Michael Smith: On Reassuring the Child Within You

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On how songwriters must learn to bridge “the big gulf in people’s hearts”

“My life,” he says, “is a process of reassuring the child that it’s okay to come out.” 

Talking to Michael Smith about songwriting has been a privilege. For one thing, he’s among the world’s greatest living songwriters. A Jersey boy from East Orange who has written magical songs like “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River” which have enriched our lives forever, he remains an enigma to many who still wonder, “How did he do this?” Even his pal the late Steve Goodman, who first recorded Michael’s “The Dutchman” and introduced it to the world couldn’t figure it out. Before performing “The Dutchman” in concert, Goodman said, “This is a ballad that Mike Smith made up about two old people in Holland. I don’t know how he did it, because he’s never been there.”

It’s something all of us who have been sustained by his songs wonders. How did he do it? Getting to talk to him was a joyous journey through his decades in the songwriting trenches, and great opportunity to ask questions I’ve wondered about for decades. But even better than the asking was receiving the answers.

Always he’s been dedicated completely to the perpetual mission of writing fully realized, dimensional songs. He’s one of those guys who loves to sing, write and talk about songs and songwriting more than anything. And he discusses it with as much grace and real-time reverence for this delicate art that he instills into his songs.

He’s also long known, as evidenced by his own work, that songs can do more than they often do. He’s a deeply gifted melodist and great guitarist always mixing jazz chords into his folk ballads. The music he writes for these songs is as richly poignant as the words.

The words. He’s been drawn forever to richly detailed songs about people, sometimes set in different locations or times, sometimes more mystic than real, but always conveyed with a beautiful love of language, and the rich, time-specific details of a great novelist. He spoke of how much he loved “Eleanor Rigby,” and that kind of song which was about people and their lives and histories and yearnings. Yet he said he was sad he didn’t hear it much any longer, but heard songs instead about personal emotions and worse. Songs of ugliness, division and sorrow.

Which is one of the many reasons why he is beloved and always will remain so to his fans, and to lovers of great songwriting. The very first time I wrote about him I was intentionally hyperbolic. Not to be false, because it is true. But so that the message would be heard, as it is exactly how I felt. It could easily apply to the songs of John Prine, as well. Hearing the songs of Michael Smith in this day and age, I wrote, is like discovering the novels of Hemingway after a lifetime of comic books.

Michael Smith. “If you write songs a lot, there will be times when you’re really possessed and don’t have any doubts.”

An admitted overthinker, he’s acquired a whole lot of real wisdom about the art and the craft of writing songs, as well as about the life and business of being a songwriter. Standing at that intersection of real world and devotional artistry is where he’s always lived. And it’s not an easy neighborhood to navigate, especially when it gets so dark you can’t see. But songs, he says, have always been there to help light the way. Both writing them and listening to them, to those which have been luminous in our lives for decades. Of these, there is none that burns brighter than The Beatles. As much of the songscape he sees these days seems to him, is “like a vast wasteland,” to him the word Beatles is “a way of saying to keep your light burning in the middle of a lot of darkness.”

“If you write songs a lot,” he said, “there will be times when you’re really possessed and you don’t have any doubts, and it becomes more like this is what I do, and I’m doing it now. And I’m not a hero and I’m not a fool.” 

He’s talking about that great songwriting moment when the song takes over, and the songwriter recognizes it and sits back and relinquishes the reins. Time to let it go. .And suddenly a song starts forming. Words, a melody, chords. A verse, a chorus. It emerges. You’re not a hero or a fool. You’re working. Working in the service of the song. 

But getting to that place while living in this world as an artist, especially if you’re not, as he says, “A Beatle or John Denver,” is the perpetual challenge.

He spoke about writing his beautiful song “Loretta of The Rivers,” and realizing it completely by distancing himself from it. An admitted over-thinker of all things, he does what he can to write it without thinking. 

“If I can persuade myself,” he said, “that this is just a little abstract project that I’m working on and not some song that had better be real good, then I’m better off.” 

