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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

RIC VON SCHMIDT & MARK SPOELSTRA

I'm sorry to have been so tardy in mentioning the deaths last month of these two figures from the Folk Revival days. Eric Von Schmidt died in his sleep in a retirement home in Fairfield CT on February 2, aged 75. Mark Spoelstra died 23 days later in Pioneer CA. He was 66. Both had their own artistic importance and their own mutual connections - among other things, Von Schmidt painted an album cover for Spoelstra - but both made, too, contributions to Bob Dylan's. Here are their entries in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia (updated to note their passing):

Von Schmidt, Eric [1931 - 2007]
Eric Von Schmidt was born in Bridgport Connecticut on May 28, 1931. He grew up listening to late-night radio and watching his father, Harold Von Schmidt, painting pictures of the old American west, most lucratively for the Saturday Evening Post. Thus he imbibed both music and art, and learnt the 6-guitar in the 1940s. A big Leadbelly fan when he first heard him on radio in 1948, he nevertheless stuck to the 6-string guitar himself when he began performing. He served in the US Army from 1952 to 1954, read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, started eating peyote mushrooms and left the army to paint. He studied art in Florence and then in Florida, where he taught at the Sarasota School of Art but in 1957 moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became prominent in the city’s folk scene, centered upon Club 47, befriended RICHARD FARINA and in 1961 recorded an album with Folkways artist Rolf Kahn. His paintings now extended to album covers and concert posters.

He was there in Cambridge, therefore, in the June of that same year when Bob Dylan first encountered him, slept on his couch, heard him perform and filched several song arrangements from him. One of these was ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’, and another was ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’. When Dylan recorded the latter that November for his début album, Bob Dylan, he delivered, with his ever-immaculate timing, a spoken intro over his guitar-work, admitting his debt and giving Von Schmidt a namecheck: ‘I first heard this from, uh, Ric Von Schmidt,’ he said: ‘I met him one day in the green pastures of, uh, Harvard University’ - and then lit into the song, delivering it so beautifully that he made it his own. (See separate entry on the song’s provenance.) Eric von Schmidt responded after an almost 35-year delay, recording the variant ‘Baby, Let Me Lay It On You’ in a version that included the line ‘Now Bobby Dylan, he put me in a song’.

The two first came together as performers in London in January 1963, when Dylan contributed backing vocals and harmonica to several tracks on the sessions for the album Dick Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, which was released, in the UK only, in May 1963, with Dylan billed as Blind Boy Grunt. (The story of Von Schmidt and Fariña’s time in Britain that year, with and without Dylan, is told in some detail in DAVID HAJDU’s Positively 4th Street: a book in which there is much additional material on Von Schmidt and his rôle in the Cambridge folk scene - and for which Von Schmidt was an interviewee.) Later in 1963 Von Schmidt released his well-known album The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt, which became more well-known after Dylan included its front cover among the records scattered around the room on his front cover for the album Bringing It All Back Home. In a later, further self-reflexive gesture, the cover Dylan chose for his Nashville Skyline album catches him in a pose that is itself a visual echo of the Von Schmidt cover.

In 1964 came Eric Sings von Schmidt (with GEOFF MULDAUR and creepy Mel Lyman). Though he appeared at the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL, Eric didn’t issue another album until his foray into psychedelia in 1969, Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?, for which Dylan contributed sub-hokum liner notes in the declamatory style you might associate with MUHAMMAD ALI or LITTLE RICHARD. (These included - and there was plenty more of the same - ‘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.’ It certainly managed to avoid saying anything in particular, which for Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky? was probably best.)

Back in the pre-psychedelic ’60s (peyote mushrooms notwithstanding) however, Von Schmidt had also contributed to that various-artists album The Blues Project, on which Dylan had played piano on one Geoff Muldaur track. Eric had played piano alongside Dylan on that track, and had one further track on the LP himself, ‘Blow Whistle Blow’, the second track on Side 1; he also painted the front cover. A month or two after these sessions, Dylan had visited Von Schmidt at the home he had retained in Sarasota, Florida, and one day in early May 1964 the two of them home-taped themselves on a total of 20 songs and song fragments.

