When folk/blues singer Chris Smither takes the City of New Orleans train from Chicago to the Crescent City Friday, he’ll be going home.
Smither has been identified as a Boston artist the last 50 years, but he was born and started performing in New Orleans, and he returned there to record his retrospective two-disc set, “Still on the Levee.”
Smither will play Chickie Wah Wah Saturday night.
He grew up the son of a Tulane faculty member near Audubon Park, but Smither left New Orleans in the mid-1960s at the age of 23 because the folk revival that was happening in the Northeast didn’t make much of an impression in the South.
The scene, such as it was, was centered on a coffeehouse on Esplanade Avenue where beat poets hung out. Folk musicians coming through town would play there, “but there wasn’t that many of them,” Smither said.
“In terms of a scene, it didn’t really exist,” he said. “What scene there was was mostly college students at Tulane who were from the Northeast, who were into that whole Greenwich Village-Gaslight Cafe kind of place.”
The acoustic blues musicians like Mississippi John Hurt and Lightnin’ Hopkins who were so important to the folk movement didn’t play New Orleans or other cities in the South. “They played in the Northeast or in California.”
Like many in the ’60s folk revival, Smither loved acoustic music and the blues. He had heard Josh White albums in his parents’ record collection, but when a roommate in Mexico City played him Lightnin’ Hopkins, something clicked for the 17-year-old Smither.
“I was confused trying to figure out which guy he wanted me to listen to, then I realized it was only one guy,” Smither said. “I thought of it as one-man rock ’n’ roll, and that’s what I wanted to play.”
What he was trying to do came into clearer focus for those around him when Bob Dylan’s first album came out, and Smither found his community on the Tulane campus.
He went to school there, and the University Center used to host afternoon hootenannies on Wednesdays with 50 or 60 people there for versions of “If I Had a Hammer” as well as original songs by the few people who had them. Smither was just starting to write at the time, so he usually played songs by others.
The Tulane hoots confirmed in Smither’s mind that he was on to something, but that he wasn’t going to find it in New Orleans.
That feeling was confirmed when he and a friend went to Sarasota, Fla., to meet folk singer Eric Von Schmidt, who had moved there.
“His whole house was full of people I’d seen on record covers,” Smither said. The reception he received encouraged him, but when he said he was from New Orleans, Von Schmidt said, “You’ve got to get out of there. No one will hear you.”
Smither moved out and worked his way up the Eastern Seaboard, taking months to make it to Cambridge, Mass., where he settled down. “I was a faculty brat, so I felt at home.”
Smither has returned to New Orleans to play Jazz Fest, but he hadn’t spent much time in the Crescent City since he left in the ’60s. When friends suggested that he re-cut songs from throughout his career to commemorate 50 years in music, Smither thought it made sense to return to the place where he started.
He recorded the album in three weeks in June 2013, and during that time, “I felt myself falling back into a previous way of being,” he said. “Everything started to feel much more familiar.”
He made minor tweaks to a few lines that didn’t work as well for a 70 year-old man as they did for one at 25.
By his own admission, Smither’s not a prolific, fast writer, and has maybe a hundred songs. “But they’re all good,” he said laughing.
“There are songwriters who write a thousand songs and throw away 900 of them, and there are songwriters who write 100 songs and keep them all. The quality level comes out about the same.”