afolksinger, she made a pilgrimage to the pilgrim, who taught hermany of the first pieces she performed.

Bob Dylan, much the same, traveled to Cambridge and knocked on vonSchmidt's door not long after he had moved east from Minnesota. Notyet 20, Dylan had not yet recorded his first album, and he was not yet writing much original material. Von Schmidt taught him "Baby Let Me Lay It on You," "He Was a Friend of Mine," "Acne," and half a dozen other tunes. "He had a sponge-like brain, and he wanted toknow everything I knew," von Schmidt would later recall. "He didn't know a lot of country blues. He seemed very impressed by the fact that I was playing black music. I don't think he knew much about the black strain in folk music, but he was obviously very drawn to it." On his first album, Dylan acknowledged von Schmidt by name in a spoken introduction to what was now "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," a song Dylan would continue to play in concert for decades. (In his set in the Band's final concert, staged by Martin Scorsesefor the film The Last Waltz, Dylan sang the song twice, opening and closing with it. )

Caring to the brink of carelessness, von Schmidt devoted himself to other musicians at the expense of his own career. He recorded a small handful of albums but coached and prodded generations of musicians, from contemporaries of Baez and Dylan like Jim Kweskinand Geoff Muldaur to James Taylor (who still performs "Wasn't That a Mighty Flood" in concert, with a sweet little speech about vonSchmidt). Every summer until a few years ago, he would host a lawn party at his house in Westport, Connecticut, and his acolytes would play for their mentor for hours. One year, I practiced a thorny von Schmidt original, "Joshua Gone Barbados," to sing and play for him. I brought my guitar but panicked and went home without daring astrum. The next morning, I got a fax from him. He wrote, "Keep practicing. I'll be here."

This article appeared in the February 19-26, 2007 issue of the magazine.