Highway's Song

The Night I Met Michael Peter Smith or Why You Should Always Seek the Source

Michael Peter Smith

Michael Peter Smith

Michael Peter Smith has been a hero of mine ever since I first heard his song, “The Dutchman,” performed by a couple guys in a bar in Flint, Michigan in 1973. The song was so beautifully written and expressed such deep truths about love and fidelity that it made me weep. I asked the performers, “Who wrote that amazing song?” They said Smith had written it, but they had learned it from a Steve Goodman record. (Goodman, who died of leukemia at 36 years old in 1984, was a remarkable Chicago-based performer and writer. His high watermark was writing the now classic song “The City of New Orleans.”) Though “The Dutchman” had been recorded by countless other artists, Goodman’s version is the most well known. Just as Arlo Guthrie’s version of “City of New Orleans” brought Steve Goodman more attention, so too did Goodman’s recording of “The Dutchman” bring Smith to greater prominence.

I went out and found the Steve Goodman album that included the song and learned it, though it took me some time to be able to perform it without tearing up. Michael Smith’s recordings were hard to find so I never actually heard his version.

Smith, who had begun his folk music career during the sixties in clubs in Florida, began recording and touring with his soon-to-be wife, Barbara Barrow, as well as a quartet called Juarez. In 1976 Michael and Barbara moved to Chicago where Goodman had been warming Chicagoans up to Smith by regularly playing several of Michael’s songs in his sets. Smith became a fixture of the Chicago folk scene for a few years, but eventually took a day job, working as a clerk for Time magazine to help pay the bills. He essentially stopped performing. He kept writing, however, and his songs continued getting played and recorded by others. In 1986 he returned to live performance and recording, and began writing for the theater. He’s continued doing all of them ever since, garnering high praise and causing Rolling Stone to once call him “the greatest songwriter in the English language.”

Fast forward to 2001. I’m recording shows for my friend Jimmy Duke’s Dark Thirty house concert series. At the end of one show Jimmy informs me that his next guest will be none other than Michael Peter Smith! I can’t believe my good fortune. Not only would I get to hear, for the first time, this long time hero, but in an intimate venue and actually get to record his performance! Not only that, but I’d just recorded “The Dutchman” on my own CD and could present my version to him in person! Wow! I was excited.

Comes the night of the MPS house concert and it’s amazing. I’m blown away by Michael’s incredible writing, his guitar arrangements, his between song stories and patter, his voice, his humor, the whole shebang. At the end of the night as I’m tearing down my recording gear and Michael is having his post-show meal at the kitchen counter, I approach him with my CD in hand. I say, “Michael, I loved your show! I recorded ‘The Dutchman’ on my latest CD. I’d like to give you a copy.” To which he replied, “Oh, how nice. Thank you very much. Maybe someone’s finally gotten the words and the melody right?” “What do you mean?” I asked. He said, “Well, you know, Goodman slaughtered it.”

I don’t remember, but there must have been an audible clunk as my jaw hit the counter. In my excitement and rush to give him a CD, I never even considered the differences between Michael’s version and Goodman’s. I’d never heard Michael’s until that night, and it was far superior, but having learned Goodman’s version those many years ago, my only thought was, “How am I going to get my CD back!?”

As it turned out, Michael returned to Jimmy Duke’s the following year and had the graciousness to tell me how much he enjoyed my recording of his song, though I still think he was just being nice. He has since returned to Dark Thirty many times and we’ve become friends. I used the recording of Michael I made that first night to fashion my current, and much more true to the source, arrangement of “The Dutchman.”

In all fairness to Michael, he and Goodman were pals and Michael is forever grateful to Steve for the boost he gave Michael’s career when he recorded “The Dutchman,” slaughtered or not.

You, too, can hear The Dutchman, all his other great songs, and witness the splendor which is Michael Peter Smith, as Folkey Monkey Presents brings him to San Diego on Sunday,10/18/2015 at 7:00 pm. The show will be at VISION, 6154 Mission Gorge Rd, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92120. For directions, tickets, and questions visit FolkeyMonkey.com

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