Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bob Schmertz: Banjo Folklorist

Robert Watson Schmertz was born in Squirrel Hill in 1898, and would become a sort of renaissance artist in the City. He was the grandson of Robert Schmertz, the owner of Schmertz & Company, the Duquesne Glass Works and a director of the Pittsburgh Bank For Savings in the late 1800's. Might not mean much to us now, but back in the nineteenth century, granddad was the real deal.

The gilded Schmertz family had a mansion in Oakland on Fifth Avenue and Craig Street that stood until 1956. That's when the manor met the wrecking ball, to ultimately be replaced by the University Square Apartments. Our Bob Schmertz entered the world a little more humbly as a resident of 5427 Wilkins Avenue, an East End house he'd never leave.

He found his musical jones when the clan Schmertz would gather for family orchestras, a sort of inter-generational hootenanny where he would sing and strum the banjo with the kin. The banjo was copacetic; someone left it at the house and young Schmerz, who had never played an instrument, picked it up. Little did he know then where that long-necked, five-string banjo would lead.

Schmertz went to Peabody HS, where he first met his love Mildred, who was destined to become his bride. He then moved on to Carnegie Tech (now CMU), where he was part of its first school of architecture class and co-wrote the Tartan spirit song "Fight for the Glory of Carnegie."

That led to his bread and butter gig. Schmertz taught as a professor for 35 years in the School of Architecture at Tech and operated a thriving private practice out of the Seventh Avenue Century Building in town, a few short blocks from where his grandpap ran his business.

He planned St. Michael's of the Valley Church in Rector, Mt. Lebanon Presbyterian Church's Education Building, Morewood Gardens in Oakland, the renovation of Latrobe's Unity Chapel and was part of the Saxonburg Cyclotron design team (it closed in 1969; it was a nuclear lab campus for Carnegie Tech, complete with its own atom-smasher, that was situated at the spot where KDKA once broadcast) among his many projects. He also designed homes for several prominent local families during his career.

So Schmertz was a first class artist in the business world, drawing up buildings that adorn our cityscape today. Music and architecture are both members of the same artsy family, and he was equally as talented in another creative genre, Americana roots music. His reputation as a composer and folk performer spread by word-of-mouth beyond the city, with many of his tunes based on Pittsburgh's own lore.

But he hid his light under his hat; it took years for his friends to convince Schmertz to get his music on vinyl. Finally, in 1949 a group of buds tossed in and bought Schmertz some recording time to get his work out of the parlor and on wax. The resulting 78 LP was only pressed 300 times, not much more than a demo, but had a big influence. It traveled well and served to enhance his down-home rep.

People in folk circles likened him to a contemporary Stephen Foster, and his earthy lyrics won him the title of "Troubadour of the Two by Four." None other than Pete Seeger recalled that "Bob Schmertz was a very good songwriter."

And that Schmertz was. Sometimes derivative in his music, his writing was a brilliant example of the genre. He could rhyme any couplet, keep the words in appropriate dialect and make them flow off a singer's tongue. Telling a simple folk story through song was his forte, and not one easily mastered.

Pete Seeger put his money where his mouth was when he recorded "Monongahela Sal," a song Schmertz had written in 1947, on the "Story Songs" album from 1961. Here's a few verses from his vintage "he done her wrong" song (tune vaguely similar to "Red River Valley"):

It was love, careless love, by the river
It was love, careless love, by the shore
And I'm sure that the good Lord will forgive her
For she never knew what love was like before.

He swore that he always would love her
As they locked through the old Emsworth dam
But that night, overboard he did shove her
And then Moat Stanley took it on the lam.

Then Sal jumped a freight for Rochester
She swore she would have Moat Stanley's gore
From a yard bull who tried to molest her
She went and took a great big .44.

So raisin' that big shooting iron
Sal pumped six bullets into Moat
And when she had finished her firin'
She'd sure messed up that fancy sporting coat.

Now Sal to the judge said, "Good Mornin!"
The jury foreman said," Not Guilty, gal"
So let all you pilots take warnin'
Don't mess around Monongahela Sal!

Sweet, hey? He did have a softer side to his songs. Burl Ives, Tennessee Ernie Ford, The Statler Brothers and Gary Crosby all recorded versions of "Noah Found Grace in the Eyes of the Lord." Ives was a particular fan of Schmertz, recording his "Angus MacFergus MacTavish Dundee," "The Lock Tenders Lament," and "Quack Quack Paddle-Oh." Local folkies The NewLanders included "Monongahela Sal" on their 2003 CD "Where the Allegheny Flows."

But Seeger is the guy who shined the spotlight on Bob Schmertz. Beside "Sal," he played other Schmertz compositions all around America, and always credited the writer. He wasn't alone; every folkie that came through the City visited and often played alongside Schmertz.

