Part 66: My Father, Riley Shepard
I grew up in a cloud of my father’s cigar smoke, listening to the tapping sounds from his Corona typewriter, the loud zipping from the return carriage. He smoked cigars constantly, except when he slept, or studied at the public library. He kept extra cigars, the fat kind, overflowing in his shirt pocket with his lighter and several pens. He could go days without regular sleep, with no apparent impact on his health, occasionally staying up nights in a row, smoking and typing.
I was allowed to call my father Riley, which is what I thought his name was, and I called my mother Jan. I’m not sure why that was a thing or when it started. My mother spent time in New York as a struggling artist, and was a beatnik for a time, so perhaps it was Jan’s idea that I should call them by their first names, something she’d picked up. A neighbor kid said he thought it was weird, and as soon as he said that, I switched to Mom and Dad—at least sometimes. Another odd thing, my parents allowed me to use words like shit, and fuck. When I didn’t like my first grade teacher, and called her “fucking Mrs. Colton,” Riley laughed.
“You should wash out her dirty mouth with soap,” someone said.
“Dirty words are just words. Who cares?” Jan said. My parents felt most teachers were out to crush my creative soul, so Jan had alienated my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Eng, by marching over to the school and complaining after she found out I was reprimanded for not coloring inside the lines in a coloring book. “We’re artists,” she said. “We don’t color in other people’s drawings, we make our own.”
Riley didn’t think much of school, saying I didn’t really need it. Way back in the 1920s, he dropped out in the third grade, insisting he was bored to death. Other times he said he made it to the fifth grade, and I never found out which it was. “Those school bells are just teaching kids to respond to the ringing so they’ll be good factory workers. You can teach yourself at the library. You don’t need that shit.” I was allowed to stay home on school days to old watch movies with Riley, or go to art galleries with Jan.
My father loved taking me around everywhere with him when I still was young enough to be carried in one arm. People hung on his every word, they were captivated, or so it seemed to me. He held court, telling stories about famous people he’d worked with, (Tex Ritter, The Andrew Sisters, Harry Belafonte, Dana Andrews, and Burgess Meredith) his time in New York, his travels around the country, or he’d tell a string of old school jokes, working out ideas for a comedy routine. Sometimes he got a little too racy, and was the last to realize he’d made someone shift in their seat. He loved talking about politics, religion, and sex. When annoyed with him, my mother would turn to me and say, “He turns us into his audience.”
Everything about him seemed larger than life, but he was too loud at times. When talking to someone who didn’t know him, he’d have to clarify he was not, in fact, yelling— that’s just how he talked.
Born and raised in North Carolina, he had a slight accent that he could dial back to practically nothing, or turn up to Andy Griffith levels, depending on who he was speaking to. If you came from the south, people assumed you were somehow backwards. “They think we’re a bunch of hillbillies,” he said. At the same time he often told me not to bother going to the south. “Too many racists and religious fanatics,” he’d say, waving his big hand as if shooing a fly. Most of my life, I assumed he was an atheist—he made fun of religious people in private, even though he knew the bible better than most church goers. As a child, he’d memorized large parts of the bible to impress adults. Once or twice, I overheard him insisting he was agnostic. A few times, I noticed he seemed to come across as a believer. It depended on who was around.
Six feet tall, he had a thick head of gray hair, and a big head—a noggin made for the stage, with lots of big ideas rolling around in there, and a clear mole in the exact center of his forehead, like an all-knowing third eye. Later, when people kept assuming I was his granddaughter, he darkened his hair with a product called Grecian formula. I learned early it’s hard for good looking people to get older, especially in Hollywood, where we ended up for a time. Especially in show business. Even on the fringes of show business.
My father’s “life’s work” was something he called “The Encyclopedia of Folk Music in The United States” which was to be the first and only definitive exploration and documentation of thousands of folk songs, including texts and tunes. Riley labored for years researching and writing this history of music, with a cross referencing system for looking up each song. Later, the title was shortened to “The Encyclopedia of Folk Music,” but we just called it the encyclopedia. This work was why he spent so much time researching at libraries.
Once published, the encyclopedia would be a game changer in the music industry. Soon, several investors were involved, and two musicians who worked out of an office nearby, Joe Tanzman and Matthew Surlin worked on the musical notes for the manuscript in exchange for the promise of pay at some point in the future, or maybe just to be a part of something new and exciting. When Riley described his projects, it was impossible not to get caught up in the dream, we were all planets rotating around his over-sized, heat-blasting sun. The way Riley told it, he was a big star before I came along, and hit pause on his fame and fortune. Back in the day, when he was in his prime, he danced in Vaudeville, had a recording career, worked for the Andrew Sisters, wrote and promoted songs, had his own radio shows, performed at Carnegie Hall, and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Gene Autry and Harry Belafonte. I hung on his every word. He seemed to know everyone and everything. To me, he was magic.
Grand promises were made to me, a sort of “someday this will all be yours” tone, which now I like to joke about. Back then, I believed he was soon to make a miraculous comeback, we’d buy a house somewhere and stop moving all the time, we could go food shopping for ourselves instead of depending on his music business friends (Joe, the musician, but also a guy named Paul Wyatt, and another named Bud Sherman—these men who would do anything for my father) for loans and bags of groceries. In the future, somewhere down the line, I wouldn’t have to worry. When the time was right, he’d leave me all the royalties for the songs he wrote, the encyclopedia would be published, and on top of that, he had money hidden away in the Bank of England, where all his foreign royalties were compiling interest, all for my benefit.
----Stacya Shepard Silverman July 2, 2021
"He had a clear mole in the exact center of his forehead, like an all-knowing third eye."