As well as playing guitars, they shared vocals on two improvised songs, one ‘Black Betty’ and three attempts at ‘Stoned on the Mountain’. Dylan took the lead vocal on ‘Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies’, ‘Money Honey’, ‘More and More’, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ (probably the earliest extant recording), ‘Susie Q’, ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ (oh yes) and ‘Walkin’ Down the Line’. Dylan also took lead vocal and played harmonica on two tries at ‘Long Johnny CooCoo’; he played harmonica behind Von Schmidt on a further blues improvisation, a further instrumental and a revisit to ‘Glory, Glory’; and he played harmonica and sang backing vocals on their final number, Von Schmidt’s best-known composition, ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’. This tape has never circulated, but ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’, quite new at the time, was on Eric’s latest album (Eric Sings von Schmidt) and quickly became a widely-covered song. Dylan himself attempted the song on the Basement Tapes sessions in 1967 (circulated but officially unreleased) but it remained unreleased. But the lyric includes, after the title phrase, the line ‘staying in a big hotel’, which Dylan liked enough to use verbatim after his title phrase at the beginning of ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ on the 1970 album New Morning.

Von Schmidt never gave up painting, and in more recent years came to regard it as his prime purpose in the world, despite making further albums with the participation of many well-known musicians, including GARTH HUDSON. In 1979, with Jim Rooney, he published the book Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years. In the 1980s Von Schmidt returned from Provo, Utah, where he liked to paint, to his parents’ home in Westport, and in December 1985 participated in the 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert of Club 47 performers (along with BAEZ, MIMI FARINA, Richie Havens and many others) at Boston Symphony Hall. Latterly, Eric Von Schmidt was fighting throat cancer, and his days as a singer were over. He remained committed to painting, and launched a website devoted to his own and his late father’s art.

Eric Von Schmidt died in his sleep in a retirement home in Fairfield CT on February 2, aged 75.

[Eric Von Schmidt: The Folk Blues of Eric Von Schmidt, Prestige/Folklore 14005, US, 1963; Eric Sings von Schmidt, Prestige 7384, 1964; Who Knocked The Brains Out Of The Sky?, Smash SRS 67124, US, 1969; ‘Baby, Let Me Lay It On You’, nia, Baby, Let Me Lay It On You, Gazell GPCD2013, US, 1995. Dick Fariña, Eric Von Schmidt & Blind Boy Grunt: ‘Glory, Glory’, ‘Xmas Island’, ‘Cocaine’, London, 15 Jan 1963, Dick Fariña and Eric Von Schmidt, Folklore F-LEUT-7, UK, 1963; ‘Overseas Stomp’ (several takes), London, 15 Jan 1963, unreleased (the LP version excludes Dylan). ‘Blow Whistle Blow’, NY, early 1964, The Blues Project, Elektra EKL-7264, 1964. Eric Von Schmidt & Jim Rooney, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, New York: Anchor Books, 1979; 2nd edn. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. The Eric & Harold Von Schmidt website: www.vonsworks.com.
David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: the lives and times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña, New York, Farar, Straus & Giroux, 2001. Thanks too to the unreliable, interesting profile of Von Schmidt by John Kruth, seen online 04 Sep 2005 at www.richardandmimi.com/eric-linernotes.html.]



Spoelstra, Mark [1940 - 2007]
Mark Spoelstra was born on June 30, 1940 in Kansas City, Missouri, but grew up in El Monte, California, where he was playing guitar by age 11. His third gig was opening act for Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. He moved to New York City (via Berkeley) and joined the folk revival scene, playing a big B-45 Gibson 12-string guitar.

