December 2008:

Minnette Goodman, Steve's mom, asked me if I'd contribute to a term paper a high school freshman was writing about Steve. This is what I e-mailed to the young lady:

My name is Michael Smith. I am a singer/songwriter and at the moment I am performing in a musical which I adapted from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", which is now playing at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. I am 67 years old, and have made my living as a musician pretty much all my life, with little timeouts where I have had to get a non-musical job (we call them "straight" jobs) to keep body and soul together. However my last straight job was more than twenty years ago and things seem to go along well enough for me these days. I am not and have never been famous nor do I live a life of luxury but everyday I am grateful to have been allowed to live the life of a musician. I can't imagine wanting to do anything else, other than lying about on a South Sea island somewhere. When it comes to music I can be quite industrious, intense, and opinionated, but I've never been that way about anything else. I have been fired a lot.

I met Steve Goodman in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1969, when I was twenty-seven years old, and traveling with my wife Barbara in a rock and roll band called Juarez. (We called ourselves Juarez not because any of us were Latin but because we loved the first line of Bob Dylan's song "Tom Thumb's Blues" that goes: "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Eastertime too...") Barbara and I had met in Miami where we had worked at one club called The Flick (they showed movies sometimes). I had started writing songs at the Flick and when Steve worked there later he learned some of my songs and by the time we met he had been singing my songs, along with his own, for some time with much success. He was a personable young man with a tremendous amount of vitality, a kind of speedy quality, easily bored and quick to catch the drift of things and move on. He was also immediately likeable and you could tell he was going places, so I was happy that he was singing my songs to big crowds.

Steve started doing my songs in Chicago and I can't tell you how helpful that was to our careers, because suddenly folks in Chicago were familiar with my songs. Barbara and I moved to Chicago because we had essentially been presented to Chicago audiences by Steve, who had become very prominent and influential in the Chicago (and national) music scene, and we were getting so much work here. In the course of time Steve recorded about ten of my songs, the most prominent being "The Dutchman" and "Spoon River". (I had written "Spoon River" as a kind of theme song for the Edgar Lee Masters book called "Spoon River Anthology", a beautiful book if you don't mind crying a lot while you read it.) Steve and I later wrote some songs together, one of which was recorded by Jimmy Buffett and bought me a new car.

Though Steve has been gone for almost twenty-five years I still receive yearly royalty checks in the mail from songs we wrote together, or songs of mine that he recorded, or suggested that others record. In my more fanciful moments I think of these as "letters from Steve". He has taken care of me awfully well thoughout my life and I feel grateful to him and to his spirit. He had the kind of personality that to this day I can see and feel in my mind's eye. He was so alive, and in some big ways for me he continues to be. I still talk to him sometimes...and continue to thank him for his benevolent effect on my life.

September 2008:

Lately I have been in renewed contact with some high school and grade school classmates from long ago. Looooong ago. My 50th high school class reunion is coming up. though I'm inclined right now (well not right now, right now I'm sitting) to forecast that I prolly won't actually put on non-running shoes and stand around in a country club...but to actually talk with or correspond with your old classmate chums, and some who weren't necessarily chums, is such a gas.

I can't recommend that experience highly enough. All kinds of inhibitions (and baby I got 'em) melt away. The kids you went to school with don't have to be introduced to you, and you don't have to vett them to see if they're still cool. They'll always be cool, unless they're serial killers and even then maybe. Interesting thing about remembering when is that the more remembering you do it the easier it becomes, and more is revealed to you. It's not that you've forgotten, it's just knowledge that hasn't been looked at for a long time.

I'm touring in Texas next week and am so looking forward to crawling 'cross the desert past steer skulls and remains of prospectors. It never occurred to me that my songs would do well in Texas, until they did well in Texas. Got to blame Kerrville, us humans' stab at Heaven On Earth.

The antipenultimate time I was in Texas I did some intense searching for old sheet music in antique stores and got questioned closely by a policeman (there's so many there to meet) in one sweet and dusty little town near the La. border. I looked suspicious. More suspicious than usual, if that's possible. If I saw myself I wouldn't trust me as far as I could throw myself. I don't know, Barbara says I'm kinda funny around the eyes. The policeman wanted to know how long I was going to be in town. (!) I was tempted to say I'd be gettin' out before sunset. I felt like Leo Gorcey.

Good thing I didn't get feisty though, cause my driver's license had expired and I didn't notice till later.The policeman didn't notice either, bless him.

