Tag Archives: Eric von Schmidt

Ramblin’ Jack Xerxes

I know a lot about Westport’s musical history.

I was there when the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds and many other bands played at Staples.

I remember when Johnny Winter lived here, and hung out at Players Tavern. And of course, REO Speedwagon wrote “157 Riverside Avenue” about their former home across from what is now Saugatuck Elementary School.

But I had no idea Ramblin’ Jack Elliott spent time here too.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

He had a profound influence on generations of musicians. Arlo Guthrie says that because he was young when his father died, he learned Woody’s songs and performing style from Ramblin’ Jack.

Jack’s interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s songs made a great impact on a young Bob Dylan. Jack later appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review concert tour. He also influenced Phil Ochs.

Peter Barlow not only remembers Ramblin’ Jack’s Westport days — he was an important part of them. Peter writes:

Ramblin’ Jack came a lot to Westport in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He saw his friends Ric von Schmidt, Bill Frey, Bob Keedy, several others I can’t remember, and me. We were all in our late teens.

We knew him as Xerxes. He had no other name and no explanation, though if pressed he was Jack Elliott.

His real name was Elliot Adnapoz. He lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father was a surgeon. I met his parents there. They were constantly worried about Elliot, and somehow thought I was a good influence (!).

He met my parents too. I brought Xerxes over to my house one evening. He played and sang a song for my father, who was very impressed.

He played guitar and sang incessantly. I never knew there were so many verses to those folk songs.

Xerxes had 2 other interests: rodeo and sailing ships. It was the ships that connected us to each other.

In 1969, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sailed to Westport with Pete Seeger, on Seeger’s new 106-foot sloop Clearwater. Seeger performed in Westport, though Ramblin’ Jack stayed on board. The morning after the concert, Peter Barlow took this photo — with Ramblin’ Jack on the 20-foot bowsprit — in the pouring rain. (Photo copyright Peter Barlow)

I didn’t see Xerxes for a long time after those years. He became very successful, without compromising or going commercial. He’s still performing concerts.

Although Jack Elliott rambled many places — including Westport — that’s not how he got his name. Apparently, it came from his tendency to tell long, drawn-out stories.

Folk singer Odetta claimed her mother gave him the nickname, saying, “Oh, Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!”

Pic Of The Day #99

Waiting in the Staples High School auditorium lobby for last weekend’s production of “Working.” The painting is “Birth of the Blues” — one of 7 in a series by Staples grad, and noted artist/musician Eric von Schmidt. (Photo copyright Lynn U. Miller)

Putting The “Sound” In 17 Soundview Drive

Ginger Baker sent a drum set to the house. Peter Frampton lounged on the front deck. Carly Simon wanted to buy it.

Those are just a few of the musical memories associated with 17 Soundview Drive. It’s one of the most handsome homes lining the Compo exit road, drawing admiring glances from walkers and sunbathers for its beachside gracefulness.

If only they knew the musical history hidden throughout the property.

17 Soundview Drive.

17 Soundview Drive.

It was built — like the rest of the neighborhood — as a summer house in 1918. One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s students designed it, ensuring harmony with the beach environment.

Francis Bosco — current owner Gail Cunningham Coen’s grandfather — bought it in 1928. A Sicilian immigrant and lover of opera, he tuned in every Saturday to NBC Radio’s live Met broadcasts. For years the voices of Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Robert Merrill and others soared from the living room, under the awnings and onto the beach, thrilling neighbors and passersby.

In 1982 Gail and her husband Terry Coen bought the house. She’s a musician and music teacher; he’s a songwriter and music promoter. Over the past 32 years they’ve lavished love on it. It was one of the 1st Compo homes to be raised, to protect against storms. It’s been beautifully renovated inside. The Coens also added a secluded rooftop deck, and flower and vegetable gardens.

You can see the water from nearly every room in the house. This is the living room.

You can see the water from nearly every room in the house. This is the living room.

But the professionally designed, fully soundproofed music studio is what really rocks.

It — and the chance to hang out privately, yet in the middle of all the beach action — has made 17 Soundview a home away from home for 3 decades of musical royalty.

Ginger Baker spent many evenings talking about the birth of British rock, touring with Eric Clapton, and his childhood in England during World War II. He also recited some very bawdy limericks. In return, he gave Ludwig drums to Soundview Studios.

Ginger Baker, and his drums. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Ginger Baker, and his drums. (Photo/Wikipedia)

Peter Frampton brought his young family. They loved the warm summer breeze, and being able to sit anonymously just a few feet from the hubbub of a beach afternoon.

One summer day, Carly Simon said she was thinking of buying a beach house. #17 was her favorite, because it reminded her so much of Martha’s Vineyard.

