With “The Dutchman” and other widely recorded songs, he created emotional realities that let you feel along with his characters.
By Mark Guarino
Michael Smith died in his bed at home on Monday, on a cold August afternoon in Chicago. Wind snapped at the windows of his lakefront apartment. Dark clouds sprinkled rain on children in summer clothes. People in masks scurried under trees or to their cars. Later the sun came out.
These could all be snapshots from one of Smith's songs, which go deeper than detached observation and ask you to feel along with the people they bring to life.
Smith, who died of colon cancer at age 78, moved to Chicago in the 1970s, at the height of the second folk boom. He never became a household name the way John Prine and Steve Goodman did, but his lengthy discography is just as mighty. And his work scoring theater—including Steppenwolf Theatre's production of Frank Galati's The Grapes of Wrath and the 2010s incarnation of Blair Thomas's long-gestating Moby Dick—proved him to be a songwriter who could summon characters from the world's greatest works of literature and make them speak with convincing authority.
Smith was a prodigious talent, and considered himself a songwriter first—he performed only occasionally, to make a living. His best songs—"Crazy Mary," "Ballad of Dan Moody," "Panther in Michigan," "Spoon River," "Sister Clarissa"—tell stories and cast moods just as powerfully as anything on a theater stage. "The Dutchman," a tender song about caring for someone losing their mind, is today considered a modern folk classic.
"It didn't occur to me they were about me in the beginning," Smith told me in 2018. "People would say, 'Your songs are so personal.' I would say, 'Well, I'll try to get away from that.' But I couldn't."
Michael Peter Smith was born September 7, 1941, and grew up the oldest of six children in Little Falls, New Jersey. He came of age during the folk revival of the late 1950s. The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte got him into the world of guitar music, but he discovered that what mesmerized him were the songs, mined from decades past, and the worlds they created in his imagination.
"Harry Belafonte singing 'Shenandoah.' I played 'Shenandoah' 50 times. Oh, it's so beautiful. And one guitar. 'Shenandoah, I long to see you.' What the fuck does he mean by that? I have no idea. I don't care. It was so poignant," he said.
Smith's idyllic childhood ended the morning of December 1, 1958, when his father, a frustrated musician who worked factory jobs to support the family, walked into the garage and killed himself by carbon monoxide poisoning. "When you're the oldest kid at 17, and you're a boy, and your dad kills himself, you're done," Smith said. "You're fixed in a certain angry and lost place. You'll never be graceful and suave."
The suicide would wrack Smith with survivor's guilt into adulthood, and his Catholic upbringing only compounded it. "I'm still apologizing to my dad, to myself, and to the world for not coming through. . . . But it's too late, man. It's ingrained. And they tell you at Catholic school, you're six years old and looking at a fucking crucifix and they're telling you, 'It's your fault,'" he said. "Songwriting was the one way I could say, 'I have beauty inside me.'"
Smith's mother waited until he'd finished high school to move the family to St. Petersburg, Florida, and start a new life. In 1962 Smith started playing the Florida coffeehouse circuit, and he soon ended up the house act at the Flick, an influential nightspot in Coral Gables where he performed alongside the likes of David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Steve Martin, and Steve Goodman (who would eventually record several of his songs). Smith honed his chops there and, along the way, met singer Barbara Barrow. The two of them married in 1968 and played together in a psychedelic folk-rock band called Juarez that put out an LP on Decca in 1970 and toured nationally. Eventually the couple returned to a duo format, and after spending several years living a nomadic life, they settled in Chicago in 1976.
By the time they arrived, they were already known here. With repeated tour stops, they'd built up an audience at the Earl of Old Town, the Wells Street club that was a mainstay for singer-songwriters at the time. Goodman had already made Smith's songs familiar to Chicago audiences. Eventually Suzy Bogguss, Tom Russell, John Gorka, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, Celtic Thunder, Jimmy Buffett, and many others would record Smith's material as well.
