Getting in Tune with Just Plain Folk

Down-home music from A to Z.

May/June 2002

Reading time min

Getting in Tune with Just Plain Folk

Photo: Thad Russell

[Robert Johnson’s] fatal mistake was to befriend the wife of the man who ran the juke joint. During a break, someone gave Johnson a half-pint of whiskey with a broken seal. Johnson drank from it. A bit later, in the middle of his set, Johnson fell ill and had to get up and go outside. Many believe that the woman’s jealous husband had someone put strychnine in the whiskey.

The sorry demise of bluesman Robert Johnson is one of thousands of anecdotes in Folk & Blues: The Encyclopedia (St. Martin’s Press, 2001), co-written by the father-son duo of Irwin Stambler and Lyndon Stambler, ’78, MA ’79. If the 793-page biographical compendium reads more like lively magazine copy than Britannica, Lyndon Stambler’s day job helps explain why. He’s a veteran staff correspondent at People magazine’s Los Angeles bureau, used to meeting the famous and the infamous and writing about political scandal and Hollywood intrigue, public acts of heroism and private moments of courage. Then, too, the encyclopedia’s subjects are colorful characters, ranging from such legends as Woody Guthrie and Bessie Smith to contemporary artists Ani DiFranco and Ry Cooder.

Many of the 400-odd entries were gleaned from interviews and concerts, and others were adapted from previous editions of the senior Stambler’s Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music (1969), but the project required plenty of slogging, too. “Some of the blues guys had no birth certificates and didn’t even know when they were born,” says Stambler, “so I had to do a lot of detective work. I had to sort what was folklore from what was actually history.”

Among his favorite interviewees was folksinger Joni Mitchell, who he says served cookies and played acoustic guitar for him in her Bel Air home—even as she confided, “This is the image I’ve been trying to break out of for decades, the girl with the guitar.” He also got to see Mitchell’s painted portraits of Miles Davis and other musicians. Another standout was Dr. John. “He told great stories about New Orleans and how he dealt with a heroin addiction,” Stambler says. “He was also originally a guitarist but had one of his fingers shot in a fight and had to switch to keyboard.”

Perhaps the project’s biggest draw for Lyndon Stambler, though, was his co-author. Irwin Stambler invited his son to work on the encyclopedia in 1995, when his longstanding writing partner lost the energy to produce another tome. “I was so honored,” says Lyndon. “Here was my dad, who has written 50 books and who used to correct spelling and punctuation on my school papers, inviting me to be an equal. How often do you get to work with someone you really love?”

Irwin knew Lyndon would have the right feel for the material because Irwin—who composed and played piano—had exposed all his children to a cornucopia of musical styles. “We were always listening to musicians like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson and Pete Seeger in the house,” says Lyndon, who took up piano and banjo. “And my two sisters and brother and I always used to sing folk songs in the car on road trips. We were like a ’60s version of the von Trapp Family Singers—except then we’d start jabbing each other and fighting,” he adds wryly.

At Stanford, he took a course on the blues, played banjo in an informal bluegrass group and wrote music reviews for the Daily, once interviewing folksinger John Hartford. Stambler reckons he owns thousands of recordings—and he still plays piano and banjo as often as work and family chores permit. He and his wife, Terry Silberman, a public health researcher at South Los Angeles Health Projects, have a year-old daughter, Malaika, already adept at banging on the ivories.

Stambler says his family helps keep him grounded despite constant exposure to the rich and famous. “I’m really not a celebrity watcher,” says the down-to-earth journalist, almost apologetically. He nevertheless joined People in 1990. Stambler was ready for a change, having worked in a variety of journeyman reporting beats and editorial positions for the now-defunct Washington Observer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Investor’s Business Daily. While he admits getting a kick out of writing now and then about the likes of Julia Roberts, Andre Agassi and the cast of Friends, some of his favorite assignments are about “just plain folk.”

And now, just plain blues, too.

Marguerite Rigoglioso is a Bay Area freelance writer and former associate editor of Harvard Business School’s alumni magazine.

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