Meat Loaf played Sunday morning softball at Compo. After, he headed to the Coens’. One day, he played his next single on the roof deck. No one on the beach could see he was there — but they heard him. At the end, everyone applauded.

The Remains reunited for the 1st time in decades in the studio. (Full disclosure: I was there. It was one of the most magical moments of my life.)

Eric von Schmidt loved to sing by the fireplace, and joined jam sessions in the studio. One day, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott rambled over with him.

Other regulars included Jimi Hendrix’s bass player Noel Redding; Corky Laing and Leslie West of Mountain; former Buddy Miles Express front man Charlie Karp; Eric Schenkman of the Spin Doctors, and guitarist/producer/songwriter Danny Kortchmar.

17 Soundview - roof deck

The rooftop deck is a great place to watch fireworks. It’s also where Meat Loaf played his next single, to the unknowing delight of a Compo Beach crowd.

Some of those musicians — and plenty other great ones, though less known — were guests at the Coens’ annual July 4th fireworks parties. The food and drinks were fantastic, capped off by watching the passing parade on Soundview.

But the real action happened when the fireworks ended. Everyone piled into the studio, and jammed till the sun came up.

From Caruso to the Spin Doctors, 17 Soundview Drive has seen it all. If only those walls could talk (or sing).

It’s on the market now, ready for the next gig. For Westport’s sake, I hope the new owners understand the home’s history. I hope they realize how the place has sheltered so many artists, and helped their creative spirits grow.

And though Brian Wilson was one of the few musicians not to hang out at 17 Soundview Drive — well, I don’t think he did — I hope whoever buys this beautiful, wondrous property will “get” its longtime, way cool and very good vibrations.

(Interested in buying the house? Click here for details.)


Eric von Schmidt: Fondly (And Finally) Remembered

In my time in Westport, I’ve met tons of interesting and unique people. Movie stars, authors, CEOs — they’re all here, and often taken for granted.

But I can’t imagine a greater thrill — or honor — than getting to know Eric von Schmidt.

Eric was one of those bubbling-under-the-surface folks — someone who, for whatever set of reasons, never attained star status, but was far more talented than many super-celebrities.

And Eric did it in 2 very different fields.

Eric von Schmidt, in his folk days.

Eric von Schmidt, in his folk days.

He first earned renown as an artist. That’s natural — his father, Harold von Schmidt, was a celebrated illustrator. (And a Staples football coach. And a host known for wild parties at his Evergreen Avenue home.)

Eric was selling his artwork while still a Staples student. After a brief stint at the Arts Students League in New York, and service in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study art in Florence.

Back in the States, he ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He painted, and hung out in coffeehouses.

As a teenager — hearing Leadbelly sing “Goodnight Irene” on the Grand Ole Opry radio show — Eric had gotten into old blues and folk songs. His mother, Forest Gilmore, encouraged him to visit the Library of Congress, where he discovered archival blues music.

Eric’s timing was perfect. In the late ’50s Cambridge was filled with exciting young performers, like Joan Baez. Tom Rush called him a major influence.

Bob Dylan did more. In his 1962 debut album, Dylan — with whom he’d “traded harmonica licks, drank red wine and played croquet” — credited “Ric” with teaching him “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down.”

Eric wrote songs like “Joshua Gone Barbados.” He recorded 8 albums, with the likes of Richard Fariña. His “Folk Blues of Eric von Schmidt” sits atop of the records on the cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” In 1965, when Dylan shocked his fans by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, Eric played there too.

Eric von Schmidt created this cover art for his own 1977 album.

Eric von Schmidt created this cover art for his own 1977 album.

Meanwhile, he was painting and drawing. Eric created record covers, children’s books, and more.

His works got bigger and grander. In 1976 — the centennial of Little Bighorn — he completed 6 years of work on”Here Fell Custer.” An enormous acrylic work, and the product of prodigious research, it was chosen by the National Park Service as the official depiction of General George Custer’s infamous “last stand.” Action-packed, but filled with intricate details, it is now displayed at Last Stand Hill, and in the NPS brochure. Why it is not nationally well known is beyond me.

A few small details from Eric von Schmidt's "Here Fell Custer."

A few small details from Eric von Schmidt’s “Here Fell Custer.”

Eric went on to research and paint 2 more large historical works: “Osceola and the Treaty of Seminole Removal” and “The Storming of the Alamo.” Both are as stunning as “Custer.”

Then there is “Giants of the Blues.” The 7 large canvases portray the evolution of American music, from delta music through jazz, bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, the Memphis influence and much more.

"Blues Piano Players" -- one of the 7 wonderful works that make up "Birth of the Blues."

“Blues Piano Players” — one of 7 wonderful works that make up “Giants of the Blues.”

It is truly spectacular. There was talk of donating it to the Smithsonian.

