Joshua Gone Barbados (Eric Von Schmidt)

This is Eric Von Schmidt’s best-known composition, thanks in a large part to Tom Rush, whose version I heard first and still echo in my guitar arrangement. Eric was a marvelous singer, a distinctive guitarist, a varied and brilliant songwriter, and one of my favorite people. I met him when some folks organized a Club 47 reunion at Johnny D’s Uptown Lounge in Somerville and someone arranged for Eric and Jack Landrón (known in his 47 days as Jackie Washington) to stay at my place. We got to jamming, and I played harmonica with Eric, and the next thing you know I was onstage with him at the reunion show.

That was what Eric was like — he was loose and improvisatory at all times, not just when he was playing, and I did my best to capture his zest and flavor in a profile I wrote for the Boston Globe. By that time I was playing with him more regularly, mostly adding harmonica but also some guitar and even occasional button accordion, and he was staying at my place and I was sleeping on the couch in his studio in Westport, surrounded by his amazingly varied paintings — one would look like a Remington western scene, the next like a Toulouse Lautrec, the next like a  Picasso, and then there’d be a few that looked nothing on earth but a Von Schmidt.

If you want my take on Eric, the Globe piece has more than I can fit here — suffice it to say, I loved playing with him and learned a lot from him, and I miss him.

As for “Joshua Gone Barbados,” it’s a great song and shows a deep sympathy for cane field workers inspired and then abandoned by their leader… the only problem being that Eric seems to have turned up on the island of St. Vincent just in time to hear some angry rumors, wrote the song, and split before getting a more complete story.

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua, the title character, was a dedicated labor leader and a significant figure in the movement for pan-Caribbean independence. Founder of the Federated Industrial and Agricultural Workers Union, he then went into politics and became St. Vincent’s first chief minister when the island gained regional autonomy. He organized the plantation and mill workers and in 1960 — or 1962, depending on your source — they went on strike. Eric’s details are pretty much right: no one was killed, and Sonny Child was a plantation owner rather than an overseer, but he was indeed beaten with a “cutlass” (what we know in the US as a machete) and hospitalized.

It is also true that Joshua left the island for Barbados during the strike, but it was to attend a vital meeting of Caribbean independence leaders, and he shortly was back and remained the head of the government until 1967 and the leader of the left-wing opposition party for many years after that. A writer in 1969 described him thus:

Ebenezer Theodore Joshua is the most controversial political figure on the island of St. Vincent. He is adulated by the thousands who follow him; for these people, largely poor, rural farm workers, Joshua is the liberator. For others, mainly the white, wealthy planter class, “Josh” is a demon, “an irresponsible leader who has told his people to cut our throats like sheep.” To the small number of Vincentian intellectuals, the teachers and economists in the Civil Service, “Josh is a good man to have in the opposition, a man of people, but not a very good Chief Minister.”

So there you have it. It’s still a great song, and I play it more or less like I heard it from Tom Rush, with some touches of my main man Joseph Spence, because I sing it in D and it’s from the islands, so Spence was the obvious way to go.