To keep his thumb jammed in the dam
That holds his dreams in
But that's a secret only Margaret knows
When Amsterdam is golden in the morning Margaret brings him breakfast
She believes him
He thinks that tulips bloom beneath the snow
He's mad as he can be
But Margaret only sees that sometimes
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes.
Michael Smith wrote those lines, and finer songwriting sturdier, richer, wiser, more mysterious there has never been. Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Goodman, Suzy Bogguss, Josh White Jr., even the Kingston Trio have all recorded "The Dutchman," but no one sings it quite like Smith. He has lived with the story and melody for so long; he's still in touch with the secrets and sources. "I liked that first line so much," Smith says, "I was so proud of it. I had to trust that I could make up something that would justify it. It was a cop on "Gentle on My Mind,' which was a big hit at the time, and I wanted to extend that rhythm and melody." Smith first recorded "The Dutchman" in 1986, long after others had already made it classic. His voice deep, slow, enveloping every syllable with sympathy and wonder creates that uncanny sense of a human soul coming to life, with a soul's unfathomable emotional history, right there before your ears, even your eyes, and the song is so real it seems you can touch it.
Michael Smith's music can do that, but he's still relatively unknown (just to clarify: That contemporary-Christian singer and he share nothing but a name), even among ardent fans of singer/songwriters. Smith grew up in the Beat era and came of age musically in the '60s coffeehouse culture, playing the same venues as Eric Andersen in New York and Joni Mitchell in Florida, writing mythic ballads like "Spoon River" and "Bird Avenue" and curious satirical larks like "Dead Egyptian Blues" and "The Vegematic Song" (covered memorably by Steve Goodman), and if he's too well respected among peers to be called obscure, it wasn't until the late '80s that he began making records worthy of his songs.
"I'm only now a really industrious person," Smith says. "I let my art drift, and I'm only now trying to write songs on a constant basis. I had a period of time, between the age of 40-46, where I had a regular job and had stopped doing music. I got the opportunity to do the music for The Grapes of Wrath with Steppenwolf, the local theater company who had these heavy people John Malkovich, John Mahoney. Things like that are rather constantly happening here in Chicago. That's why I stay here. If I moved to Detroit I'd be working lounges, which is what I did when I lived there. There was one folk room, which you'd get to play once a year if you were lucky, and if you were local then it was much less likely you'd work there. But in the '60s, the field of acoustic music wasn't as populated as it is now. That's the field to be in these days, much more so than it was. Maybe this is the complaint of anybody who gets older in the business, but there are a lot of young people around who seem to do what you do but cheaper and with, let's say, more youth. But when I first started working in coffeehouses, you'd get booked for a week at a time, and they'd be open six days a week, or you'd get booked for a month at a time and they'd still be open for six days a week."
Smith has spent the last 20 years in Chicago; during that time he has developed a close friendship with Anne Hills (who once recorded an entire album of Smith songs and with whom he frequently tours), composed frequently for and within the theater community producing a kind of musical memoir for stage called Michael, Margaret, Pat, and Kate but his records still appear with the frequency of comets, and burn the same way. After a second album for Flying Fish, Love Stories (1987), four years passed before Time, an intensely personal seance conjured only through voice and guitar. With the exception of Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads, Another Side of Bob Dylan and perhaps Leo Kottke's Green House, no album has more fully revealed just what kind of art can happen when all else is stripped away.
"There was a time when that's what you did when you recorded," Smith says. "Judy Collins did that: She maybe had two guitars and a bass player. Joan Baez used to come out with records that just had a guitar. It was like a big deal when she had a second guitar player on her second album. And I'm also thinking of the first Joni Mitchell album, which was just her and her guitar and piano. It was like, this is what I can do left to myself. It's much more personal because you haven't brought in a bass player who's played on a bunch of other records." And instead of sounding thin and primitive, Time is intricate and out-of-time, like "a hex sign on a barn," as Smith sings in "This Here Mandolin." "My picture was that there would be a lot of air," he says, "a lot of spaces between the notes."
In "Ballad of Elizabeth Dark," Smith captures the irresistible and doomed innocence of the beatnik coffeehouse scene, a time when the rhythms of Kierkegaard, Gainsborough, Kerouac and Lord Buckley mixed with free love and "house parties to cover the rent." "We all wanted to be existentialist," Smith sings, "None of us knew what the hell it meant." His tone falls somewhere between nostalgia and haunted disbelief.
Now I take the el to Loyola and I walk along the Sheridan side
Where the waves are breaking over the jetty
Where the wind is like an icy hand
Fyodor says that the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime
Maybe I'll see Elizabeth D. one more time
"Elizabeth Dark was a name I found in a mystery book," Smith explains. "I found it and said, I've got to write a song with this woman's name. There are some experiences of mine in it, but it's quite fictional. It's set in places that I know. I read this interview with Joyce Carol Oates in which she says she begins with a geographical location. She'll see a place and say, "What kind of people would show up in that place, and what would they say and what would they do?' I wanted to make Chicago and the places around it a mythical place, like Paris or Manhattan."
As a lyricist and storyteller, Smith has only a handful of peers on the folk scene, and so it's tempting to dwell on his command of image, his unpredictable shifts and leaps of sense, which of course only tells part of the story. His melodies are elliptical and dream-inducing, drawing on jazz and rock & roll "I want to be my own Beatles," he says and his stories take on a life the page can't reveal. "All songs have stories, but I don't want to put too much emphasis on the story. I think what's important is that songs go together. When the second song starts, you don't think, "What the fuck? Is it a different band?' That's what I hate about records which are too variety-filled. The average folk singer is pretty dull musically, and they're too focused on the words. When songs are good, you're not thinking about the words, and sometimes you notice a word or two, but mostly you're just getting a feeling, and it comes from the combination of words and music. That's what's exciting about songwriting. It's not just making up words and singing them so that people accept the words. It's making a whole mood."
Michael Smith and Anne Hills play the Focal Point on Friday, Sept. 17.