The Cowboy Philosopher | Hidden Brain In 2009, an old man died in a California nursing home. His obituary included not just his given name, but a long list of the pseudonyms he'd been known to use. In this episode, we trace the life of Riley Shepard, a hillbilly musician, writer, small-time con man and, perhaps, a genius.
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The Cowboy Philosopher: A Tale Of Obsession, Scams, And Family

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The Cowboy Philosopher: A Tale Of Obsession, Scams, And Family

The Cowboy Philosopher: A Tale Of Obsession, Scams, And Family

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  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Not long ago, I found myself in a subterranean labyrinth below the streets of Washington, D.C. I'd come in search of clues.

STEPHEN WINICK: So here we are in deck 50 in the stacks of the Library of Congress. I'm opening a door that's marked door 20.

VEDANTAM: My guide is a tall, shaggy man named Steve Winick. He looks a lot like Hagrid from "Harry Potter," which seems about right for somebody with the title of folklorist.

WINICK: All right.

VEDANTAM: Steve has already led me through a maze of low ceiling stacks, across a small bridge and into a tiny elevator where the floor numbers go up as we go down. But now...

WINICK: And in here...

VEDANTAM: ...We've arrived.

WINICK: ...We find row upon row of collection boxes on the shelves. And I'm looking for this collection, which is numbered AFC 1979/008.

VEDANTAM: Steve pulls from the shelf a cardboard box.

WINICK: Nobody's really used this collection very much, so it's simply, you know, been there waiting for you, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The author of this collection is Richard Riley Shepard, a small-time crook and con man who died in 2009. I've been tracking Riley Shepard for a few months. My assumption is that there's nothing of significance in the box, but I'm about to discover that the story I thought I was reporting is not the story I am reporting. The story that is about to unfold before me is a story of obsession - its power, its beauty and its costs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore the peculiar tale of Riley Shepard, a musician and writer who spent decades on a single, grand project. Whether that project was a great quest or a great folly - that is for you to decide.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW MONTAGE)

WINICK: He was a genius, I think.

STACYA SHEPARD SILVERMAN: He just was a compulsive liar.

STEVE ENSSLIN: He was quite a master.

SILVERMAN: Dick Scott, Hicky Free, Klym Hawley, Johnny Rebel...

KEVIN COFFEY: He was getting out of town before, you know, being tarred and feathered.

ENSSLIN: No, I haven't got time for that. I got to get this done.

RICHARD RILEY SHEPARD: They all hated my guts.

COFFEY: (Laughter).

SHEPARD: So I said bullshit, man.

SILVERMAN: Albert Reilly, Jo Graham, Richard James Hauck...

VEDANTAM: I stumbled onto this story as I was contemplating an episode not about obsession but about fallen heroes. I'd asked HIDDEN BRAIN listeners to share examples from their own lives. One of the messages...

SILVERMAN: I hope I did this right.

VEDANTAM: ...Was from Stacya Shepard Silverman. She said her fallen hero was her dad, Riley Shepard, whom she still loved.

SILVERMAN: I want to say that I had a great relationship with my father. He was totally cool in many ways and a great cook, totally into civil rights.

VEDANTAM: When we talk, Stacya tells me that as a young girl, she idolized her dad. She has memories of those days that feel like tiny, sparkling gems.

SILVERMAN: My earliest memory of my dad is sitting on his lap and him smoking his cigar, and he would make cigar smoke rings for me.

VEDANTAM: Stacya would watch them, transfixed, as they rose in the air before her.

SILVERMAN: I thought the smoke rings were magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: There was a lot that was magical for Stacya back then. She still remembers their little apartment in Hollywood with a Siamese cat and the cat hair and the hardwood floors. She remembers how much she loved that her dad was around all the time.

SILVERMAN: He didn't have a regular job, and he would sit in the middle of the living room usually wherever we lived, and he would type. So he was working on things. He was working on - I didn't know what, but I would sit under his desk sometimes while he typed away. And we would talk in between the pages, and he would tell me things about show business.

VEDANTAM: They were in their own little bubble, Riley in his late 50s and his little daughter, typing, talking, just being together. Sometimes, if Riley had a little money, he'd take Stacya out to eat at their favorite Hollywood hotspot, a restaurant called The Brown Derby. It was a place where Riley could rub shoulders with famous people, charm them with his warm Southern accent and impress his daughter on their way home.