According to his own breezy account, ‘A friend of mine ran into me on the street one day and said there was a guy he thought I should meet. He was sitting alone in a joint, having just come to town. So I was one of the first acquaintances Bob Dylan met when he came to the big city. We hung out together a lot, because at the time we had a lot in common. One night we were playing at the Café Wha?, and JOHN COHEN, who was with the NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS, came in and was blown away by my JOHN HURT style guitar and Bob’s blues harp...’

A couple of months after they met, as an extant photograph confirms, Dylan and Spoelstra performed together at the Indian Neck Folk Festival in Branford, Connecticut in May 1961; the corollary tape catches Dylan singing ‘Talking Columbia’, ‘Hangknot, Slipknot’ and ‘Talking Fish Blues’: all WOODY GUTHRIE songs. Spoelstra’s main influences, Mississippi John Hurt aside, were JESSE FULLER, PETE SEEGER and Skip James.

That summer, the two often appeared behind BROTHER JOHN SELLERS at Gerde’s Folk City hootenannies, backing up his gospel shouts and tambourine with guitars and harmonica (and were even announced as Brother John & the Dungarees). Spoelstra says in the film No Direction Home that in these early years, Dylan shared with him and so many others the belief that song could help to abolish racial segregation and change the world for the better: that they talked about these things with enthusiasm.

In Chronicles Volume One Dylan describes Spoelstra as ‘a singing pal of mine’, recalls their playing with Brother John Sellers and recalls the day when, having arranged to meet up with Mark at ‘a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse… run by a character called the Dutchman’, who ‘resembled Rasputin’, he arrived to find Mark Spoelstra there waiting for him and the Dutchman lying dead in the doorway with a knife in him, killed by the old man who was his landlord.

Spoelstra got a record deal with Folkways that same year, and recorded two albums for them, The Songs Of Mark Spoelstra With Twelve-String Guitar and Mark Spoelstra Recorded at Club 47 Inc., which were both released a bit belatedly in 1963.

He was one of the featured artists on two different albums on which Dylan appeared as Blind Boy Grunt. On the Various Artists album Broadside Ballads, released in October 1963 (on which Dylan performed ‘John Brown’, ‘Only A Hobo’ and ‘Talkin’ Devil’), Mark Spoelstra performed his own topical song ‘The Civil Defense Sign’; and on the Various Artists album The Blues Project in 1964, on which Dylan played on a GEOFF MULDAUR track, Spoelstra had a track on each side of the LP, with renditions of ‘France Blues’ and ‘She’s Gone’. The other featured artists were DAVE RAY, ERIC VON SCHMIDT, DAVE VAN RONK, Ian Buchanan and DANNY KALB.

Like Dylan, Spoelstra also became an occasional contributor to Broadside magazine, and appeared at the 1965 NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL. Unlike Dylan, his career never took off, despite having an early hit single in Canada (‘Walkin’ ’Round town’ by Mark & the Two Timers), despite signing to Elektra and making another two albums, released in 1965 and ’66, despite a couple of his pieces being used on the soundtrack of that great film Electra Glide In Blue, and despite Janis Joplin covering one of his songs. In part, but only in part, this was because he was a conscientious objector placed in ‘alternative service’ instead of being called up, and so he was prevented from touring to promote those mid-60s albums.

In San Francisco he formed a rock band; it got nowhere. In 1969 Columbia signed him as a solo artist again, and released one album, Hobo Poet (from which the Electra Glide In Blue tracks are taken) but by this time Spoelstra and his family were ‘almost starving’. He gave up trying to find music-industry success and found God and a series of dayjobs instead.

Mark Spoelstra long retained one dayjob, driving a shuttle bus at a northern California Indian Casino. He stayed with God, too; but in 2001, after a gap of more than 20 years, he released a new album, Out Of My Hands, for the distinguished blues-revival company Origin Jazz Library, with a cover-painting by Eric Von Schmidt and a soundbite from Tom Paxton: ‘I always wanted to play guitar like Mark Spoelstra. I still do and I still can’t.’