Chicago had a robust community of songwriters in the 1970s, and Chris Farrell, who was part of that community himself, remembers that Smith was seen as a "deity."
"He always had a great way of explaining something with a simple phrase. Some of these things we all struggle with. But it made more sense because he had a handle on it," Farrell says. "In writing a song, you don't want to make any mistakes, but he said as long as you know the truth of the song you'll be fine. I never heard it said so perfectly."
In the 1980s, the club scene in Chicago eventually dried up. Smith relied on a job selling subscriptions for Time-Life and the occasional teaching gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His life changed when director Frank Galati caught one of his performances there and asked him to write songs for, and appear in, an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath that premiered in 1988 and would eventually win two Tony Awards. In a New York Times review of Steppenwolf's 1990 revival of the play, critic Frank Rich called Smith's score "astringent and evocative . . . [it] echoes Woody Guthrie and heartland musical forms and is played by a migrant band on such instruments as harmonica, jew's-harp and banjo. Sometimes salted with descriptive lyrics from Steinbeck, the music becomes the thread that loosely binds a scattered society."
Smith quit his job and entered his most productive run of his career. The three albums that followed—Michael Smith (1986), Love Stories (1988), and Time (1993)—represent a suite of songs that he would perform until the end of his life. Like the theater work he was increasingly undertaking, the songs were dramatic mood pieces, comparable to Leonard Cohen or Kurt Weill, and he sang them quietly, backed by his guitar or by strings. On "I Brought My Father With Me," he addressed for the first time his lifelong struggle with his father's death: "There are some ways I'm just like him / Some ways he was just like me / And sometimes when the mirror's dim / His face is clear to see."
Chicago itself would sometimes creep into Smith's songs. On "Ballad of Elizabeth Dark," he recounted taking the el to Rogers Park to visit the lake. "And I walk along the Sheridan sand / Where the waves are breaking over the jetty / Where the wind is like an icy hand."
"He gives you a real sense of time and place. He puts you right in the center of a scene so you can experience it with him," says Anne Hills, who produced those three records. She thinks of Smith as a painter who could develop scenes "right in front of you."
His song "We Become Birds" imagines that humans return to life as birds after they die: "I know because sometimes I just want to / Lift off / Go right to the mesa and / Have a feast / Eat our bread / Stand in a circle / Hear my grandmother talk about our people."
"He was extremely masculine, but he had emotional insight to his writing. You hear deep empathy in his work," Hills says. "He brings a lot of sensuality."
Smith continued to work in theater until the late 2010s, writing music for and appearing in shows at Victory Gardens and Lookingglass and collaborating several times with puppeteer and producer Blair Thomas. He reunited with Galati in 2006 for The Snow Queen, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story. He also partnered with Jamie O'Reilly to develop folk cabaret shows that the duo appeared in together throughout Chicago.
In February, Barrow died of complications stemming from her 12-year struggle with Parkinson's disease. In June, Smith discovered he had colon cancer, which had already spread to his liver. O'Reilly opened her apartment to him as a hospice for three weeks. Toward the end, he transferred to his own apartment, where he was surrounded for his final days by his five surviving siblings.
During this time, Smith took to Facebook to share with the people he couldn't see. He started posting covers of his songs that he liked. He told jokes. He shared stories of his time playing with and getting to know Michael Bloomfield, Steve Goodman, Fred Neil, Fred Willard, and Steve Martin on the nightclub circuit. He talked about his love of Paul McCartney, the Kingston Trio, President Barack Obama. He was happy, O'Reilly recalls. "He did his moral inventory. He did it deliberately. And in this last chapter he felt fully free," she says. "That's the gift he's given himself."
On June 20, when Smith knew his failing strength would soon rob him of his ability to communicate, he took to Facebook one last time. "I been a good ole wagon, and if I've done broke down they'll fix me up if they possibly can," he wrote. "Old man, everybody dies."