When Michael Smith strummed the guitar and sang his songs, a church-like hush would fill the clubs and coffeehouses where he played.
A star of Chicago’s folk scene and an award-winning composer who toured the United States and Canada for more than half a century, Mr. Smith died Monday at 78 of colon cancer, according to his friend, singer Jamie O’Reilly.
His songs — alternately bittersweet, haunting and wry — have been covered by performers including Suzy Bogguss, David Allan Coe, the Four Freshmen, the New Kingston Trio, David Soul and Spanky and Our Gang. Jimmy Buffett recorded his “Elvis Imitators.” Bonnie Koloc did “Crazy Mary.”
“The Dutchman” — about an elderly man and “dear Margaret,” who does his remembering for him — was one of his most popular compositions. It’s been covered by performers including Steve Goodman, Liam Clancy, Jerry Jeff Walker, Celtic Thunder and Trout Fishing in America. Goodman also recorded his “Spoon River,” inspired by Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.”
Mr. Smith didn’t want a funeral or any online RIPs, according to O’Reilly, his agent and a frequent musical collaborator. Instead, she said he told her: “If people sing my songs after I’m gone, they need to get the chords right.”
Bill FitzGerald, former owner of FitzGerald’s music club in Berwyn, called Mr. Smith’s music “enchanting” and “a sonic pleasure.”
“When he was onstage, it was Mike’s place,” FitzGerald said. “He would just completely capture the club, and it would get very quiet and very beautiful.”
“Goodman absolutely adored him,” longtime Chicago folksinger and former club owner Ed Holstein said. “He was a really unique writer with lyrics and music.”
Mr. Smith read constantly. The 500 or so songs he wrote reflected his love of literature and poetry.
“He was one of the most literate of guitar players,” Holstein said.
He said that when he was running the Chicago music club Holstein’s, “I just gave him any night I could give him.”
Speaking on his art in the 2016 book “More Songwriters on Songwriting,” Mr. Smith said, “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.”
Mr. Smith also was an acclaimed theatrical composer and performer. His Appalachian-flavored score for Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s “The Grapes of Wrath” drew critical praise when it debuted in 1988.
Frank Rich, a critic for The New York Times, singled out the music in a 1990 review of the Broadway production of the play, writing: “Equally astringent and evocative is Michael Smith’s score, which echoes Woody Guthrie and heartland musical forms and is played by a migrant band on such instruments as harmonica, Jew’s harp and banjo. Sometimes salted with descriptive lyrics from Steinbeck, the music becomes the thread that loosely binds a scattered society.”
The play won two Tony awards, and its success inspired him to quit a day job at Time-Life Chicago.
“It was really a chance to write songs with John Steinbeck,” Mr. Smith told the Sun-Times in 1988. “What songwriter would refuse that?”
“Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate,” a 1994 play that Mr. Smith cowrote based on his Catholic youth in Little Falls, New Jersey, won four Joseph Jefferson Awards for Chicago theater. It touched on prepubescent crushes, a boyhood love of singing cowboys and his father’s death by suicide. It featured “Sister Clarissa,” a song about a nun with a strict classroom where, “Somehow you know summer’s over.” The play also showcased his sly wit in the song “Coffeehouse Days”:
George Carlin came to see me once
He said Michael outta sight
Richie Pryor said he liked me
Even though I was white
I hung out with Don DiMucci
Took lessons from Earl Klugh
Joni Mitchell ignored me
Hey she’d ignore you
At Victory Gardens Theater, he wrote the adaptation and songs for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” which premiered in 2006.
“Most memorable is Michael as a songsmith — tireless and prolific, crafting chords, melodies, harmonies, simply gorgeous,” said Jim Corti, the artistic director at the Paramount Theatre and a director–choreographer of “The Snow Queen.” “His wild wit and imagination riff on places (‘Lapland’) and characters (‘Love Letter on a Fish’) set to his wry, hilarious lyrics. I had never experienced anything like his genre of folk music storytelling — stifling laughing out loud so not to miss a word!”
Paying his dues in small clubs early on taught him “an audience is not easily deciphered,” Mr. Smith said in a 1994 Sun-Times interview. “But if you quietly believe in what you do and cling to the work — as opposed to yourself — then people come around.”
He said that, growing up, he listened to musicians as varied as Harry Belafonte, the Beatles, the Kingston Trio, Frankie Laine, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Phil Ochs, Cole Porter, Roy Rogers and doo-wop groups like the Penguins and the Five Satins.
“I was raised in a very rigid and accomplishment-oriented environment. I don’t mean my family,” he said in “More Songwriters on Songwriting.” “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.
Mr. Smith often toured and wrote with folk singer Anne Hills. She said he “did what the great writers do. They use the lyrics, the melody and the composition as a whole to get around people’s defenses and open a door in the heart. It’s like you’re getting a little play in a song.”
After Goodman recorded “The Dutchman” in the early 1970s, Mr. Smith and his wife, the singer Barbara Barrow, settled in Chicago and immersed themselves in the city’s thriving folk scene. They appeared at clubs including the Earl of Old Town, Holstein’s, No Exit Cafe, Orphans and Somebody Else’s Troubles.
They were together 52 years, until Barrow’s death in February from complications of Parkinson’s disease.
He and his wife taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where they also performed in concert.
One of the most beguiling and enduring songs he wrote was “Crazy Mary,” which included these lyrics:
In the lamplight burning low
And dimly thru enchanted woods
She rocked beside the fire
That was never lit
And as we ran on by
Pretending to be frightened
We would shout and laugh at Crazy Mary
Crazy Mary from Londonderry
Lives next door to the cemetery
How many lovers have you buried
We would shout running scared
Across the green and golden paths
That led us home
Away from Crazy Mary
Contributing: Mary Houlihan