Chris Smither, still on the levee after nearly half a century: Veteran singer-songwriter’s work celebrated in two new albums, upcoming concert
October 23rd, 2014
By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer
(Published in print: Thursday, October 16, 2014)
It was almost 50 years ago that Chris Smither dropped his college studies in anthropology and, guitar in hand, headed north from his home in New Orleans. His destination was Boston and its burgeoning acoustic music scene. Smither, who’d been bitten by the blues and by the folk music boom led by Bob Dylan, didn’t have an exact plan in mind, but he figured he’d at least spend the summer up north to see what happened.
What happened was that Smither became one of the most respected singer-songwriters in folk music and a certified road warrior, playing as many as 200 shows a year. With his crisp, finger-picked guitar and weathered voice, he turns the blues, as The New York Times puts it, “into songs that accept hard-won lessons and try to make peace with fate.”
Now, as he stands on the cusp of turning 70, Smither, who moved to Amherst from the Boston area in 2009, has gone back to his roots in a couple of ways. With the retrospective album “Still on the Levee,” released by Signature Sounds this past summer, he’s re-recorded 24 of his songs spanning the length of his career — and all those tracks were laid down in New Orleans, the first time he’s ever made a record in his old hometown.
“It’s quite possible we could have gone anywhere and had the same kind of rejuvenating effect,” Smither said during a recent interview at Signature Sounds’ Northampton office. “But I personally was excited to go back. I left New Orleans when I was 22, and the three weeks I was down there recording was the longest time I’d spent since I left. … I was amazed at how much I got back into being there.”
To honor Smither turning 70 next month, Signature Sounds isn’t settling for one album. The label has just released a Smither tribute CD, “Link of Chain,” on which 16 songwriters and musicians interpret his songs. And on the weekend following Thanksgiving, the independent record label is hosting four concerts at Northampton’s Academy of Music to celebrate its own 20th anniversary: The debut concert, on Nov. 28, will feature Smither, with a number of supporting artists. (See sidebar)
Jim Olsen, Signature Sounds’ president, said the seed for the tribute album was a concert that friends of Smither held for him 10 years ago in Boston, playing covers of his songs to celebrate his 60th birthday.
“I was just kind of blown away by a lot of the performances, and for his 70th birthday, it seemed like a good idea to do [the two new albums] in roughly the same period.
“Chris is such a musician’s musician,” Olsen added. “He has so many fans in the musician world, I thought there’d be a lot of interest in doing this, and there was.”
As one example, singer-songwriter Mark Erelli, who once lived in the Valley, joined Greenfield-based Jeffrey Foucault to harmonize on “Song for Susan,” one of Smither’s early ballads. In a call from his home in Melrose, Erelli said Smither’s blues-inflected music, which he’d discovered in the early 1990s when he was in high school, has been a big inspiration in his own career.
“I toured with Chris is England and in the Mid-Atlantic, and the more I got to know him and hear him play, the more impressed I was,” he said. “He’s such a soulful songwriter, and his guitar playing is so distinctive, such a part of his songs. For me, he was a kind of a bridge between rock and traditional folk.”
Erelli recently released a tribute album himself, “Milltowns,” on which he covers selected work by the acclaimed (and late) New England songwriter Bill Morrissey. But, Erelli added, “I could just as easily have done a project like this with Chris’ music.”
The rise and fall of a fast-talking dame: World premiere of commissioned screwball comedy, ‘Nobody’s Girl,’ to christen stage at renovated Academy of Music
October 10th, 2014
Susan Daniels, left, and Sam Rush, right, rehearse “Nobody’s Girl” at the Academy of Music in the downtown Northampton, Wednesday evening, Oct. 1, 2014. Harley Erdman, theater professor at the University of Massachusetts, has written the play, which is about a little-know part of the Academy’s history. It will be performed Oct. 17 and 18 to celebrate Academy’s reopening.
