Posted - 13/08/2020 : 16:18:16
| Michael P. Smith, much-recorded star of Chicago’s folk and club scene, dead at 78
Beside writing songs including ‘The Dutchman,’ the Chicago folk music pillar wrote stage scores including Steppenwolf’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and Victory Gardens’ ‘The Snow Queen.’
By Maureen O'Donnell Aug 4, 2020, 6:48am CDT
Singer-songwriter Michael Smith, who composed the score, performing in the Victory Gardens Theater’s musical “The Snow Queen,” which debuted in 2006.
When Michael Smith strummed the guitar and sang his songs, a church-like hush would fill the clubs and coffeehouses where he played.
A star of Chicago’s folk scene and an award-winning composer who toured the United States and Canada for more than half a century, Mr. Smith died Monday at 78 of colon cancer, according to his friend, singer Jamie O’Reilly.
His songs — alternately bittersweet, haunting and wry — have been covered by performers including Suzy Bogguss, David Allan Coe, the Four Freshmen, the New Kingston Trio, David Soul and Spanky and Our Gang. Jimmy Buffett recorded his “Elvis Imitators.” Bonnie Koloc did “Crazy Mary.”
“The Dutchman” — about an elderly man and “dear Margaret,” who does his remembering for him — was one of his most popular compositions. It’s been covered by performers including Steve Goodman, Liam Clancy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Celtic Thunder and Trout Fishing in America. Goodman also recorded his “Spoon River,” inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.”
Mr. Smith didn’t want a funeral or any online RIPs, according to O’Reilly, his agent and a frequent musical collaborator. Instead, she said he told her: “If people sing my songs after I’m gone, they need to get the chords right.”
Bill FitzGerald, former owner of FitzGerald’s music club in Berwyn, called Mr. Smith’s music “enchanting” and “a sonic pleasure.”
“When he was onstage, it was Mike’s place,” FitzGerald said. “He would just completely capture the club, and it would get very quiet and very beautiful.”
“Goodman absolutely adored him,” longtime Chicago folksinger and former club owner Ed Holstein said. “He was a really unique writer with lyrics and music.”
Mr. Smith read constantly. The 500 or so songs he wrote reflected his love of literature and poetry.
“He was one of the most literate of guitar players,” Holstein said.
He said that when he was running the Chicago music club Holstein’s, “I just gave him any night I could give him.”
Speaking on his art in the 2016 book “More Songwriters on Songwriting,” Mr. Smith said, “There’s a child inside you, and that child has to be very, very reassured before it can come out. The world doesn’t want the child to come out. The world wants you to pay the bills.”
Mr. Smith also was an acclaimed theatrical composer and performer. His Appalachian-flavored score for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s “The Grapes of Wrath” drew critical praise when it debuted in 1988.
Frank Rich, a critic for The New York Times, singled out the music in a 1990 review of the Broadway production of the play, writing: “Equally astringent and evocative is Michael Smith’s score, which echoes Woody Guthrie and heartland musical forms and is played by a migrant band on such instruments as harmonica, Jew’s harp and banjo. Sometimes salted with descriptive lyrics from Steinbeck, the music becomes the thread that loosely binds a scattered society.”
The play won two Tony awards, and its success inspired him to quit a day job at Time-Life Chicago.
“It was really a chance to write songs with John Steinbeck,” Mr. Smith told the Sun-Times in 1988. “What songwriter would refuse that?”
“Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate,” a 1994 play that Mr. Smith cowrote based on his Catholic youth in Little Falls, New Jersey, won four Joseph Jefferson Awards for Chicago theater. It touched on prepubescent crushes, a boyhood love of singing cowboys and his father’s death by suicide. It featured “Sister Clarissa,” a song about a nun with a strict classroom where, “Somehow you know summer’s over.” The play also showcased his sly wit in the song “Coffeehouse Days”:
George Carlin came to see me once
He said Michael outta sight
Richie Pryor said he liked me
Even though I was white
I hung out with Don DiMucci
Took lessons from Earl Klugh
Joni Mitchell ignored me
Hey she’d ignore you
“Most memorable is Michael as a songsmith — tireless and prolific, crafting chords, melodies, harmonies, simply gorgeous,” said Jim Corti, the artistic director at the Paramount Theatre and a director–choreographer of “The Snow Queen.” “His wild wit and imagination riff on places (‘Lapland’) and characters (‘Love Letter on a Fish’) set to his wry, hilarious lyrics. I had never experienced anything like his genre of folk music storytelling — stifling laughing out loud so not to miss a word!”
Paying his dues in small clubs early on taught him “an audience is not easily deciphered,” Mr. Smith said in a 1994 Sun-Times interview. “But if you quietly believe in what you do and cling to the work — as opposed to yourself — then people come around.”
He said that, growing up, he listened to musicians as varied as Harry Belafonte, the Beatles, the Kingston Trio, Frankie Laine, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Phil Ochs, Cole Porter, Roy Rogers and doo-wop groups like the Penguins and the Five Satins.