SILVERMAN: You know, the Hollywood stars were all around us. We could walk up the street and my father would tell me about movie stars when we walked. He seemed to know everything.

VEDANTAM: Stacya was certain that her dad was something of a star himself. Sometimes, he'd tell her about his musical career as a successful promoter, singer and songwriter. Occasionally, he might even sing the song, his song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE CHRISTMAS")

SHEPARD: (Singing) I'll have a blue Christmas without you. I'll be so blue...

SILVERMAN: He told me, and he told everyone that he wrote the song "Blue Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE CHRISTMAS")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Decorations of red...

VEDANTAM: It wasn't true. Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson wrote "Blue Christmas." The person who made it famous...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE CHRISTMAS")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) Won't be the same, dear...

VEDANTAM: ...Elvis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE CHRISTMAS")

PRESLEY: (Singing) If you're not here with me.

VEDANTAM: If Riley had written "Blue Christmas," money might not have been so tight for the family.

SILVERMAN: I was told constantly that we were artists and that there were artists and there were ordinary people, and we were artists.

VEDANTAM: Stacya eventually learned about her dad's most important artistic endeavor - not a song but a writing project.

SILVERMAN: The encyclopedia of folk music. And that was supposedly his life's work. And it was vast. I mean, there were boxes there, huge boxes, of volumes of indexes and things he was working on and books.

VEDANTAM: To fund its creation, Riley solicited money from investors, some of whom he convinced to pour thousands of dollars into the project. Sometimes investors and bill collectors would call to ask when they were going to get paid.

SILVERMAN: He used to get on the phone with all kinds of people and say, you didn't get the check? What? The post office? He would constantly rail against the post office, so as a little girl, I also became very militant against the post office. I also would rail against the post office. And if I had a pen pal or a friend that I was writing a letter to, I would always write on the outside of the envelope you better deliver this letter. You know, I was, like, enraged with the post office, that they wouldn't deliver letters because I just thought they're constantly throwing my dad under the bus and not mailing his checks.

VEDANTAM: For many children, there is a moment when a curtain pulls back and parents are revealed for who they are - imperfect beings with flaws and failings. But for Stacya, the father she saw when the curtain opened was hard to recognize. It happened one day when she was 12 hanging out at home.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SILVERMAN: And the phone rang, so I picked it up. I said, hello.

VEDANTAM: The caller demanded to speak to her dad. Stacya said he was out.

SILVERMAN: His voice was shaking, and I could tell he was elderly. And he just sounded like a mean, old man to me. He scared me, and he told me that my father took his life savings. The phone is in my ear, and he's saying, your father's a crook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: Did you know that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: Your father is a crook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: In 1946, Riley Shepard released a cover of the hit song "Atomic Power." It was inspired by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATOMIC POWER")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Oh, this world is at a tremble with its strength and mighty power. They're sending up to heaven to get the brimstone fire.

VEDANTAM: Riley was a rising talent. He had dark, good looks, a soft, Southern twang and the guitar skills to make a go of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATOMIC POWER")

SHEPARD: (Singing) The mighty power of God's own holy hand. Atomic power, atomic power...

VEDANTAM: He signed with various labels. He seemed headed somewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATOMIC POWER")

SHEPARD: (Singing) By the mighty hand of God.

VEDANTAM: But Riley Shepard never achieved stardom. Instead, his life took a series of detours.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Music historian Kevin Coffey tracked Riley down about a decade ago. Riley, at the time, was 89. He would die a year later. Kevin was interested in preserving the stories of old-time country Western performers. He thought Riley might be worth profiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COFFEY: So Vaughn Horton, is he playing steel on a lot of your records?

SHEPARD: Vaughn Horton played steel on all of them...

VEDANTAM: The conversation they had over a crackly phone line was friendly and nostalgic and full of insider names most people wouldn't recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: And his (unintelligible) wife was - played piano, Lilly Horton (ph).

COFFEY: Oh, really?

SHEPARD: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: Gradually, Kevin pieced together Riley's backstory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Richard Riley Shepard was born on a farm near Wilmington, N.C., in 1918. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade and decided to try his luck at singing. It was a heady time for music in the region. Groups like the Mainer's Mountaineers were popularizing what was then called hillbilly music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WORLD IS NOT MY HOME")

J. E. MAINER'S MOUNTAINEERS: (Singing) This world is not my home. I'm just passing through. Treasures and my home are far beyond the blues where many friends has left me and have gone on before and I can't be at home in this world anymore. Oh, Lord, you know...

