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Painter, illustrator, singer/songwriter, and folksinger Eric Von Schmidt was a spearhead of the folk revival that swept through Cambridge, Massachusett's Harvard Square in the early '60s. When he wasn't hosting late-night jam sessions at his apartment/studio, Von Schmidt was performing Leadbelly-influenced songs in coffeehouses and inspiring several generations of folk-rooted singer/songwriters.
As the third generation of painters in his family, Von Schmidt was the son of famed illustrator Harold Von Schmidt, best known for his serial Tugboat Annie. Von Schmidt was the first in his family to become involved with music. Although his mother read music and played piano at Christmas, his father and brother were unable to carry a tune. Determined that their children be given a grounding in music, Von Schmidt's parents purchased a collection of records including tunes by Johnny Noble & His Royal Hawaiians, Burl Ives, Segovia, Fred Waring & His Pennsylvanians, Hoagy Carmichael, and Duke Ellington.
Von Schmidt stumbled onto folk music by chance when he heard a live broadcast by Leadbelly on radio station WNYC. The theme song was "Goodnight Irene." "I was going out with a girl called Irene, " Von Schmidt explained in 1992. "I thought, 'Boy, there's a song that I've got to learn.'"
Leadbelly's performance inspired Von Schmidt to teach himself to play guitar. In addition to learning songs from the records that he bought at a local store, he learned songs from the few music books that he could find. Much to his surprise, Von Schmidt found other high-school students in awe of folk music. Together they would travel to New York, where they would sit around playing their guitars and banjos in taverns. Among the first New York-based folksingers who Von Schmidt befriended were Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Paley. At Elliott's invitation, Von Schmidt made his radio debut on a program hosted by Oscar Brand, playing "Pretty Polly" on a banjo.
Von Schmidt continued his musical education while serving in the Army. During the two years that he was stationed in Washington D.C., he searched for songs in the archives of the Folklore Department of the Library of Congress. After being discharged and spending two years studying art in Italy via a Fulbright Scholarship, Von Schmidt went to Harvard Square. Around the corner from his apartment and studio was Tulla's Coffee Grinder, a coffeehouse that served as the center of the early folk music movement.
Although the folk scene was initially relaxed and strictly amateur, things began to change around 1958 when Joan Baez made her debut appearances. The folk music craze spread quickly and new clubs opened, including Club 47 in Harvard Square and the Unicorn in Boston. One of the first folk artists to be recorded, Von Schmidt released his debut album in 1962.
An early friend and supporter of Bob Dylan, Von Schmidt was mentioned on Dylan's debut album as the source of the song "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, " which Von Schmidt had recorded as "Baby, Let Me Lay It on You." In 1963, Von Schmidt traveled to England with Dylan and Rolf Cohn, recording an album with Dylan appearing as "Blind Boy Grunt." Von Schmidt's debut album, Folk Blues, rests on the floor in the cover photograph of Dylan's 1965 Bringing It All Back Home album. Von Schmidt's original song "Joshua Gone Barbados" was recorded by Dylan and the Band during their Basement Tapes sessions and was included on the bootleg album The Genuine Basement Tapes, Vol. 5.
The folk scene was still going strong when Von Schmidt, who had been divorced from his first wife, left for Florida in 1970. After meeting the woman who would become his second wife, he relocated to Henniker, New Hampshire. He continued to record albums until the late '70s. Although he released an album with the Cruel Family on Philo in 1977, the label was experiencing severe problems and failed to promote the recording. The album was never included in the label's catalog. Baby, Let Me Lay It on You, a book about the Boston/Cambridge folk years that Von Schmidt co-wrote with folksinger and record producer Jim Rooney, was originally published in 1979; the book was later reissued by the University of Massachusetts. For much of the 1980s and early '90s, Von Schmidt concentrated on his artwork. His illustrations were featured on numerous record albums and exhibited in several galleries and museums.
After meeting guitarist and vocalist Linda Clifford, Von Schmidt began performing again. In 1995, he recorded Baby, Let Me Lay It on You — his first album in 18 years. In addition to 15 new songs, the album featured reworkings of "Joshua Gone Barbados" and the title track. Eric Von Schmidt died at age 75 on February 2, 2007 in Fairfield, Connecticut, after having suffered a stroke in August of the preceding year.