It’s been almost 40 years since a brainy, clear-voiced multi-instrumentalist from Michigan released her first collection of folksy yet idiosyncratic songs. Claudia Schmidt’s 14th solo studio album – that number doesn’t include a spoken-word effort and three duo albums with songwriter Sally Rogers — came out in February of 2018; I’m betting she’s got a bunch more in her.
Schmidt radiates that Midwestern folk-scene vibe: social, friendly, chilled-out, meditative, funny, in tune with nature – all of which flies out the window in the face of anything she considers to be injustice toward her fellow humans. Her lyrics reflect every one of these aspects of her personality, while her music shows influence from bluegrass, country, Irish traditional, American indigenous music, and jazz. Plus, she plays a distinctive instrument called a pianolin. Yes, it’s a cross between a piano and a violin, a bowed keyboard instrument!
The album Claudia Schmidt (1979) is an ideal introduction to her work. It’s a wild array of material, including, of all things, a cover of “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz. As for Schmidt’s songwriting, there’s no mistaking her solid folk chops in the jig-time “Drinking Buddy.” This song deals with what would become a recurrent theme in her songwriting career, an appreciation of what other people offer of themselves. In other words, friendship.
The musical arrangement features another of Schmidt’s signature instruments, the distinctly American four-stringed mountain dulcimer (held in the lap and strummed; not to be confused with the hammered dulcimer, which has 15 or more strings and is played by tapping the strings with wooden mallets).
This first album also offers proof of Schmidt’s social conscience as well as her ability to write songs with complex rhythmic and melodic ideas. “Old Woman Lament” describes the painful issue of poverty and isolation among America’s senior population. The unusual percussion-only accompaniment and the leaping intervals in the melody help convey the stress and fear that the song’s main character feels in her daily life:
In 1981, Schmidt released Midwestern Heart, which showed that the quality of her first work was no fluke. “The Man Who Visits Me,” featuring the pianolin, finds her in storyteller mode, viewing the scene from a unique perspective. Basically, it’s about a peeping Tom through the compassionate eyes of the lonely woman he’s stalking. This sort of thing has gotten Schmidt into hot water–not everyone appreciates it when a poet who’s empathetic with but not experienced in their situation takes over their voice. I find the forced perspective fascinating, if creepy.
The toe-tapping refrain of “Broken Glass,” a wistful reminiscence about an ex-lover, puts Schmidt in that class of folk songwriters trained in the glow of Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, and their ilk.
Another major influence on her is Pete Seeger (her cover of Seeger’s song “Old Devil Time” is well worth a listen). She channels that hero of American-grown music in the song “Tired of Going,” on the 1991 album Essential Tension. Seeger’s influence can be felt in the simplicity of expression and the repetition—think of his famed singalong numbers – but the jazz modulation in bridge makes it decidedly Schmidt’s:
After a stint as a bed-and-breakfast proprietor and restaurateur, not to mention putting out a jazz album and an audio collection of her poetry, Schmidt returned to her day-job, so to speak. Promising Sky, a rediscovery of her folk roots, came out in 2010. Although most of the songs are accompanied by a string, jazz flute, and drum ensemble calling themselves the Funtet, “Wisconsin Country” uses Nancy Stagnitta’s flute in a whole-tone scale for a Native American sound:
Every good midwestern folk singer-songwriter has some witty songs in her bag, usually made with a teaspoon of sarcasm, a cup of self-deprecation, and a pint of left-leaning feminist perspective. On the unfortunately-titled New Whirled Order (2014), there’s a perfect example of this genre, “The Strong Woman Has a Bad Day Polka.” As they say, it’s funny because it’s true:
The work continues. Hark the Dark: Reflections on Winter (2018) is Schmidt’s latest release. Her lifetime of living in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota has taught her a thing or two about long, cold seasons. Typical of her, she approaches the topic from a range of angles. On the one hand, there’s a cover of Irving Berlin’s standard, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”; at the other extreme is a quasi-traditional “Solstice Chant.”
“The Darkening” is a pianolin meditation with vocalise. Some songwriters only mellow to the meditation stage later in life, but this is a continuation of normal for the thoughtful Schmidt. And I admire the way she’s clung to this odd instrument as a calling card for her whole career.
Besides keeping a busy schedule of writing, touring, and recording, Schmidt always has her hands in other projects. She wrote award-winning incidental music for Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan for the famed Goodman Theater in Chicago. A couple of seasons ago at a theater festival in New York I saw an early version of Final Approach, the short musical about Amelia Earhart that she’s developing with playwright Laurie McLaughlin.
A bit far from the folk scene? Not at all. Think of it as seed and fertilizer for all the songs to come.