VEDANTAM: Riley started out playing songs in minstrel shows. Soon, he told Kevin, he was getting gigs with hillbilly groups like the Dixie Reelers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SHALL NOT BE MOVED")

DIXIE REELERS: (Singing) I'm on my way to glory. I shall not be moved. I'm on my way to glory. I shall not be moved. Just like a dream...

VEDANTAM: By the early 1940s, Riley had moved to Chicago. He toured with other hillbilly musicians and did comedy and acting work. He also began cultivating his image as a cowboy crooner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: As he created this new persona, he gave himself a catchy moniker - the Cowboy Philosopher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COFFEY: Where did you come up with that? Because I know you were calling yourself the...

SHEPARD: I didn't come up with it. Gene Autry came up with it.

COFFEY: Oh, did he (laughter)? 'Cause I found an ad from way back in 1945 and you were already using it back then, so...

SHEPARD: Gene came up with that crap.

VEDANTAM: To top off his fancy new title of philosopher, Riley grew a dashing mustache and began scheming up fresh ways to get into the spotlight.

SILVERMAN: The Cosmopolitan Church presents Dr. Richard Riley Shepard, Ph.D D.D.

VEDANTAM: This is Stacya again. A few years ago, she found one of the old flyers that advertised her dad's lectures.

SILVERMAN: Dr. Richard Riley Shepard, author, historian, world traveler, philosopher, in a series of educational lectures.

VEDANTAM: The world traveler and philosopher was prepared to discuss a variety of important topics.

SILVERMAN: Saturday, October 10 - God, man and science.

Saturday, October 17 - marriage, sex and morality.

Saturday, October 31 - Democracy and capitalism.

Saturday, November 7 - origin and growth of fascism.

VEDANTAM: Even as he sought to make a name for himself with his educational lectures, Riley was still churning out songs at a frenzied pace, often releasing a new record every month. But Kevin says Riley wasn't reliable. He'd sign with one record label and while his contract was still in force, he'd sign with another. He'd often used different stage names or pseudonyms with different labels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: Hicky Free was one of the names I used.

COFFEY: Hicky Free.

SHEPARD: Hicky Free - and that was on...

VEDANTAM: For a time, Riley was able to make it all work in part because he did have a little star power.

(SOUNDBITE OF RILEY SHEPARD SONG, "COWBOY")

VEDANTAM: He'd done well with "Atomic Power" and later had another catchy tune titled "Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWBOY")

SHEPARD: (Singing) I got me no home. I got me no wife. I've been a cowboy for all of my life. I guess I like being free - my horse, my saddle and me.

VEDANTAM: Riley recorded it under the name Dickson Hall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: I was looking out the window, and I saw a thing called Hall's Clothing (laughter) a big sign. And then Art Dickson came in and so I said, well, Dickson Hall, that sounded OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWBOY")

SHEPARD: (Singing) I got me no wife, and I got me no home.

VEDANTAM: This was how Riley operated. He played fast and loose. He also worked as an agent getting music labels to sign new artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: You see, I'd tell them, what do you think a publisher is? He's just a businessman. He wouldn't know a hit song if it crawled out from under his desk and bit him on the leg.

VEDANTAM: He sold songs to these executives with a combination of bluster and hype. This rule allowed Riley to capitalize on one of his greatest strengths. He was a born salesman. He once boasted that he could have started his own religion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: Read about "Sioux City Sue," which was written by Dick Thomas...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIOUX CITY SUE")

DICK THOMAS: (Singing) Sioux City Sue, your hair is red, your eyes are blue, I'd swap my horse and dog for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: ...Recorded by him on a small label. And he brought it to me. And I said, if you do what I tell you, you'll make a lot of money. And he did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIOUX CITY SUE")

THOMAS: (Singing) My sweet Sioux City Sue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: I got him $7,000 advance and seven cents a copy. It's the biggest money ever paid for a hillbilly song...

COFFEY: Oh, I bet.

SHEPARD: ...In those days.

VEDANTAM: Riley was also a hustler in his personal life where the consequences of his actions were more serious. Marion Kiminek (ph) knows this well. She was adopted at birth. As an adult, she searched for and found her biological mother. From her, Marion learned that her father was Riley Shepard. Marion's mother had met him while working as an actress in Chicago.

