Lucky Man (Eric Von Schmidt)

One of my great honors and privileges in the 1990s was being able to play a bunch of gigs with Eric Von Schmidt. I’d been playing his “Joshua Gone Barbados” for twenty years, and met the man himself when he came to Cambridge to play a Club 47 reunion show and needed a place to crash. (I also hosted Jack Landron–better known to the Cambridge folkies as Jackie Washington–for the same show, which led to me writing Josh White’s biography, but that’s another story.) This story is that we were jamming in my living room and Eric invited me to play harmonica with him onstage for “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” and then a year or so later I did a big piece on him for the Boston Globe Magazine, and that led to more jamming, and he started using me and Washtub Robbie Phillips, along with his daughter Caitlin, as his backing group.

Eric was an amazing performer, always 100% in the moment, and his recordings only hint at how great he could be when the spirit descended — which said, the best recordings are pretty great. This song was on his final CD, produced by Sam Charters in the mid-1990s, and written as part of his immersion in the story of the battle of Little Big Horn. He had painted an epic canvas, “Here Fell Custer,” for which he became something of an expert on the battle and events leading up to it. In an article about that project, he wrote that he never really understood the story until he went to Washington, DC, and looked at the original drawings of the battle by the Sioux warrior Red Horse, who had fought there:

I was struck by page after page of carefully drawn tipis. Nothing but tipis. I guessed that they had never been reproduced before because they were repetitious–boring? Old Red Horse was trying to tell us something. We weren’t quite getting it….

Custer didn’t get it either. It wasn’t until I got back down to my studio that I finally got it…. Considering that the village was over three miles long, there would have been a whole lot of tipis, a thousand, give or take a few. Red Horse was telling us in pictographic terms what Custer himself had refused to believe….

One of the interpreters, Mitch Bouyer, reckoned that Custer and the whole command, himself included, were as good as dead. “Lonesome Charlie” Reynolds (“Lucky Man” was one of his Indian names) had expected as much and had given away his belongings the previous night….

Eric added some colorful details in this song, but when I came across a photostat of Reynolds’ diary leading up to the battle, I was pleased to find that it begins just where Eric did, with a notation on May 17, almost forty days before the final confrontation: “Left Fort Lincoln…” I assume Eric had read the same pages, and it was a good feeling to be following his trail.

Eric was a magnificent madman, a true Bohemian, and also the son of a famous painter of Western scenes. He grew up with cowboy and Indian stories and I got the impression he mostly tended to side with the Indians. He identified with Reynolds, who presumably had spent a lot of time absorbing Native culture, but also with the people who turned the tables on Custer’s murderous cavalry, and this song shifts between those viewpoints with wry and angry humor.