“I was raised in a very rigid and accomplishment-oriented environment. I don’t mean my family,” he said in “More Songwriters on Songwriting.” “I mean being Catholic and white and in America in the ’50s, when everybody had crew cuts. I think you have to get past that somehow.
Mr. Smith often toured and wrote with folk singer Anne Hills. She said he “did what the great writers do. They use the lyrics, the melody and the composition as a whole to get around people’s defenses and open a door in the heart. It’s like you’re getting a little play in a song.”
He and O’Reilly collaborated on the popular folk cabarets “Songs of a Catholic Childhood,” “Gift of the Magi” and “Pasiones: Songs of the Spanish Civil War.”
“The Gift of the Magi” album featuring Michael Smith and Jamie O’Reilly.
The Michael Smith-Jamie O’Reilly collaboration “Songs of a Catholic Childhood.”
After Goodman recorded “The Dutchman” in the early 1970s, Mr. Smith and his wife, the singer Barbara Barrow, settled in Chicago and immersed themselves in the city’s thriving folk scene. They appeared at clubs including the Earl of Old Town, Holstein’s, No Exit Cafe, Orphans and Somebody Else’s Troubles.
They were together 52 years, until Barrow’s death in February from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
He and his wife taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where they also performed in concert.
One of the most beguiling and enduring songs he wrote was “Crazy Mary,” which included these lyrics:
In the lamplight burning low
And dimly thru enchanted woods
She rocked beside the fire
That was never lit
And as we ran on by
Pretending to be frightened
We would shout and laugh at Crazy Mary
Crazy Mary from Londonderry
Lives next door to the cemetery
How many lovers have you buried
We would shout running scared
Across the green and golden paths
That led us home
Away from Crazy Mary
Contributing: Mary Houlihan
The actual writing of a song usually comes in the form of a realisation.
I can't contrive a song. – GENE CLARK
Edited by - lemonade kid on 13/08/2020 16:27:16
Posted - 13/08/2020 : 16:29:33
| The Genius of Michael Smith, “Demon Lover,” Part 1.
Paul Zollo - July 9, 2020
First installation of new series dedicated to the greatness of Michael Smith, with a different miracle masterpiece Michael Smith song celebrated each time. Today’s is the haunting, mythic tale of modern day Montclair, New Jersey, Demon Lover.
Michael Smith, “Demon Lover”
John Prine wasn’t the only genius songwriter in Chicago that Steve Goodman championed. There was one other, a songwriter with songs so timeless, beautiful and compelling that Goodman immediately got busy learning them, burning to play them for the world.
That songwriter was Michael Smith. He wrote “The Dutchman,” which Goodman recorded, and then performed in nearly every show. It became one of the most beloved songs Steve ever did, the first of three by Michael that he recorded.
Steve Goodman was the very rare and remarkably generous songwriter who wrote brilliant, unique songs on his own – from “City of New Orleans” through “Banana Republics” and beyond – yet delighted in sharing the brilliance of other songwriters with the world. Part of his impetus, no doubt, was not simply benevolence; he was an entertainer, and always on the lookout for great songs to perform.
Soon as he heard Michael Smith, he knew this was a strong source for exactly the kind of song he wanted. It was the start of the 1970s, when the pop music soundtrack of the time was still shaped by the surreal, psychedelic imprint of Sgt. Pepper and Dylan’s expansively poetic epics. Along came Goodman singing his own songs, and those of Prine and Smith. The impact of that was like a shot in the arm of cogent, narrative songwriting.
Songs like John’s “Hello In There” and Michael’s “The Dutchman” resonated like modern, timeless folk songs. These were not surreal songs of ethereal abstractions, requiring serious scrutiny to decode. They were genuine human journeys touching on myths modern and ancient, and told in real, spoken language.
It was a new kind of modern song, inverting the psychedelic anarchy of Sixties-era acid-inspired lyrics for the luminous force of lucid story-songs, richly appointed with the true details of our real lives. These were songs which spoke to both the heart and the mind at once, and with direct, stunning intimacy.
Both Michael Smith and John Prine imbued their songs with heartfelt, sentimental tenderness. Each of them wrote lyrics of unforced grace and elegance, using language wistful and concise to create genuinely poignant songs.
They each wrote potent songs about being old when they were still young men. To realize these songs as they did so young is evidence of something beyond genius songwriting talent. It’s a sign of true empathy, of a heart so big that even during one’s season of serious oat sowing they each vividly captured the lonely resignation of growing old.
In “Hello In There,” those things which once held our lives together unravelled long ago:
“We lost Davy in the Korean war
Still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore..”
“The Dutchman” is built on the redolent imagery of the heart; the tulips beneath the snow yearning to bloom, like the unborn babies seen in The Dutchman’s eyes.
Steve Goodman heard Smith at a club in Miami, and was immediately entranced. He went back every chance he could get to start memorizing the songs to perform himself (though never exactly, which irked Michael a bit.)