MARION KIMINEK: And she said he was very charming, very good looking. He played the guitar, and he sang. And I guess she was kind of smitten with him. And...

VEDANTAM: She got pregnant. That, she told Marion, wasn't supposed to happen.

KIMINEK: He told her he was sterile. And from what I understand, he told every woman he was with that he was sterile.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY HEART")

SHEPARD: (Singing) The world will never know the reason, the reason why I said we're through.

VEDANTAM: Whatever he'd achieved in the music industry, it was all winding down by the early 1960s. By then, Riley had picked up and moved on to the West Coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY HEART")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Guilty heart, oh, guilty heart.

VEDANTAM: He first went to Oregon and then to California. He told Kevin he gave up the music business so he could turn his attention to a new project - an encyclopedia of folk music. But Kevin thinks years of lying and cheating and breaking contracts had simply caught up with him.

COFFEY: He made it sound like he did these moves for different purposes. I think usually he was getting out of town before, you know, being tarred and feathered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUILTY HEART")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Guilty heart, oh, guilty heart.

VEDANTAM: It's perhaps fitting that the place Riley landed for the next chapter of his life was Hollywood. Tinseltown was shiny and bright and full of the kind of transformative stories that Riley loved. He arrived there with his common-law wife and young daughter Stacya, For a while, he thrived in his new role as Riley Shepard, family man. But like most things in Riley's life...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

VEDANTAM: ...It didn't last.

SILVERMAN: Your father is a crook.

VEDANTAM: After all these years, Stacya still fixates on the memory of that old man's telephone call.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEPING)

VEDANTAM: Stacya says it was a turning point in her relationship with her father. That night, she confronted him.

SILVERMAN: Right when he walked in the door, I was, like, you know, screaming at him you're a crock, you're a crook. And he looked at me like (sighing). He turned white, and he was shocked. And he - we argued. We fought. I don't remember the exact words, but I remember he stormed out, and he went out to his car, and he sat there and smoked, and he didn't come back inside for a long time. He would just - that's what he would do when he was mad. He would go out into his car and pout.

VEDANTAM: By the next morning, Riley did what came naturally to him. He turned on the charm. He tried to smooth things over. He made Stacya pancakes. He told her the encyclopedia was going to make a lot of money and that his investors would get paid. Stacya wanted to believe him.

SILVERMAN: Well, you know, I loved my dad, and he was very apologetic and sweet. And you want to believe your parents. And also he was very good at convincing.

VEDANTAM: Stacya didn't know how much money her dad owed, but she got the sense he was constantly evading creditors. She tells one story of calling home to get a ride.

SILVERMAN: And when my dad picked up the phone, he was pretending to be a Chinese man. He was pretending to be - use this accent that - like, from "Breakfast At Tiffany's," that horrible, you know - was it Mickey Rooney? Anyway, terrible, but I knew it was him. You know your father's voice. I'm like, Dad, and he was like...

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

SILVERMAN: ....Hung up on me.

VEDANTAM: Riley took every shortcut he could to make a buck. For a time, he wrote porn under the pseudonym Zachary Quill. One of his books - "Glowing Heat" (ph). Stacya says her mother told her that Riley had worked out a formula.

SILVERMAN: She said, oh, well, Dad used to get all these cheap novels, and then he would write porn scenes, and he would have typists insert the porn scenes in these crappy novels and resell them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This was Stacya's life. Things were always off-kilter, confusing. She remembers another time where they had to flee their house before the landlord came - probably because Riley hadn't paid the rent.

SILVERMAN: We got in this rickety old truck with all our stuff jammed in it. And my father's encyclopedia of folk music was in there very carefully packed. Those were the biggest boxes that we took. And all our other stuff was just kind of strewn in this truck. And it wasn't very well packed. And when we were driving down the highway, I remember this. It was so weird. You know, people were pointing at us and trying to get our attention, and we were like - I mean, I remember my mother being like, wow, why are they waving at us, and then realizing, oh, our stuff is flying out. Like, our slim belongings that we had pared down from selling almost everything else, those things were flying out, not the encyclopedia of folk music but my clothes and what few things.