I have a new live recording coming out momentarily, with the same lovely folks who put out Such Things Are Finely Done. That's the Tales From The Tavern group in Santa Ynez, California. That's where David Crosby lives. David would have stayed for my last show there but had to get a hot pizza home. You'd think he'd have enough bread by now that he wouldn't have to do that sort of thing anymore.

Henry Diltz, yes, THAT Henry Diltz, did stay for my show, however, and he certainly is a cool guy, not just cause of that. The CD is called Love Letter On A Fish. Why's it called that? you may ask, and well you might.

Yesterday (all our songs weren't quite so hard to play) I got two birthday cards from my sister Margaret, and one from Pat Fleming and Miriam Sturm. Yes, THAT Miriam Sturm. I am so fortunate in every way.

I would like to send my love and best wishes to Carol Albanesius, Richard Howick, Mary Lou Williams, Robert Longo, Marie Halachik, John and Diane Bell, Eileen Van Guilder, to Susan Palmer and Linda Marold wherever they may be, and (as always) to Dave Jeffreys. It was such a joy to be in school with you. Stephen Schneider, you dork, where's my damn Boy Scout knife?

Yes, THAT Stephen Schneider.

PS... my dear PVHS friend Charlie Forsythe's son Chris is a guitarist (to say the least) and let me tell you to check this guy out. Very bold music. Chris records for Pace and on their website there's a picture of him where he looks quite a lot like Charlie only handsomer and also a little like Oscar Wilde. Well, that's a combo and it works.

Speaking of Charlie, when some of us Little Falls kids were about sixteen we had this favorite park bench and when guys would show up to hang out we would welcome them by singing their names to "Humoresque". Charlie Forsythe's first verse went like this.

                Charlie Forsythe Charlie Forsythe
                Charlie Forsythe Charlie Forsythe
                Charlie Forsythe Charlie Forsythe

And that's just one of the many reasons why I will always love Little Falls.

June 2008:

I just got back from Kerrville, Texas, where they have an annual festival that is songwriter-oriented. I was on a panel that worked with people's songs, I was there for three days, and the days were (for this musician) long ones. We started at 9 A.M. and went to 5. The first night after class I played at their Threadgill auditorium, which is open-air. Everything's open-air at Kerrville, come to think of it. I saw my friends Glenn and LaJeanna. Memory of August is about their lovely daughter, Gus.

There were five other people on the panel and all very knowledgeable. There was a lot of food for thought if you were into songwriting. I've done this thing once before at Kerrville and the first time (quite a while ago) I recall I came away feeling somewhat scornful because things seemed quite Nashville oriented, that is, aiming towards "commercial", and I turned my rather large nose up at commercial then because of feeling a rather large noseful of self doubt.

I mean when people make noise about hits, for someone who's never had a hit, well, how can you be sure that what you're doing is any good? And you know, you can't, if you base your judgement on hits and you have none, you can't ever be sure that what you do is any good. So what I do is I go well just making a living ought to say you've probably got your moments, relax. I mean really what a life. Also I gotta say I've gotten some reviews on Amazon that I should read every morning with breakfast.

But you know if I wasn't making a living I'd be like hey, Van Gogh sold one painting in his life, to his brother. Anne Hills told me that. She's well, thanks.

(tho mister van gogh
he had a damn hard row
his poor brother
had to go to a straight job)

So people go to these seminars at Kerrville to get their songs out, to have them commented on, messed with and maybe improved, to get a sense of where they stand. And the level of competence of these efforts varies quite a bit, as you may imagine. Though everyone was looking at the song from a point of view, different criteria, in the end we seemed united on what worked. When things didn't work was when people got more separate in their notions.

It takes courage to play one's songs under the circumstances at seminars like Kerrville's. Everybody wants to think that what they've got is real.

There was one guy who had a song that was so fun that you could just hear the record right away. I can't remember his name but the phrase "shake it up baby" was in the song and it was so catchy. If you see him, tell him I'd attempt a demo of this tune for nothing. So fun and didn't sound at all like Twist and Shout.

I got a Kerrville T-shirt, I love Kerrville, I can't explain, you have to be there.

I thought they'd taken the Clancy Brothers doing The Dutchman off Youtube but it's on still or again, and there's also one with Liam and Tommy Makem doing it, too. On that one Liam does such a charming introduction and the audience response gives you the feeling they're real familiar with the song. I love living in the twenty-first century. OK bye.

May 2008:

I went to Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, New Jersey in the years 1956 to 1959. I loved Little Falls, as a town and as a state of mind, as soon as we moved there the summer before I was fifteen. We had lived in kind of congested and slummy neighborhoods in the Oranges, and suddenly it was countryish and quiet and there was a tree house in the back yard. There was a back yard, for God's sake. I was used to intense city living and everyone here seemed so relaxed and welcoming, especially after nine years of Catholic school.