By STEVE PFARRER Staff Writer
(Published in print: Thursday, October 9, 2014)
The term “glass ceiling” wasn’t coined until sometime in the late 1970s. But what that ceiling represented — a barrier to women reaching management positions in business, government and other fields — was well in place before then.
Consider the case at Northampton’s Academy of Music, where the first woman to become manager of the theater, in the early 1940s, faced almost instant opposition from a group of men who didn’t think a female could handle the job.
Now the story of Mildred E. Walker, whose relatively brief tenure as the Academy’s manager led to a court battle, has been brought to the stage — the Academy of Music’s stage, that is. “Nobody’s Girl,” the first work ever commissioned by the Northampton theater, recounts the story of the strong-willed Walker, who battled forces of sexism that were much more ingrained in their day.
But the play, which debuts Oct. 17 and 18 in the newly refurbished Academy, is not just a grim tale of injustice. “Nobody’s Girl,” by Northampton playwright and librettist Harley Erdman, harkens back to the screwball comedy films of the 1930s and 1940s, the kind with “lots of fast-talking dames and guys,” as Erdman puts it, and which offer a twist on the traditional roles played by men and women.
“I’m not trying to write a bunch of laughs,” said Erdman, a professor of theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s not a Neal Simon play. But it has elements of screwball comedy, it borrows from that style, with a lot of mixed-up scenes and quick back-and-forth dialogue.
“The play is definitely about sexism and about the way women are treated,” Erdman added. “But I wasn’t interested in just making [Walker] a victim. I like morally complex characters, and she’s definitely that.”
The play’s title also “seemed to fit the style of screwball comedy,” Erdman noted, with its backhand reference to titles like “His Gal Friday,” a 1940 film with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
For Debra J’Anthony, the Academy of Music’s executive director, the play has particular resonance: She’s just the third woman to head the Academy in its 123-year history, and the only one to serve for an extended period (she became director in early 2008).
“Nobody’s Girl” is also her brainchild. A few years ago, she and a former employee discovered a box of old memos and documents at the theatre from Walker’s time as a manager, including information on the ensuing court case, and J’Anthony became convinced the material could serve as the basis for a humorous play.
After considering a number of area playwrights, she approached Erdman two years ago, showed him the documents, and asked him if he’d consider the project. “I knew he had an interest in screwball comedy and in local history, and I thought he might be intrigued — fortunately he was.”
Erdman, who in recent years wrote the librettos to two operas on area history, “The Garden of Martyrs” and “The Captivation of Eunice Williams,” was very much intrigued. The local history angle was compelling, as was the chance to flesh out the story with additional research and his own artistic interpretation.
“One thing that excited me … was that the documents don’t tell the whole story,” he said. “They’re little islands in the sea, and you’re wondering what’s underneath them. You have to connect the dots yourself. What piqued my curiosity was to research and find out more about [Walker].”
Restoring theater’s glory
On the first evening in October, Susan Daniels was on the Academy stage, rehearsing her role as Mildred Walker. Chairwoman of the theater arts department at Mount Holyoke College, Daniels’ long career includes many stints as an actor and director with the college’s Summer Theatre Program before she became its first-ever female artistic director, from 2001 to 2005.
“That’s one of the things I feel I have in common with Mildred,” she said before the rehearsal. “She was the first woman to manage the Academy … she values being excellent in her job, and so do I.”
As “Nobody’s Girl” director Sheila Siragusa looked on from a table set back from the stage, Daniels worked through a scene with veteran Valley thespian Sam Rush, who plays Frank Shaughnessy, the Academy manager preceding Walker. In the scene, though, Shaughnessy seems a little befuddled, and it becomes clear Walker, at that time the Academy’s cashier, has a better handle on what’s happening at the theater.
“Holy Moses and a bed of roses!” he exclaimed as Walker quickly read through some revenue figures.