VEDANTAM: By the late 1970s, the family had settled in Porterville, Calif., a town on the western edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Riley spent his days working on his encyclopedia and to Stacya's mind swindling everyone he could. It all ended when Stacya was 18. That year, 1983, Riley Shepard did what he had done many times before. He disappeared.

SILVERMAN: He told my mother, who he had been with for - whatever - 23 years, that he was taking a short trip to Los Angeles. But when she woke up in the morning, she realized that he had taken way more than what you would need for a short trip. And he never came - he did not come back.

VEDANTAM: For more than a year, Stacya had no idea where he was. Eventually, she found him living about an hour away in Fresno. They reconnected, but everything had changed. She now saw him for exactly who he was.

SILVERMAN: He glamorized the life of being a grifter. He glamorized the life of being a con man. That's what I understand now, that he - he was a con man. It's even hard to say that out loud. He was, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: For years, Stacya felt torn between her distaste for Riley's behavior and her love for the dad who made her smoke rings and took her to The Brown Derby. By the mid-'80s, Stacya had left Porterville. A few years later, Riley returned to the town and played the role of the old cowboy musician. Stacya mainly stayed in touch by phone as the years passed. One day in 2008, she got a call. Her dad had taken a fall in his home.

SILVERMAN: And he ended up in the hospital after being alone on the floor for days. And I called him and he goes, honey, I know I'm going to die but - he was so sweet. I can't talk about that, but he said he loved me and that he was proud of me. It was, like, beautiful.

VEDANTAM: Riley rallied and moved to a nursing home. When Stacya visited, he seemed agitated.

SILVERMAN: And he goes, you don't know what it's like in here. I thought he meant the nursing home because three beds, the guy had the TV on, it was loud. I go, wait, the nursing home? He goes, no, you don't know what it's like in here, in here, and he was pointing to his head. And I go, what? What are you talking about? He goes, I'm flashing back on all the things I did, and I did some bad things.

VEDANTAM: Stacya tried to comfort him, but in retrospect, she wishes she'd asked a question.

SILVERMAN: What bad things? Tell me about those. What were the bad things? Maybe if you tell me about them, you'll feel better. Because I'm wondering what all he would have told me. But he lived for a little bit in the nursing home. That was the last time that I visited him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: After Riley died, Stacya wanted the world to remember her father correctly, so she made sure his obituary included not just his real name but all the pseudonyms he was known to use.

SILVERMAN: Dick Scott, Hicky Free, Klym Hawley, Johnny Rebel, Dickson Hall, Jean Gilmore, Dick Gleason, Paul Lester, Richard Alexander, Albert Reilly, Jo Graham, Richard James Hauck.

VEDANTAM: After Riley died, Stacya had his body cremated. For a long time, she carried his ashes around with her. She'd scatter a handful here or there, which seemed fitting for a drifter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS NEVER NEARER HEAVEN IN MY LIFE")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Oh, I never can forget on that day when first we met I was never nearer heaven in my life.

VEDANTAM: There wasn't much in the Riley Shepard estate. Stacya packed up some of his letters, a cookbook he'd written for her and various other papers. But his life's work, the encyclopedia he'd been toiling over all those years, he'd left that to someone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WAS NEVER NEARER HEAVEN IN MY LIFE")

SHEPARD: (Singing) ...That you'd leave me all alone. Till then every memory, as it all comes back to me, I was never nearer heaven in my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WINICK: And in here, we find row upon row of collection boxes on the shelves.

VEDANTAM: By the time I got to the basement of the Library of Congress, I figured I knew everything I needed to know about Riley Shepard. He was a crook, a con man, a bad husband, an unreliable father. So as folklorist Steve Winick pulls out the Richard Riley Shepard collection from the stacks, I'm not holding my breath.

WINICK: Nobody's really used this collection very much. So it's simply, you know, been there waiting for you, really.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Up in his office, Hagrid, AKA folklorist Steve Winick, spreads out the papers from the Richard Riley Shepard collection on a table. He picks up a letter.

WINICK: The date of this letter is September 7, 1976.

VEDANTAM: More than four decades ago, Riley wrote this letter to the registrar of copyrights. Stacya was 11 years old.

SILVERMAN: So he was working on things. He was working on - I didn't know what.

VEDANTAM: In the letter, Riley asks for the forms he'll need to copyright an encyclopedia.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPEWRITER CLICKING)

VEDANTAM: He adds a long postscript.