Mark Spoelstra died on February 25, 2007, in Pioneer CA. He was 66.

[Mark Spoelstra quoted in Eric von Schmidt & Jim Rooney, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, Garden City: Anchor Books, 1979, p. 204 and précis’d from No Direction Home, dir. Martin Scorsese, 2005; The Songs Of Mark Spoelstra With Twelve-String Guitar, NYC, 1961, Folkways FA 2444, NY, 1963; Mark Spoelstra Recorded at Club 47 Inc., Boston MA, 1961, Folkways FG 3572, 1963; ‘The Civil Defense Sign’, NYC Feb-Mar? 1963, Broadside Ballads, Broadside BR301, NY, Oct 1963; ‘France Blues’ & ‘She’s Gone’, NYC early 1964, The Blues Project, Elektra EKL 264, NY, Jun 1964; Five & Twenty Questions, nia, Elektra EKL-283 / EKS-7283, NY, 1965; State Of Mind, nia, Elektra EKL-307 / EKS-7307, NY, 1966; Hobo Poet, San Francisco, nia, Columbia CS 9793, 1969; ‘Meadow Mountain Top’ & ‘Song of Sad Bottles’ also on Electra Glide In Blue (dir. James William Guercio) soundtrack album, United Artists UA-LA062-H, US, 1973; Out Of My Hands, nia, Origin Jazz Library OJL 2001, Thousand Oaks CA, 2001. Mark & the Two Timers: ‘Walking Around Town’ c/w ‘Corinna Folkways’, nia, F45001, NY, 1964. Bob Dylan: Chronicles Volume One, pp.74-75.]

2 Comments:

Anonymous John Kruth said...

Greetings from the interesting but unreliable John Kruth. Not sure in what way I'm unreliable this time - I paid the rent, walked the dog, brushed my teeth, handed in my homework in time and knew Eric von Schmidt for twenty seven years (and never called him Ric.And never heard too many of his friends call him such) Played plenty of music with him, drank, partied, talked for hours on end, laughed, argued (not once did he deem me "unreliable!") and loved the man. So really I've got no idea what you're talking about. - Truly, John Kruth

8:35 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Hi, John. Sorry if you were offended, but I didn't write that you were unreliable - that would have been mad impertinence, since I don't know you. (Nor was I doubting for a moment that you knew Von Schmidt, or claiming that I did.)

What I wrote was "Thanks too to the unreliable, interesting profile of Von Schmidt by John Kruth": a quite different and far less sweeping comment. (And if you want to object to your writing being called "unreliable", then don't misquote other people's!)

Your profile was, as I wrote, unreliable. It included this:

"On New Year's Eve 1963, Eric flew the coop, hooking up with his irrepressible compadre the Cuban/Irish dulcimer strumming/ songwriter/author Richard Fariña in London, where they played hoots, a communist wedding and recorded an obscure album, accompanied on harmonica by a trans-Atlantic troubadour named Blind Boy Grunt (AKA Bob Dylan). That same year Dylan cut his debut album for Columbia, dropping von Schmidt's name on the spoken intro of his version of "Baby, Let Me Lay It On You"..."

Dylan cut his debut album in 1961, not 1963 (it was released in March 1962). It may be the only error - I don't know - but it's a very basic one, and quite wildly inaccurate about the most easily-verifiable kind of info: the kind likely to give any reader cause to doubt the accuracy of the rest.

I don't think my comment was unreasonable - especially since the same sentence also described your profile as interesting, made it clear that it was one of the sources I had drawn on, and gave the URL so that people could see it for themselves.

Really, this was a mild noting of inaccuracy in your profile, and given only in the small print of the footnotes. As I say, I'm sorry if you were offended.

Peace?

Michael.

12:47 pm  

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