I loved Little Falls and I still do. Oh do I ever. I go there often when I'm playing New Jersey dates, and I walk the streets so familiar to me from youth, and so different and new at the same time. It is a big emotional trip. People are going who's that guy? If Little Falls was Uma Thurman I'd be on trial right now.

Like anything you're moved to love for a long time it doesn't give you quick emotional return. I mean I don't feel particularly embraced by that town, it's not like I actually am up to speed on anyone who lives there anymore, except for Fred Hoonhout, who lived two doors from me, was in my class at PVHS, and still lives in the same house. Tho I haven't seen Fred much, I'm happy to say that I do hang out a lot with my best friend from PVHS, Dave Jeffreys, but that's usually down the shore, which is all right with me. It seems like everyone else I knew in Little Falls has moved away, or died, or both. Or they're avoiding emotionally unstable tourists.

So I don't know what it is I love, really, it's just the idea of Little Falls maybe and the way things seemed to me then in those lovely years 56 to 59. Stephen King said today on the radio that he didn't relate to people who had a good time in high school Oh man I gotta say I had a great time in high school, once I got outta Seton Hall.

Kingston Trio web site

Kingston Trio web site

This was a time when the Kingston Trio were getting very large. I had started to play the guitar to learn some Harry Belafonte calypso songs and I remember a classmate saying I heard something on the radio that sounds like you. It was "Tom Dooley" by the Kingstons, whose first album I heard at my friend Buzzy Swithers' house. Bob Shane sang lead on that tune, and that was the beginning of hearing some new and really great songs done in this hip, cool, mysterious and infectious style that the Kingston Trio had right from the start. I hadn't heard those songs before so the Trio, along with Belafonte, embodied the romance of folk music for me. Well, acoustic music with guitars. And they harmonized like buttah, innately musical guys. I got crazy about them, learned every song. Had I known about the Weavers and Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie I would have heard a lot of those songs before, but I went directly from Elvis and doowop to Belafonte and the Kingston Trio. The Trio went down awful easy and I loved what they did with guitars and harmonies. I'd never heard sixths before, or Pete Seeger style banjo, or minor ninths, or "Santy Anno".

Kingston Trio web site

I knew I couldn't be Belafonte, he was so was like wanting to be Piaf or Brando or Elvis, kind of out of the question; but I wanted to be theTrio, that seemed almost possible. That was their gift, they were like college kids and they didn't play rock and roll and they were still cool. And they were the Little Falls soundtrack for me for those happiest of years. And Shane's voice, man: "Scotch and Soda", "They Call The Wind Mariah", the first and best recording of "It Was A Very Good Year". Bob Shane had the perfect voice. Hip, cool, and mysterious. You heard that voice and it was all over. So I know this is getting to be a long story but there's a point...I have used my lovely life in Little Falls to fuel and construct a fair amount of songs. One of those constructions started out to be about Fred Hoonhout and my sister Margaret, who dated for a nanosecond in high school. The song went where it wanted to go and it became "The Dutchman" which is probably my most well known song.

Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio has recorded "The Dutchman" on his very first ever solo CD and it's coming out momentarily and I've heard it and he does it so good, it makes me cry. It is the definitive recording of "The Dutchman" as far as I'm concerned, and "The Dutchman" is a Kingston Trio song at last, fifty years after I first heard the Trio at Buzzy Swithers' house. I am so happy and grateful for this and some of these days when I'm walkin the streets of Little Falls with Bob Shane's recording on headphones I'll drop a copy off at Fred's and when I go past the Swithers' house I'll wave to Buzzy, though Buzzy's been gone for quite a while.

March 2008:

Hey folks

I played a gig in Alaska...this was a big deal for me, as I get older I'm like less and less enthusiastic about going anywhere at all, but the same thing always happens (you'd think I'd get the picture by now): the first day of traveling is over and I'm absolutely thrilled to be on the road again. Just like the Willie Nelson tune. There's some kind of lightheartedness that takes over that's very hard to forecast the night before one leaves.

Well anyway I went to Juneau and it was not at all what I'd expected, I guess I thought it would be a metropolis and everyone would be like forget the Sargeant Preston stuff, we're modern now. But it really was very down home, like a small town, and there was a tremendous amount of snow everywhere and everyone a total rugged individualist in the best way. They really were the coolest people. The audience was very hip and got everything, the sound system person was so together, and man, the best tasting fish in the world. They were awful nice to me and I'd go back in a minute.