WINICK: He says, perhaps someone in the Library of Congress would be interested in the following. Over the past 16 years, I alphabetically indexed more than 43,000 titles of songs, including published versions and variants in English, French, Spanish, etc., all of which have enjoyed a folk-type tradition within the borders of the United States and Canada.

VEDANTAM: All the titles, he continues, have been alphabetically cross-indexed and cross-referenced with the titles of books they appeared in, along with the editors and publishers.

WINICK: Each reference is clearly coded so that practically every folksong relative to the United States, plus all its known versions and variants, can be easily located. You may be interested to learn that the 43,000 titles are clearly the outgrowth of only 4,000 songs, texts and tunes.

VEDANTAM: He ends the letter this way.

WINICK: I know only one thing. I am the only person in the world with this amount of cross-indexed, cross-referenced musical material. Unfortunately, I do not own or have access to a computer in which to feed the information. Perhaps the Library of Congress can offer suggestions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Riley wanted to get his encyclopedia to a wider audience. The chief archivist at the time wrote back and offered the names of potential publishers. He also said he'd like to see some of Riley's work. So Riley sent him the samples that the library now holds. In a follow-up letter, Riley explained how his indexing system worked.

WINICK: Each title is followed by the first line or lines of the song and/or versions thereof, and this by the source. Example - Goose Hangs High, The, Civil War ballad. It deals with Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania and the battle of Gettysburg.

VEDANTAM: As Steve Winick sifts through the materials, he slowly grasps the enormity of the project.

WINICK: So he's got 43,000 individual sheets or two sheets of paper - however long it takes - that he's got to then sort into 4,000 categories. And then in addition to that, he has to cross-reference each of those with all of the places that they've been published. So there's an enormous number of cross-references within this book that he had to do by hand without the ability to electronically associate one item with another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: What Riley Shepard had been working on since 1960 was a monumental accounting of some 200 years of American folk music. It involved a search of nearly every available documentary source. Riley had obtained rare books at great expense, including many that were out of print. He had collated thousands of songs and organized them according to their provenance, discovering common roots and pathways that linked different musical traditions together.

Since he did not have a computer - almost no one did at the time - he did everything by hand, cross-referencing song lyrics and musical notations and historical footnotes. Crazy as it sounds, the entire system lived largely inside his own head. By that point he wrote to the Library of Congress, he had spent nearly two decades trying to put down on paper what was in his head, even as his life fell apart around him and many of his closest friends and relatives came to think of him as a crook.

WINICK: At the time, as far as I know, no one had attempted something this ambitious in terms of indexing all the songs in America.

VEDANTAM: Riley Shepard, a man with a fifth-grade education, an occasional writer of porn, a con man and hustler, had attempted to create something that would require years of effort by a team of Ph.D. archivists and a small army of researchers.

WINICK: The fact of the attempt I think is actually a significant fact in the history of folk song scholarship in the United States. And it's actually something almost nobody knows about. I wouldn't know about it if you hadn't brought it to my attention. And, you know, I've studied this for quite a number of years.

VEDANTAM: I ask Steve to choose a song and explain how Riley had classified it. So he opened Volume 3, ran his finger down pages filled with typewritten entries...

WINICK: So I'll go to one that I'm quite familiar with, so let's see. What song? This is "Haul Away Joe," which is a sea shanty. And it says (reading) this is a short drag or a short haul shanty. It was taken from British sailors and Americanized, which means political references were eliminated from the text. American sailors preferred to concentrate on girls. For example, the British sailors sang Louis was the king of France before the revolution, but Louis got his head cut off, which spoiled his constitution. American sailors had more important things to sing about and changed the words to once I had a German girl but she was fat and lazy. Then I had an Irish girl. She damn near drove me crazy. The shanty dates back to around the second half of the 18th century, though only in England. In the USA, it dates back to the years following the War of 1812. For other English and American versions, see the works listed below.

And then he gives a long list of books in which this song appears.

VEDANTAM: And he actually gives you the music for the song as well.

WINICK: In - for many of the songs, he does, yes. He does have music for "Haul Away Joe" as well.

VEDANTAM: How does the tune of this song go? Do you remember it?

WINICK: (Singing) When I was a little boy and so my mother told me, way, haul away, haul away, Joe. Now, if I didn't kiss the girls, my lips would all grow moldy, away, haul away, haul away, Joe.

