It’s impossible to overstate Eric von Schmidt’s prominence in the Cambridge folk scene during the late ‘50s and ‘60s or the scope of his influence on other folk musicians across New England and beyond. An accomplished illustrator and painter in addition to being a singer, songwriter, guitarist and banjo player, von Schmidt was widely respected as the area’s leading country-blues specialist and in the liner notes to von Schmidt’s 1969 album Who Knocked the Brains Out of the Sky, Bob Dylan wrote that he “could sing the bird off a wire and the rubber off a tire.”
Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1931, von Schmidt began drawing and painting as a young boy, inspired by his father, an illustrator for the Saturday Evening Post. He said he was inspired to learn guitar after hearing Leadbelly’s rendition of “Good Night, Irene” on the radio at age 13, and while in high school he went to New York City frequently to watch folk artists playing in small clubs and coffeeshops. During those years, he befriended Greenwich Village folk icon Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who helped land the 16-year old von Schmidt his radio debut, where he played “Pretty Polly” on banjo.
After graduating high school, von Schmidt spent two years in the Army stationed in Washington DC, where he passed countless hours at the Library of Congress researching traditional songs in the archives of the Folklore Department, often modernizing them in his own renditions. In 1957, he moved to Cambridge, where he lived across the street from Tulla’s Coffee Grinder, a coffeehouse that was the center of the city’s burgeoning folk movement. In 1958, the local scene gained tremendous momentum after Joan Baez made her Cambridge debut, with new venues like Club 47 in Harvard Square and the Unicorn Coffee House on Boylston Street opening and folk singers like Tom Rush, Geoff Muldaur, Jim Kweskin and Ramblin’ Jack playing regularly in the area.
In 1962, von Schmidt released his debut album, Von Schmidt, followed by four more in the ‘60s, two in the ‘70s, one in the ‘90s and his last, Living on the Trail, in 2002. During most of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, he focused on painting and drawing and his illustrations were featured on multiple album covers and displayed in several galleries. In 1997, von Schmidt won a Grammy for Best Album Notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music.
A walking encyclopedia of traditional-folk music, von Schmidt was famous for his uniquely updated renditions of standards and for taking great care to highlight the regional origins of those songs and the actual writer(s). The glaring irony is that von Schmidt did not actually write the song for which he’s still most often credited, “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” a staple of Dylan’s catalogue for years. In fact – as von Schmidt was quick to point out whenever he was credited for writing the song – he had adapted it from a song by blues guitarist Blind Boy Fuller and had credited blues/gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis as the author of “three quarters of it.” In 1979, when von Schmidt co-authored a book on the Cambridge folk scene with Americana-music producer and Boston native Jim Rooney, its title, Baby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, was something of an inside joke.
On February 2, 2007, von Schmidt died at age 75. As The Boston Globe wrote in his obituary, “Harvard Square was a center of the rebirth of folk music in America in the late 1950s and 1960s. And Eric von Schmidt was its raffish, raspy, bearded midwife.”
(by D.S. Monahan)