Seeger appeared with the American Wind Symphony in the early sixties, performing from their floating stage "Point Counterpoint," which was moored at Point State Park. He brought Schmertz on stage to join him in singing "Monongahela Sal" and several other songs.

But most of Schmertz's performances were at small stages and often concluded in the wee hours at local homes after the gig. He also collaborated with Chatham College's Viv Richman, who recorded 1959's "Vivien Richman Sings Folk Songs of Western Pennsylvania," a Smithsonian Folkways release.

Schmertz did eventually give up his studio shyness in his later years. He recorded three albums, 1955's "Robert Schmertz Sings His Songs," 1959's "Sing Oh! the City Oh!: Songs of Early Pittsburgh," and 1960's "Ladies Beware of an Architect: Songs for Architects and Their Girlfriends."

His first real LP, "RS Sings His Songs," was a George Heid Productions disc, assisted by Carnegie Tech. His daughters Gretchen & Mildred, son Jack, and Richman all contributed, and it had a couple of his better known songs, "Monongahela Sal" and "Angus MacFergus MacTavish Dundee," included on its thirteen tracks.

The album "Songs of Early Pittsburgh," is a collection of tunes Schmertz wrote to celebrate Pittsburgh's 200th birthday bash. The songs featured the rock stars of pre-revolutionary Western PA like George Washington, Christopher Gist, General John Forbes and Seneca Queen Aliquippa. Some of its other tracks were "La Vierge de la Belle Riviere," "Flintlock Finnegan," and "The Prettiest Girl in Pittsburgh Town." This LP is the only one of his works to make a transition from wax, reissued as a CD by the Smithsonian Folkways label.

His final "Ladies Beware" was a tongue-in cheek sort of release, and was distributed by the Pittsburgh Architectural Club during its 70th anniversary. It had tunes commemorating Frank Lloyd Wright, IM Pei and Lorenzo Di Medici, along with "The Doric Column Is Coming Back," "Industrious Carpenter Dan" and "Queen Anne's Front" that played to the whimsy of the blueprint set.

He also authored "A Picture Book of Songs and Ballads." That's all the body of work that Bob Schmertz, who passed away in 1975, has left behind.

Alas, except for the "Songs of Early Pittsburgh" CD, it's quite a chore running down Schmertz's stuff. The few remaining LPs are mostly in hands of collectors who avoid e-Bay and mostly trade tapes back and forth. Other individual tracks are scattered about at digital download sites. There is one collection left that we've found where his wax is stored, at CMU's Ryan Library. Somewhat oddly but fittingly, it's part of the school's architectural archives.

Pittsburgh tells a rough and rowdy tale. It spent a long, long time as a beefy, brawling town before the more genteel ed and med folk softened its smoky, steely edges. The area's hard past has been covered by many a historian in books enough to fill a library. But if you really want a feel for our region's roots, you need a troubadour with the same roots, and Bob Schmertz was that man.


Olde Edo said...

My dad was a good friend of Bob Schmertz, and Bob and his family and friends even entertained at a party at our house. Naturally, I was exposed to his wonderful recordings throughout my youth, and they have left a great impression. I still have a few battered LPs (carried with me to Japan), but alas, no record player. It would be a blessing if someone or some group would take the initiative to transfer the best existing recordings to digital media. I know at least 1 or 2 old books of his songs were also published, and suspect that individual songs may also exist as sheet music (especially the ones sung by Burl Ives). Anyway, thanks for bringing back wonderful memories!

Suzy Crowley said...

I like you would like to have a casette of those old records that we wore out of Bob Schmertz

But I did find this one

Amelia Schmertz said...

What a beautifully written bio! There were some aspect of my grandfather's life that I wasn't aware of. Thank you! I have the digitalized version of Sing O the City Oh and am happy to send them along to anyone who is interested.

pgf said...

my father was a professor at CIT/CMU, and was always tickled that Schmertz, over in Architecture, had this wonderful "side gig". i have a digitized version of "RS Sings His Songs", transferred from our family's well-traveled LP. given Amelia's offer, above, i don't feel terribly guilty about offering a copy to folks who ask. i did, however, just order a copy of "Sing O" from smithsonian folk -- i'm thrilled that it's available.

Unknown said...

My father has his business offices in the Century Building as well, and got to know Bob, since he dealt with architects on a regular basis. One day he came home with this album of 78s of Bob Schmertz singing his songs. I can still hear "Monongahela Sal" in my head right now. Does anyone have a copy (not the one from the LP, which featured other voices)?

sms said...

Bob Schmertz was my Grandfathers brother! I have an album and a song book.