Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

The past 20 months have been such a whirlwind of sickness, grief, political madness, and worldwide protests for causes either righteous and necessary or selfish and deranged—it hasn’t been easy for music fans to do justice to the lives and memories of all the amazing artists who’ve passed away during this chaotic period. Famous folk musician John Prine, who died needlessly of COVID in April 2020, received widespread tributes at the time—seemingly an eternity ago. Less than four months later, Michael P. Smith, one of Chicago’s most memorable and magical singer-songwriters, followed him in death—and by comparison, his loss was barely noted. 

The Reader eulogized Smith, but in death as in life, he didn’t get the accolades that Prine did. Smith’s fans included Prine and fellow Chicago folk heavy Steve Goodman, but Smith definitely kept a lower profile: he considered himself a songwriter first and a performer second. He wrote more than 500 songs, but he gigged intermittently, mostly when he needed the money. Many of his tunes have become contemporary folk classics—the most famous and widely covered is “The Dutchman,” about a woman who looks after an old love whose memory and sense have left him. With any luck the Secret History of Chicago Music can help secure Smith the prominent place in Windy City music lore that his songs have already earned.

Michael Peter Smith was born in suburban Newark, New Jersey, on September 7, 1941, as the first of six children. “When I was five my Aunt Mamie taught me to sing for company: ‘The Boston Burglar,’ ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat,’ and ‘Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,’” he wrote on his website. “When I was ten my favorite recording artists were Roy Rogers, Frankie Laine, Jerry Lewis, and Les Paul and Mary Ford. My favorite songwriter was Cole Porter. I wanted to live in the world of ‘Begin the Beguine’ and ‘Night and Day.'”

In the 1950s, though, Smith got caught up in the folk boom and fell in love with the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte’s calypso version of classic tunes. He started to think he could be a performer, and he bought his first guitar. At age 15 he wrote his first song: a calypso setting of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem “Requiem.”

Two years later, Smith suffered a loss that would affect him for the rest of his life. His father, a struggling musician who made ends meet as a factory worker, committed suicide with carbon monoxide in 1958. “When you’re the oldest kid at 17, and you’re a boy, and your dad kills himself, you’re done,” Smith said in a 2018 interview with Reader contributor Mark Guarino. “You’re fixed in a certain angry and lost place. You’ll never be graceful and suave.” Smith had attended Catholic schools as a child—religious imagery occurs frequently in his songs—and he wasn’t helped by the tendency of such an upbringing to convince kids that they should feel guilty when bad things happen to their loved ones. 

Smith didn’t abandon his interest in music, though, and in high school (at Passaic Valley Regional in Little Falls) he sang bass with an a cappella group. “When I heard Johnny Ace singing ‘Pledging My Love,’ I got a glimpse of the adult world and also how sexy vibes could sound on a recording,” Smith recalled on his website. “There was a story that Johnny Ace died in a game of Russian roulette, which was fine with me, very adult. I loved ‘Earth Angel’ by the Penguins and ‘In the Still of the Night’ by the Five Satins (not Cole Porter’s) and ‘Teardrops’ by Lee Andrews & the Hearts, and to this day my favorite music is doo-wop.”

After Smith finished high school, his family moved to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he began college two years later. He also began his career as a musician, gigging locally with a quartet called the Wanderers and the duo the Talismen. In 1966, when Smith was in his mid-20s, he landed a residency at a happening coffeehouse in Miami, the Flick, playing six nights a week for three years and sharing bills with such greats as David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, and Steve Goodman. During this period, Smith met singer Barbara Barrow, and in 1968 they became husband and wife—a marriage that would last 52 years. 

A track from the sole Juarez album, released in 1970

The couple formed the core of underrated soft-psych/folk-rock band Juarez, who recorded in Los Angeles backed by players such as Hal Blaine, Larry Knechtel, and James Burton—members of the legendary Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of studio musicians who appeared on hundreds of hits. Their lone album was a self-titled LP that came out in 1970 on Decca Records, and in a more just world it would’ve sold as well as records by similar acts such as the Mamas & the Papas, the Vejtables, or even Sonny & Cher. The Juarez album was also the first recorded appearance of “The Dutchman.” 

Smith must’ve known early that the tune was something special, because a different version turns up on Mickey and Babs Get Hot, which he and Barrow released as a duo on Bell Records in 1974. The album’s sublime moments also include its rootsy, funky opener, “Steal Away,” and it features ace session musicians such as guitarist Hugh McCracken and jazz bassist Don Payne (who played with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Herbie Mann). The producer on Mickey and Babs was Artie Kornfeld, best known for his role creating and promoting a little musical festival called Woodstock.

