Arts Listings

Books: Threads of the Life of a Singer, Anthropologist, Author

By Dorothy Bryant
Tuesday April 25, 2006

It’s hard not to seem rude and inattentive while talking with Margot Schevill in her home in Berkeley. Hard to keep your gaze from wandering over the walls, tables, and chairs, decorated with colorful paintings and textiles, many from Central America. 

I have known Margot Schevill for about twenty years, but I knew of her—as Margot Blum—more than half a century ago, when we were both students at the old San Francisco State College. I was an unimpressive music major; Margot was an already well-known and rising singer, enrolled in a couple of courses outside the music department, her very presence there a source of pride for my professors. 

When did she start singing? “Oh, I always sang. As a child, when I was Margot Helmuth, I sat out on the front steps of our house on Green Street (in SF, where her widowed mother had moved from Stockton) singing, I hoped, like Deanna Durbin.” 

We laugh, both of us old enough to remember the perennially teenaged, round-faced movie star who sang well enough to do the light classics sometimes inserted into the movies of the 1940s. 

“My mother loved all kinds of music, used to bring home jazz musicians. My brother played stride piano and made records, classical and jazz, in his own studio.  

I started piano lessons at seven. But it wasn’t until I was at Lowell High that a friend talked me into taking singing lessons.” 

A year later she had progressed far enough to sing an aria from Samson and Delilah at her graduation. 

Margot was accepted to Stanford, but her mother suggested that she take a year off to devote herself to music, and find out if a singing career was possible. 

“That meant full time studies in voice, solfeggio, piano, dramatic technique, French.” 

She reels off the names of music teachers who epitomized the best in the San Francisco of the 1950s. 

“Plus ushering at opera, concerts—total immersion,” followed by studies at UC Berkeley in harmony and counterpoint, then at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, studying with John Charles Thomas and Lotte Lehman. 

In 1951 she began singing on high holy days at Temple Emanuel. Soon she was hired to sing at services on all Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. At about the same time she married and became Margot Blum. The next five or six years became the classic juggling act of the woman artist—she had two children, and sang with ensembles of all kinds, including the Civic Light Opera’s 1957 production of South Pacific. 

It was Mary Martin who stopped her after a rehearsal and said, “Why are you wasting your time here?!” She gave Margot the courage to audition for the Merola Program, which grooms promising young soloists for the San Francisco Opera. She was one of the chosen few accepted into the intensive program, which includes free coaching in languages and stage deportment. “You know, like, how to fall and die gracefully.” 

Margot had almost arrived. Almost. 

“There was one problem I already knew about: my voice wasn’t big enough for the San Francisco Opera House. My best chance in opera was to build a career in Europe, where there were many companies and many fine smaller houses.” 

Margot shakes her head. “Impossible.” 

In those days, barely a decade past the Holocaust, the idea of an American Jewish couple raising their children in Europe was unacceptable.  

“It was time to give up my ‘golden ambition’ to do opera.” 

But not to give up singing. Margot hired an agent who kept her busy during the early 1960s, singing at concerts and on radio, performing with numerous ensembles, large and small. 

One high point was Berlioz’s Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by the legendary Pierre Monteux. Another was a series of four performances (two Bay Area, two in New York) of Hugo Wolf’s Italian Lieder Book. Margot and James Schwabacher sang (in German) as James Schevill recited his new English translation of the lyrics. 

Around that time her marriage was unraveling, as was Jim’s. They fell in love and  

were married in 1966. By 1968 they were settled in Providence, Rhode Island, where, for the next twenty years, Jim Schevill was to teach and write poetry and plays at Brown University. 

At that point Margot’s story could have become that of the faculty wife with a few music pupils, an occasional singing gig, and—like the vast majority of our best practitioners of all the arts—occasional twinges of regret for the fame and fortune bestowed on the lucky few. Instead, she made a surprisingly smooth turn in a new direction. 

As a faculty wife, she could take classes, gratis, and there was still that B.A. she’d never finished. 

“A friend mentioned Anthropology. I had started weaving. Suddenly or gradually—I don’t know, it all seemed so natural—these two things came together.” 

In 1977 Margot visited Guatamala, her first trip to Central America, and, “I was stunned! The textiles, the colors, the story in every pattern.” 

For the next few years (along with performing and teaching music) Margot studied anthropology at Brown and studied weaving from indigenous masters in Guatamala. Her M.A. thesis: The Persistence of Backstrap Weaving in the Highlands of Guatamla.  

“Everything I’ve done ever since has followed from that.” 

She hasn’t slowed down since she and Jim returned to Berkeley in 1991. She  

has written and co-written many books, most recently The Maya Textile  

Tradition and Maya Textiles of Guatemala: The Gustavus A. Eisen collection,  


For several years, whenever you walked through the San Francisco Airport you might see (in those glass cases) Margot’s influence. She was on the team of artists, art historians, and researchers who selected the art displays for the Airport Art Museums. She has curated numerous exhibits, most recently the Southwest Native American Textiles from the collection of Ruth K. Belikov, displayed on the walls of the Mills Building Foyer in downtown San Francisco in 2005. 

Her latest title is advisor to Endangered Threads Documentaries, a project of documentary filmmakers Paul G. and Kathleen M. Vitale, aimed at increasing awareness of indigenous art forms threatened by global economies.  

Check out their beautiful website at where you’ll learn how to get Splendor in the Highlands, a DVD narrated by Margot. 

Plans for the future? Margot has been named curator for “Maya Textile Tradition,”  

a major exhibit at the Phoebe A. Hearst Anthropology (Lowie) Museum at the  

University of California, scheduled to open in January 2009. 

Mention music, and Margot will give an informed recommendation for the best  

performances in the Bay Area, most of which she attends. No more singing?  

She shakes her head. “My grandchildren keep nagging me to sing for them, so  

I’ve hit on a compromise. I’ve pulled out all my old tapes and I’ll make a CD for them. That’s like curating too—I have to sort through and select what they might like. Their tastes are so different from ours.”