Master of the Story Song
Born in 1941 in New Jersey, Michael passed away on August 3, 2020.
A note before reading. This website, and its contents: posts, history and reflections, are the domain of me, Jamie O’Reilly, a writer, performer, and friend of Michael’s. It is not a commercial or fan site. Nor do I act as agent, or handle his business affairs. Those roles will be his family’s to determine, now that he is gone. Please go to his personal website michaelpetersmith.com, for updates. If you choose to stay and read, please do so respectfully. It was my honor to know Michael and make beautiful art with him. We all miss him terribly. He is irreplaceable- jamie
Our friend’s tribute to Michael Smith on WFMT’s Folkstage was Sept 26, 2020 and featured Anne Hills and Jamie O’Reilly. With Paul Amandes, guitar and John Erickson on piano. The archive for Folkstage will be online wfmt.com for several weeks.
Friday, October 23, at 11 PM (CT), The Best of Studs Terkel will feature Michael’s 1988 conversation with Studs about The Grapes of Wrath. Chicago listeners can tune in to 98.7 FM. It’s also available via live stream at wfmt.com, the WFMT app, and over any number of web radio services such as Tune In Radio.
A Note from Jamie O’Reilly about Michael P. Smith
My writing as Michael’s agent, producer, promoter and collaborator follows here and on other site pages. It was the greatest honor of my professional career to work with him, sing his songs, be his musical producer, and his sometime muse. Time will reveal the breadth and beauty of his songwriting: over 500 songs, 10 musical works, countless recordings! My blog has a feature Song Notes, the stories and audio recordings of songs Michael wrote for me and/or performed with me.
Michael Smith, the lyricist, composer and performer of renown, was a voracious reader and never at a loss for material. As early as age 16, when he set the words that appeared on the grave of Robert Louis Stevenson, Michael was adapting and setting literature, children’s stories, and poetry to music.
Michael’s songs set poems by F. Garcia Lorca (Five in the Afternoon), Wallace Stevens (Blue Guitar), Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral (Swallow) and Pablo Neruda, as well as Irish poetry (Songs of the Kerry Madwoman), set in a chamber opera, with poems by Patricia Monaghan, and Chinese Tang Dynasty poets (Painted Horse). Passages from Robert Cole’s “The Spiritual Lives of Children” were transformed in We Become Birds. The words of essayist Ann Carson appear in a surprising way in Michael’s song Seurat. Michael’s original work was featured at the Poetry Foundation: And the Poet Sang, (2013) with Jamie O’Reilly and Peter Swenson, and in Brecht’s Letters with Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members (2014). His most recent recording is of songs inspired by Melville’s Moby Dick.
Featured among a list of luminaries in Paul Zollo’s 2016 book: More Songwriters on Songwriting (Da Capo Press), Michael Peter Smith is as productive as ever! He recently released Songwriting, a CD recording that is part master class, part memoir. Recorded at WFMT Studio in Chicago, Songwriting was featured on the music program Sweet Folk Chicago, and is available at CD Baby.
Michael’s rich life included singing, writing and touring in North America for over five decades. His songs have been recorded by artists the world over. His song The Dutchman is considered a classic in the folk lexicon.
LET US GO TO THE BANKS OF THE OCEAN
WHERE THE WALLS RISE ABOVE THE ZUIDER ZEE
LONG AGO I USED TO BE A YOUNG MAN
AND DEAR MARGARET REMEMBERS THAT FOR ME
This self-taught musician was also an award-winning composer. As a now beloved master in the folk music scene, Michael always delivered the goods. Time and again, audiences reported an evening with him is an unforgettable appearance. As a soloist, Michael was a program highlight at musical venues and and at folk festivals from Kerrville, Texas to Shawano, WI and Toronto, CA. Michael’s East Coast tours, as both a solo artist, and in performance with Anne Hills, brought him to folk venues and concerts halls from Princeton, NJ to Cambridge, MA.
“I did care and I still DO care about messing around with songwriting. I’ll do this all my life and see what turns out. I’m writing for myself…I’ll choose to be happy…I’m not ready to shut this factory down.”
And so Michael continued, with his plate full, and a new commission on the horizon, until his body gave out. But he is ever-present to a world of fans!Michael Peter Smith
Most recent project
Michael Smith’s Moby Dick
Michael regularly contributed songs and original scores to the finest theaters in United States and internationally. An avid reader, Smith’s work often sets words of the finest poets and authors: Lorca, Steinbeck, Wilde, Mistral, Brecht, Jackson, Stevenson, among the many. His most recent project Michael P. Smith’s Fifteen Songs from Moby Dick features original songs inspired by the seminal American classic, setting the texts from Herman Melville’s novel as sea shanties, story-songs, ballads and anthems. Strong, swarthy, infectious, and infused with Smith’s signature poignant melodies, the songs of Moby Dick are reminiscent of 19th century balladry, and capture the tantalizing power of seafaring life. The 15 original compositions are performed with stirring vocals and Michael’s fine guitar playing. As strong a collection as any in the 21st century Americana folk music lexicon, Moby Dick may be some of Michael’s best work!