Instead it hangs in the Staples High School auditorium lobby. Students pass by every day; theatergoers see it on their way to shows. Hardly anyone realizes its significance — or thinks about the artist.

I think about Eric von Schmidt often. I was fortunate enough to know him, late in his life. He’d moved back to Westport in the mid-1980s, after his parents (“Reb” and “Von”) died.

Eric von Schmidt, with "Storming the Alamo." (Photo by George R. Janecek)

Eric von Schmidt, with “Storming the Alamo.” (Photo by George R. Janecek)

He spent most of his time in his Evergreen studio. It was a magical place. Canvases — completed, half-finished, mere sketches — hung in every nook and cranny. Brushes, palettes and every kind of art implement filled the rest of the space.

There was also a bed. Eric rented out “The Big House,” and lived in his studio.

He’d lost his vocal cords to throat cancer a few years earlier. No sadder fate could befall a musician.

Talking was very difficult. He communicated mostly by fax — Eric never liked computers — and he was in pain from a new nemesis: Lyme disease.

But he kept working. He was excited by a Lewis and Clark project. He was thrilled that “Custer” and “Alamo” were seen on the History Channel.

His daughter Caitlin moved into “The Big House,” and cared for Eric. He fell, broke a hip, had replacement surgery, then suffered a stroke in August 2006. He spent time in hospitals and rehab centers.

Eric von Schmidt

Eric von Schmidt

Word got out, in the art and music worlds, that Eric’s health was failing. When he died on February 2, 2007, the news was reported in the New York Times, by AP and on NPR.

Most of the stories focused on his music.

I never heard Eric von Schmidt sing live. I knew him best as an artist. Now, in Westport — at Staples — his art lives on. Even if hardly anyone recognizes it for the remarkable work it is.

Or recognizes the man who lovingly, painstakingly,  painted this masterpiece.

Finally, though, some long-overdue recognition comes from the Westport Library. An exhibit of his paintings will be displayed in the Great Hall from tomorrow (Friday, March 29) through June 26. A reception is set for next Friday (April 5), at 6 p.m.

Eric’s art is reason enough to go. But I’d love to hear his music, too.


Honoring Permanent Art

Giants of the Blues — Westport artist Eric von Schmidt’s sprawling, 7-canvas work chronicling the roots of American music — should hang in the Smithsonian.

Instead, it graces the Staples auditorium foyer.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos's Saturday Evening Post cover -- part of the Schools Permanent Art Collection -- has special significance.  The models were all Staples students.

Westport artist Stevan Dohanos's Saturday Evening Post cover -- part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection -- has special significance. The models were all Staples students.

And that powerful piece is just 1 of over 1,000 paintings, sketches, cartoons, busts, murals and photos that fill the classrooms, hallways, offices and conference rooms of every Westport school and public building.  For 4 1/2 decades the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection has brought art into children’s lives, while paying homage to our town’s rich art history.

Now, the Westport Historical Society returns the favor.  Starting this weekend, and running through the end of the year, the WHS will showcase the collection, with a pair of shows.  Special treasures will be shown in the Betty & Ralph Sheffer Main Gallery, while cartoons and comic strips grace the Little Gallery.

An opening reception is set for this afternoon, from 3-5 p.m.

The Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection began modestly.  In 1964 Green’s Farms Elementary School art teacher Burt Chernow asked a few local artists to donate works.  Ben Shahn gave a pencil sketch — and the rest is history.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the "Superman" comics for many years.  This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the "Superman" comics for many years. This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

Today’s 1,000-plus artworks include paintings by Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell and Christo.  There are cartoons by Charles Schulz, Al Capp, Whitney Darrow, Dik Browne, Mel Casson and Mort Walker, and photos by George Silk, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Philippe Halsman and Victor Keppler.

Over 150 local artists, past and present, are well represented.

The collection is curated by a committee of dedicated volunteers — including the indefatigable Mollie Donovan, who signed on 45 years ago expecting to work for a month or two, plus an an energetic group of young mothers.  The group collects, studies, catalogs and displays the work — and keeps all artwork up to date on a computer database.

The Westport Schools Permanent Arts Collection is such an ingrained part of our town, we don’t even think about it.  But we should.

The next time you’re in a school — or the library, Town Hall, or even Red Cross headquarters — look at the art that surrounds you.  Admire it; think about it — and understand how it got there.

Then, sometime between today and the end of the year, wander over to the Historical Society and check out the exhibits.  Forty-five years ago, Burt Chernow’s wanted to expose children to art.  Today, every Westporter is enriched by his vision.

Westport artist Hardie Gramatky donated this "Little Toot" book cover to the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

Westport artist Hardie Gramatky donated this "Little Toot" book cover to the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection in honor of beloved Green's Farms teacher Lucy Gorham.