Stevie made “The Dutchman” the opening cut of his second album, Somebody Else’s Troubles. And from then on, the songs of Michael Smith belonged to the world.
Goodman ultimately recorded three by Smith. “The Dutchman” was first, followed by “Spoon River” and “The Ballad of Dan Moody.”
Other beloved Chicago performers, such as folk diva Bonnie Kolac, also began singing Michael’s praises as well as his songs. She brought us “Crazy Mary,” another beautifully mythic song by Smith about a character of moment and mystery. Goodman performed this one, too, though did not record it.
The expansive, global reverence for John Prine’s work so bountifully expressed after his death was something which took years to set in. In Chicago he was beloved, but would the rest of the world catch on? It took some time, but gradually, the compounded impact of the world’s greatest songwriters testifying to Prine’s greatness established a bedrock which is undeniable, forging his place forever as a genuine American treasure.
Michael Smith gets this level of reverence from his fans and those in this know, but deserves much more.
For writing “The Dutchman” alone he deserves his own suite in the Tower of Song. Or perhaps his own wing.
Now news comes that Michael’s health is failing, and he is in hospice. Our hearts go out to this man who has been a true songwriting hero for so many. Not only did he write all these miraculous songs which have enriched our lives for decades, but also gave us all these master-classes in songwriting. Untold numbers of songwriters have studied his songs seriously to learn how to take a humble human idea and give it life with words and music.
So with prayers for Michael in this moment, we celebrate his timeless greatness as a songwriter by bringing you this new series dedicated to his genius, bringing you daily individual links in his chain of masterpieces.
The first song which will launch this virtual Michael Smith Festival is “Demon Lover.” Merging the mythic with modern times in Montclair, New Jersey, it’s an astounding song, painted in poignant colors alive in its achingly romantic melody.
He discussed the origins of this song during a 2013 conversation for this magazine in Altadena, California in 2013. Here is “Demon Lover,” as introduced by the songwriter in his own words.
MICHAEL SMITH: “The Demon Lover” legend is a traditional legend from the Middle Ages. There are old ballads called “Ballads of The Demon Lover.” And there’s one ballad called “The House Carpenter” that Joan Baez recorded. The premise is that a woman is engaged, her lover goes off to sea, and he’s gone for seven years.
By this time she’s married and has three children, and a guy looking just like him returns. And her husband’s away.
He says, “Will you forsake your children to come with me?” And she says, “Yes, I will.”
He takes her out to his golden boat. And she notices getting on the boat that his feet are cloven hooves. And it’s too late, He’s got her and takes her down to hell in this boat. That’s the “House Carpenter Ballad” because she was married to a house carpenter.
Then I read this wonderful book by Shirley Jackson called Adventures of The Demon Lover. I read this when I was about 18 and I wanted to do this ancient story in a modern setting. So I used things that were common to my New Jersey upbringing, and I used the name of a girl I knew in grade school, Agnes Heinz. She was the first girl I knew whose father had died. I thought of her as being a tragic figure when I was about 10.
I worked on “Demon Lover” for a long, long time. I had the idea for a couple of years.
I liked the idea of making the tune almost like jazz. I was trying to make something that sounded like Mel Torme. I figured that if I could make this tune that has major seventh chords in it and that is talking about demons and people disappearing in the middle of the day, there will be a mood.
There’s a reason why myths last for centuries. They give us a skeleton that we’re not even aware of, but is full of strength in its structure. like fairy tales do that like the song “Down in the Willow Garden,” “I put my saber through her…” I would never think of anything like that. I am a suburban white guy in the 20th century.
I realized I could do other [songs] that way. In a sense, Dylan did that, specifically with the song `Seven Curses,’ which is an old story that he told in a new way.
The song does not answer every question. Here’s what I think is going on: she wants him back so bad that she gave over the power in her life to some creation that only responded to desire. In a sense it was him, and in a sense it was a solidification of her dissatisfaction.”
A lot of work went into finding the guitar riff, and the words occurred to me to match the music. It was done without thinking; if I can persuade myself that this is just a little abstract project that I’m working on, and not some song that had better be real good, then I’m better off.
For me, the pleasure of writing a song is getting to hear it back. Not playing it. I love being an audience to my own songs. I think if you write songs a lot, there will be times when you’re really possessed, and you don’t have any doubts. It becomes more like this is what I do and I’m doing it now and I’m not a hero and I’m not a fool.”
Michael Smith, “Demon Lover”
Words & Music by Michael Smith
From Michael Smith/Love Stories
I knew a girl who came from Little Falls
Her name was Agnes Hines
She fell in love with a boy named Jimmy Harris
But he had a short life-line
A year after Jimmy was killed in a car crash
She married a man from Cornell
They had three little kids and a big house
In upper Montclair
The actual writing of a song usually comes in the form of a realisation.
I can't contrive a song. – GENE CLARK
Edited by - lemonade kid on 13/08/2020 16:35:49