“Michael Smith stands out as one of the few undisputed geniuses among singer-songwriters.”Sing Out! Magazine
Michael was engaged by, and for, estimable cultural institutions. A sampling of Illinois host-venues alone includes Newberry, Evanston, Lisle, Oak Park and Alton Libraries, The Poetry Foundation, The Museum of Contemporary Art, DePaul Humanities Center, Logan Center for the Arts, Lookingglass Theater, Victory Gardens Theater, Old Town School of Folk Music, Field Museum, Woodstock Opera House, Irish American Heritage Center, Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall, Chicago History Museum, and Northwestern University Thorne Auditorium.
“Michael Smith is a master of the story song and the character sketch, invoking a Carver-like economy at the one end and the subtlety of Proust at the other…In his characters, whimsy and humor mingle with much darker intimations. Each song comes from a place so vividly evoked that it makes you want to go and live, not there, but rather more completely in your own life.”Foley Schuler
Awards and Accolades
Michael’s extensive catalog of original compositions included critically acclaimed theatrical scores, recordings, and songs for theatrical productions.
- He wrote the music for the 1990 Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf production The Grapes of Wrath (1990).
- Michael Margaret Pat & Kate (1994) at Victory Gardens Theater earned him four Joseph Jefferson Citations, including Best Original Music.
- In 2009, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Woodstock Folk Festival.
- Michael is the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for his adaption of The Snow Queen, for which he also wrote the musical score.
- Michael’s songs for Hello Dali From the Sublime to the Surreal (2000), received an After Dark Award for Best New Work for Victory Gardens Theater in its Tony Award-winning season
Michael’s songs have been featured in four Chicago Humanities Festivals.
“Michael Smith, a truly remarkable songwriter, teaches his craft to a roomful of students at a songwriting workshop in The Studios at SPACE. After the class, he performed his gorgeous, intricate, and often hilarious songs to a sold out crowd. An incredible night with this gifted musician!”Evanston S.P.A.C.E.
In recent years, Michael worked extensively with celebrated puppeteer/producer Blair Thomas, including in a touring production of The Brotherhood of the Monastic Order of Ancient Mariners Purges the Ills of Society Through a Reading of the Tales of Moby-Dick, performed at the The Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville, France. A workshop production was also mounted at Virginia Tech University, and had a limited run at the prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Another Thomas collaboration is their piece based on Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, a highlight in the Chicago International Puppet Festival, and touring for the Children’s Theatre Production. Michael contributed music to Edward Gorey’s The Vinegar Works for Loyola University Museum of Art. Blair and Michael collaborated on The Snow Queen for Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, with Tony/Academy Award-winning director Frank Galati.
“Hearing the songs of Michael Smith in this day and age is like reading an anthology of Hemingway’s short stories after decades of only comic books. It’s a realization that songs can hold a whole lot more than they’re usually expected to hold, they can possess a genuine sense of place and time as evocative and magical as the finest literature.”Paul Zollo
The Heart Songs of Opal Whiteley was written with longtime collaborator Anne Hills. Anne has performed the music as a multimedia theater piece, and solo concert. These lifelong friends toured together and collaborated many projects.
“The thing that stands out most in Michael’s work is his unpredictable creativity. Just when you think you know where he’s going, lyrically or musically, he’ll turn a metaphoric corner on you, double back, sneak up behind you and slip a rainbow in your pocket.”Hill Country House Concerts
Michael’s 20 plus year collaboration with Chicago vocalist, and producer Jamie O’Reilly resulted in a formidable series of folk-cabarets: Pasiones: Songs Of The Spanish Civil War (1997), (listen here), directed by Peter Glazer, was written in collaboration with veterans of the legendary Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The stirring cabaret was seen at Chicago’s Theater on the Lake, and toured to New York City, San Francisco, Oakland, Allentown, PA and more. The recording in 6 languages is sold around the world. Michael composed music for the box office hit Hello Dali: From the Sublime to the Surreal (2000). Their production received two After Dark Awards for Best New Work and Best Ensemble for Victory Gardens Theater. Other original productions and recordings with Jamie O’Reilly include The Gift of the Magi (2003) for Judith Svalander Dance Theatre at the Woodstock Opera House, the chamber opera Songs of the Kerry Madwoman (2006) for the DePaul Humanities Center, and the Chicago Humanities Festival.
In a more recent collaboration, Songs of a Catholic Childhood, they reflected on life in parochial school. The concert featured personal stories and musical selections from the “soundtrack” that accompanied their formative years: Michael’s in the working class Irish/Italian neighborhoods of post-WWII in New Jersey – Jamie’s as one of 14 kids, in the post-Vatican II-Baby Boom era, outside Chicago.