Eric Von Schmidt in St. Vincent and "Joshua Gone Barbados"

Eric Von Schmidt, musician

Eric Von Schmidt (1931-2007) was a renaissance man. His father was a painter and illustrator and Eric was a Fulbright Scholar who made his living as a graphic artist, illustrator and painter. He was also a musician who was a central figure at ground zero of the 1960’s folk revival, Cambridge Massachusetts, where his musical knowledge and abilities influenced other musicians like Tom Rush and Bob Dylan.  Wrote Dylan for liner notes on one of Eric’s records: “He can sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire. He can separate the men from the boys and the note from the noise....”  Eric’s most well-known composition is “Joshua Gone Barbados.”

“Joshua Gone Barbados” was one of a number of songs he wrote after he and his family vacationed on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1962.  The vacation itself turned into a personal nightmare; marital discord led his wife and kids to leave after a few weeks to return to New England, and 16 of his paintings were lost by the airlines on his return trip.  His St. Vincent compositions addressed the island environment, its indigenous libation of choice (rum) and like any well-meaning folk singer of the day, labor issues and social and economic justice. 

Eric Von Schmidt, artist

“Joshua Gone Barbados” is about the island’s unsuccessful sugar cane strike of 1962, an event that occurred just a few weeks ahead of Eric’s arrival.  In 1967 he told Broadside magazine that the details of the strike were supplied to him by island singer Norma Duncan.  History shows that his lyrics contained mostly accurate observations (Sonny Child was a plantation owner who confronted strikers and ended up in the hospital) but also included false rumors that permeated the island at the time of the strike.  One rumor was that strikers were killed (none were) and the other was that labor leader and politician Ebenezer Joshua (1908-1991) had deserted the cause.

Joshua was a native son who spent his early years moving from island to island working in a variety of jobs.  He eventually joined a trade union and became an organizer and union official.  When he returned to St. Vincent he formed a socialist political organization, the People’s Political Party whose platform included improving wages and working conditions and severing colonial ties with Great Britain.  By the 1950’s Joshua had become St. Vincent’s most well known advocate for the working class and by the 1960’s he ended up as the island’s Chief (aka Prime) Minister.  According to Von Schmidt’s song the former labor leader had deserted the cause once he became a politician, and worse yet, even deserted his home island once the labor unrest began:

Cane standing in the fields getting old and red
Lot of misery in Georgetown, three men lying dead
And Joshua, head of the government, he say strike for better pay
Cane cutters are striking, Joshua gone away

Joshua gone Barbados, staying in a big hotel
People on St. Vincent they got many sad tales to tell.

St. Vincent in 1962 like many Caribbean islands had been swept up in the wave of nationalism inspired by the Cuban revolution. But at the same time the Caribbean’s economic engine of sugar production began to falter as prices fell. There were labor disturbances throughout the region and many of the island colonies had self-organized into a federation that was preparing them for independence and due to the faltering economy most of their European colonial overlords were on board with the plan. Joshua was an anti-colonial politician who favored and participated in the federation.

In 1962 two islands with the strongest economies (Jamaica and Trinidad) withdrew from the federation because they would have contributed the most and gained the least.  After their exit the British refused to acknowledge the federation.  In May ‘62 (just at the time of the first strikes on St. Vincent) the remaining island members were to hold a meeting in Barbados to discuss the federation's future and address the agronomic problems confronting the region.  Ebenezer Joshua made a choice between staying at home and using his administrative powers to help with the strike or to travel to Barbados and continue to work toward the end of colonial rule and the development of new industries to replace the old. He chose to address the long-term challenge in Barbados to the chagrin of some of the cane strikers.  

Ebenezer Joshua, labor leader & statesman

History has been kinder to Ebenezer Joshua than Von Schmidt’s song has been.  He’s described as a modest man who had lived in the same small house since his return to the island. He rode a bicycle or took the bus where ever he went, and he's recognized as the person most responsible for the rights and benefits accorded the working class and poor in modern St. Vincent: Increased wages, holidays with pay, protection from eviction, and protection against child labor. And although it didn’t happen until 17 years after the sugar cane strike, St. Vincent became independent in 1979. 

On American Pastimes: Eric Von Schmidt's St. Vincent songs, "Turtle Beach," "Thunder Heads Keep Rollin'," "Stick to Rum," and "Joshua Gone Barbados." Johnny Cash and Tom Rush also perform "Joshua Gone Barbados." And we'll also hear some other 1960's Cambridge folkies.

For American Pastimes playlists:

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