Selfish Giant was some experience, playing to kids. A world apart. When you get a whole bunch of little kids together they are their own little nation. I worked differently, didn't feel the need to be as (what?)...careful, maybe, or guarded as I might be with adults, and if someone wandered away in the middle of a song it wasn't the end of the world. Heck, if I wandered away it was cool. Blair Thomas and I performed together and it was edifying to watch him work. Kat Eggelston spelled me very ably while I was on the road.

I'm doing Selfish Giant one more time at the Old Town School on Sunday May 4th at noon with Blair, one show. This show was sponsored by The Children's Theater of Chicago. They were awful nice to me and I'd go back in a minute.

I saw my brother Leo in Portland, Oregon for about a second, he looked great and according to my sister Pat he's in a play in Salem as we speak, playing guitar and singing. I loved Seattle, a great used bookstore right down the street from the gig on Phinney, and meat loaf in a bar right up the street. Portland was fun, I also played Toledo, Oregon for the second time, it's a charming little town just short of the Pacific and the drive is beautiful and they put you up in this little seaside apt where it's really really quiet and you want to stay there for three weeks instead of overnight.

I was in LA and stayed with my friend James Lee Stanley, played at my friend Marie Kaufman's great house concert, went to Lakeside (hey Jimmy), Orange, (classy red wine and great pizza) and of course Tales from the Tavern), full house, did a filmed interview afterwards and said some things that surprised me, courtesy of that red red wine...I might have another live CD coming out with those folks. Came home and went on a diet (yeah I saw the interview).

All's well, can't complain, glad to be alive. OK bye.

January 2008:

Hi folks

Snow Queen 2.0 was a great experience for me, and I feel fortunate to be allied with Victory Gardens. The people there have been so encouraging and there's nothing like being able to rewrite and fix things. My favorite thing to do, I think. Snow Queen is almost perfect now, it seems to me. Just a few more little things gnaw at me, the solutions for which I'm sure will become apparent in the next couple of months.

I loved working with this ensemble of twelve so much that I'm going to do another adaptation of something by Andersen and use these same people, if they're willing. For me it's so much easier to write songs quickly when they're for a kind of takes away the burden of looking for subject matter.

Meanwhile I'm at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn on the 30th of January, with my friends Small Potatoes. There was an article in the Sun-Times about how Berwyn is getting to be the hip place to live. I just can't escape that voice of Svengoolie, you know what I mean? I love the sound system at Fitzgerald's (loud) and they give me free (well freeish) cabernet. The Fitzgeralds are lovely people. You're welcome to drop by, as for me they pay me to come and sing there so I can't refuse. Jeez, forty thousand dollars. For those kinds of gigs you practice. Then to the Northwest, Seattle, Bellingham, Portland, Juneau. JUNeau, Mr. Svengoolie says.

Right now, well not right now, but this week, I'm rehearsing with Blair Thomas and friends for a show to be presented soon at the Field Museum, sponsored by Chicago Children's Theatre. It's called The Selfish Giant and was written by Oscar Wilde and I have written and will perform a bunch of songs to tell the story w/ large puppets, Blair is known for that, he did the Snow Queen constructions.

The Selfish Giant -- Field Museum (Chicago) through March 9, 2008.
Some dates performed by Michael Smith, some dates performed by Kat Eggleston (seen in Snow Queen performing "Love Letter on a Fish").

Jan 26 - Feb 7 Michael Smith
Feb 8 - Feb 18 Kat Eggleston
Feb 19 - Mar 2 Michael Smith
Mar 4 - Mar 9 Kat Eggleston

   See Chris Jones' review of The Selfish Giant
   (Chicago Tribune, 02/05/2008)

I got crazy about Oscar Wilde when I was eighteen and looking for something to be crazy about other than the Kingston Trio. Oscar Wilde, Eugene O'Neill and Nietszche(sp?) [Ed: "Nietzsche"].  Now there's a folk group for ya. I used to read them under the pine trees on the beach at Pass-A-Grille and eat hot dogs. I had no ambitions at eighteen other than to do that, and I got away with it for quite a while.The pine trees are gone now (hurricane, I think) and they've modernized the beach a-plenty and it no longer seems like Wilde-O'Neill-Zarathustra territory, but I still love St. Pete and wish there was a place I could work there, other than that creepy Howard Johnson's that I worked at in college. I've still got a scar. I don't think I've ever gotten a scar at Fitzgerald's.

Well, we're sorry but it's time to go. In Detroit when you've had a good time hanging out with people you say: O.K. bye.

   Read the original Oscar Wilde short story The Selfish Giant.  (Opens new browser window.)

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