In front of the stage, the orchestra pit was full of paint cans, buckets of joint compound and other construction materials, which pointed to a nice bit of serendipity surrounding “Nobody’s Girl.” The play will be the first staged event at the Academy following more than two months of renovations — the installation of new seats, extensive repainting, improvements to aisle lighting — during which the building has been closed.
The timing seems fitting, J’Anthony said, given those renovations have helped restore the theatre “to all its old glory. And now we’re reopening this historic building with a play that covers some of its own history, and which looks at issues that are very relevant today.”
The two-act “Nobody’s Girl” begins around 1940, covering the time when Shaughnessy, the Academy’s manager since 1928, was called away to military service. Shaughnessy tapped Walker, who’d worked at the theater since 1924 herself as an usher and then a cashier, to replace him; Erdman says his research showed the two had worked closely for years and that Shaughnessy had confidence in Walker’s ability to take the helm.
Trouble soon arose, though, because the Academy at that time — it primarily showed movies — was leased to a Boston businessman, Herman Rifkin, who owned several other cinemas and had connections to Hollywood. The Academy had a separate board of trustees that oversaw the building in a broad sense, Erdman explains, but Rifkin was the latest in a line of lessees that since the 1920s had been hired to try to make the theater more profitable.
“Rifkin wants his own guy [Carl Jamroga, from Springfield] as manager,” Erdman said. “The trustees are satisfied with Mildred — it’s clear from the minutes [of their meetings] that they want a local person doing the job. But Rifkin and his general manager, William Powell, don’t think a woman’s capable of doing it.”
In Walker, however, Rifkin faced a tenacious opponent. Born in 1906 in Northampton, she came from a family of limited means and had left high school after 10th grade to work. She was 34 at the time she was named the Academy’s manager, and despite her lack of education, “She was able to see her value, her ability to [be manager],” said J’Anthony. “She had a lot of moxie.”
Though he says the Mildred Walker in “Nobody’s Girl” is in large part a fictional character, Erdman agrees that the portrait of her that emerges from the old documents, such as memos between Rifkin and Walker, is of someone “who’s very feisty, very assertive. She tells off Rifkin and these other guys — you can see maybe why they didn’t like her.”
The play covers some of the ensuing battles between Walker, the board of trustees and Rifkin, including charges from Rifkin that Walker is mismanaging funds; her complaints that he won’t give her the money or staff to run the theater properly; Walker’s move in 1941 to lock Rifkin and his colleagues out of the building; then a court case in Springfield in early 1942 — it was front-page news in the Gazette and the Springfield Republican — as Rifkin sued to remove Walker because of her alleged financial improprieties.
“The documents have a kind of zaniness to them that’s really quite funny,” Erdman said. “And Mildred is a complex figure.” In talking to people who remembered her, he discovered she drove a Cadillac around town, favored high heels and showy clothing, and several years later raised eyebrows when she had an affair with a married Academy projectionist, who divorced his wife, then married Walker the following week.
Erdman has worked some of those details into his script in a way that, as Daniels says, “really lets the audience see Mildred as a modern woman, who does things on her own terms.”
Regardless of laughs, “Nobody’s Girl” doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. The court case ended with a pre-trial agreement; Walker lost her job, though she also received an undisclosed financial settlement. She later convinced the Academy trustees to take over day-to-day management of the theater again, and Rifkin’s lease was not renewed. But Walker never worked there again.
Erdman says he enjoyed writing “Nobody’s Girl” not just to give voice to Walker but for the variety of issues he could address.
“Sexism is a big part of it, but it’s also about local control over the arts versus national syndicates coming in, which is very relevant today, and it’s about class as well. There are a lot of different dimensions to it, and the opportunity to cover all that has been wonderful.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
“Nobody’s Girl” takes place at the Academy of Music, 274 Main St. in Northampton, Oct. 17 and 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $25 and $20. They may be purchased online at academyofmusictheatre.tix.com; at the Academy of Music box office Tuesdays through Fridays from 3 to 6 p.m.; or by calling 584-9032, ext. 105.