“Steal Away” appears on the 1974 album Mickey and Babs Get Hot, by Michael P. Smith and Barbara Barrow

Smith and Barrow released one more duo album, Zen, on tiny label Bird Productions. Jazzy and musically adventurous, it includes an early version of the beloved Smith song “Ballad of Dan Moody.” It came out in 1977, shortly after the couple settled in Chicago after years on the road.

Smith and Barrow chose a good time to come to the Windy City: the 70s singer-songwriter boom was in full swing, and the two of them had already played the Old Town School of Folk Music several times on tour. Steve Goodman, already a folk luminary in Chicago, had even covered some of Smith’s tunes. (Later the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Suzy Bogguss would record Smith’s material too.) 

“Car on Fire,” from the 1981 Jet album Empty Handed, opens with an alarming blare of sirenlike synthesizer.

By the 1980s, the folk scene had dwindled, so when Smith and Barrow formed another band, Jet, they went for a commercial new-wave sound (think Starship) on their lone album, the 1981 release Empty Handed on Third Coast Records. That stylistic left turn didn’t pay off, though, so Smith returned to what he knew on his self-titled solo debut in 1986. 

A longtime friend and collaborator of Smith’s, singer-songwriter Anne Hills, was already on the roster of esteemed roots-music label Flying Fish, and she brought him aboard for Michael Smith—it was one of several releases she produced for him, on and off the label. The classic album featured versions of “The Dutchman” and “Ballad of Dan Moody” as well as other nuanced, melancholy, character-driven songs such “Demon Lover” and the epic “Spoon River.” In 1988, Flying Fish released Love Stories, which contains another beloved Smith tune, “Sister Clarissa,” where he confronts his Catholic upbringing and his complex relationship with religion. 

“Spoon River” is one of the enduring songs on Michael P. Smith’s 1986 solo debut.
“Sister Clarissa” appears on Smith’s 1988 album Love Stories.

At that point, Smith was supporting himself mostly with day jobs, selling subscriptions for Time-Life and teaching at the Old Town School. He also occasionally performed at the Old Town School, and one of those sets transformed his musical life when theater director Frank Galati happened to be in the crowd. Galati asked Smith to write songs for his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, which Steppenwolf debuted at the Royal George Theatre in 1988—and which won two Tony Awards for its Broadway revival in 1990. Frank Rich reviewed that production in the New York Times, singling out the music: “Equally astringent and evocative is Michael Smith’s score, which echoes Woody Guthrie and heartland musical forms,” he wrote. “Sometimes salted with descriptive lyrics from Steinbeck, the music becomes the thread that loosely binds a scattered society.” 

Smith was able to quit his day jobs, and in 1994 Flying Fish released Time, another album of memorable tunes that included “I Brought My Father With Me,” where he faces his dad’s death. That same year he also put out Michael Margaret Pat & Kate, a sort of soundtrack for a play he cowrote about growing up with his family—its Victory Gardens Theater production won four Jeff Awards. 

In the mid-90s, Smith began a long collaboration with Chicago folk singer and producer Jamie O’Reilly, which resulted in a series of folk cabarets and recordings—the 1997 show Pasiones: Songs of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, for instance, toured to both coasts. O’Reilly, who’s also a close friend of Hills, remained an important part of Smith’s life till the end, and he was in hospice care in her home when he died. 

Smith continued to work in the theater world for the rest of his career, writing music for and appearing in shows at Victory Gardens and the Lookingglass Theatre Company. He also formed a partnership with puppeteer and producer Blair Thomas, and they worked on several projects together in the 2000s and 2010s—they included a 2006 version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen with Galati directing (and Barrow in the cast), a 2008 Chicago Children’s Theatre show based on the Oscar Wilde short story “The Selfish Giant,” and a long-running touring production of Moby Dick that debuted in 2010 (and that also bears the unwieldy alternate title The Brotherhood of the Monastic Order of Ancient Mariners Purges the Ills of Society Through a Reading of the Tales of Moby-Dick).

Michael P. Smith sings his most famous song, “The Dutchman,” at a Florida house show in 2010. The performance begins at 1:46, after Smith tells a story about playing the tune for Irish singer Liam Clancy more than 40 years before.

Smith’s career as a musician wasn’t entirely eclipsed by his theater gigs: he’d continue to perform on his own, including at the Kerrville Folk Festival, the Black Mountain Music Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Gamble Rogers Music Festival, and the Winnipeg Folk Festival. And he kept releasing albums: 2012’s Old Man Dancing and Songs of a Catholic Childhood (the latter a collaboration with O’Reilly), 2018’s Songwriting, and 2019’s Fifteen Songs From Moby Dick, which would be his last.

Barrow died in February 2020 from complications that arose from her 12-year bout with Parkinson’s. A few months later, Smith learned he had colon cancer that had already begun to spread. He passed away on August 3, 2020, surrounded by loved ones and family, leaving behind a rich legacy.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.