That was funny, though true, and  led to a discussion of how we songwriters often trick ourselves into writing a song. It’’s by essentially letting ourselves off the hook, to take the pressure off. Thinking that  this song is just for a fun writing exercise, and nobody will ever hear it.Then when we accept that, that this isn’t serious work time it’s fun creative playtime, the good stuff can come through. It’s an old trick, but we fall for it everytime.

“Absolutely,” he said, laughing. 

But why is that necessary?  Often it’s the short follow-up questions like that which elicit the best responses. What follows is an expression of an authentic, pure soul of songwriting in modern times.  

MICHAEL SMITH: “There’s a child inside you, and that child has to be very, very reassured before it can come out. The world doesn’t want the child to come out.The world wants you to pay the bills. That’s what the world wants.

“I know that I’m so aware of money that it drives me crazy sometimes. The only problem with being poor is that you have to think about it so much. So for me, the child hides when the bill collector comes to the door. The child says, `You have to go out and get a job and feed me. Don’t worry about getting any songs.’

My life is a process of reassuring the child that it’s okay to come out. 

If you’re very successful at an early age and  made a lot of money you can exist in that child’s world. Michael Jackson did it. John Lennon did it. Elvis did it. He made that world for himself when he didn’t have to be an adult.

When I’m writing a song I’m really vulnerable. I’m not being aggressive at all. I’m just having a good time. And the older I get, the harder it is. 

So I get high. I get high all the time. I’m just like the Beatles! And I drink more lately. I know it’s the fashion these days to say I don’t do drugs, but I can’t see how a person can live in the modern world and not do drugs and be an artist. The world is saying to me, ‘What you’re doing is trivial. It’s not important. Get a job.’

Steve Goodman, “The Dutchman” by Michael Smith.

And the world will say that to me as long as I’m not a Beatle or John Denver. That’s the way the world is towards artists. If you’re an artist, who needs you?

I was raised in a very rigid and accomplishment- oriented environment. I don’t mean my family. I mean being Catholic and white and in America in the ’50s when everybody had crew cuts. I think you have to get past that somehow.

Throughout the centuries people have been very upset about artists seeking to escape the world through whatever means. But for me, at least, what I see is that Edgar Allan Poe got it. The Beatles did it. That’s enough for me. And I know how music was for me before I got high. I used to be nervous about reality shifting. My whole approach to music was a whole lot less sensual because I didn’t stop to smell the roses. And it was a Beatle song that told me to stop and smell the roses. It made me shift my consciousness and become a hippie. And for me to become a hippie was a big shift. It was like Wally Cox turns into Marlon Brando.

Marijuana is not a big shift in consciousness. If there is underlying fear, it shows that. If there is underlying peace, it shows. If I get a poetic image when I’m high it seems much more beautiful and I look at it and I become an audience. And when I become an audience that gives me enthusiasm to finish the project. 

When I hear people perpetrating those really dramatic stances with the slamming drums and the electric guitars, it doesn’t work for me, and has to do with the franticness with which they are pursuing the approval of the masses. It shows in every fiber of the music 

There’s a big gulf in people’s hearts, and people are so fragmented because they don’t have a Beatles and they don’t have a Kingston Trio. Those artists consolidated us and brought us somewhere new. Now it’s like a vast wasteland in a certain way. So when I say Beatles, it’s a way of saying to keep your light burning in the middle of a lot of darkness.”

“Silence is the art of keeping three monkeys in your heart.”
Michael Smith, “Three Monkeys,” solo from Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 5, No. 7) Live 2.24.90
℗ 2004 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings / 1991 Fast Folk Musical Magazine

Fundraiser for Michael Smith

Since Michael lost Barbara, his wife and life partner of 52 years last year, his health has suffered greatly. He is now in hospice care. Linda Marie Smith has started a GoFund page entitled “Iconic songwriter Michael Smith needs your help.”

The hope was to raise $15,000. So far over $40,000 has been raised. There’s a whole lot of love for this man. But it is not too late to donate, if you are so moved. “Please keep him and his family in your prayers,” wrote Linda.

You can donate to the Michael Smith fund here.

Makem & Clancy, “The Dutchman,” by Michael Smith.
Michael in the mirror, from the video for “The Dutchman.”
“Long ago I used to be a young man. And dear Margaret remembers that for me.”

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