VEDANTAM: I have to say, the impressive thing is you closed the book as you did that. This was all in your head, too.

WINICK: (Laughter) It was.

VEDANTAM: In 1979, three years after his first letter, Riley got in touch again with the Library of Congress. He said he'd been unable to find a publisher.

WINICK: And so he writes (reading) Dear Mr. Hickerson, in case you don't remember, I have enclosed a photocopy of your letter to me dated July 8, 1977. First, I want to thank you for your suggestions and the addresses of possible publishers. I followed up. No funds are available for a work such as mine, though they are interested in what I have done and would appreciate a copy of the folk song finder and index. It is a voluminous work, so I can understand the reluctance of a publisher to undertake the expense of its publication. So here I am back to you again.

VEDANTAM: It was an act of desperation.

WINICK: (Reading) If you were/are serious about the library reaching some agreement with me, I am ready to proceed. My problem is this - I don't know what to ask for in terms of financial remuneration to myself. I do know that I cannot ask as much as I have spent in terms of time, work and money. But I would like to recoup at least some of my own expenditures if not payment for my work and time. In fact, I must recoup some of what I have spent because I have already signed a lease on a small farm and a house in Porterville, Calif., and expect to move there in approximately six weeks as I am, as they say in the country music field, flat busted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Riley never got what he was seeking.

WINICK: What he was asking was a significant outlay of money that I just think the library couldn't afford at the time or it couldn't, you know, apportion to that project because, as he says in the correspondence, in addition to these volumes, there are 54 other volumes of this book.

VEDANTAM: Fifty-four other volumes. After nearly two decades of painstaking work came the final indignity - rejection.

WINICK: Yeah. I think he was an early casualty, you might say, of the switch from published books - that is, paper books - to computer documentation, and he's aware of this, I mean, because he talks about how it would be great if he could put this into a computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Would you say that Riley Shepard was a genius?

WINICK: He was a genius, I think. I mean, it's very impressive to see the amount of work that he did on this. And he also had that sort of crazy perseverance that you have to have. So, you know, that's a whole other kind of genius.

VEDANTAM: Here is a really amazing part. Riley continued to work on the encyclopedia for the next 25 years.

WINICK: I mean, it is the case that since he would have sent this to the library in 1979, a lot more versions of traditional songs were published. So if he were trying to keep this book complete, he would have to continue to update it year after year.

VEDANTAM: One of the interesting things is I'm not sure if his family actually fully understands what he has done. When I spoke with his daughter, Stacya, she just thought her dad was sort of obsessed with this project that never seemed to go anywhere, that never seemed to end, that just grew infinitely. And, you know, over the years, she in fact heard from people whom he had borrowed money from and taken money from. And, you know, her impression of her dad is not a very positive impression. And in some way, speaking with you, I get a different picture of this man.

WINICK: Well, I think that all scholars, and particularly folk song scholars, have something of the Riley Shepard in them. And we would like to spend all our time (laughter) and all our life immersed in the text and tunes of folk songs. We just can't manage it because we have lives. And so the amount of yourself that you're willing to give to that might vary for different people. But we certainly have sympathy for someone who gave so much of himself to it. I don't know if you are familiar with the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. He's the person who popularized the term rites of passage. And Van Gennep wrote a piece called "The Research Project: Or, Folklore Without End." And it was about a person who decided to write the definitive work on the evil eye. And he went to his carrel in the library, and he began getting all the books about the evil eye, and he compiled all of the references that he could find. And he took it to his adviser, and his adviser says, this is a great start, but there are still other cultures and there is, you know, ancient Greek and Roman sources that you should look at. And so he goes back, and he works on those. And this continues for years and years and eventually this man dies at his carrel in the library, and nobody quite remembers what he was doing there. And that's kind of the impression that you get of Riley Shepard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: But it turned out there was someone next to Riley in his final days as he labored away in his carrel. Before he collapsed and was sent to the hospital, Riley was living in a small house.

ENSSLIN: On D Street in Porterville.

VEDANTAM: He was in rough shape.

ENSSLIN: I thought, you know, he's a little bit disheveled.

VEDANTAM: But Steve Ensslin, a Porterville native, says once you got to know Riley, he grew on you. It was Steve's father Ted who really knew Riley. Ted was a retired insurance agent and former Porterville mayor. Steve says his dad and Riley bonded over a shared love of music.

ENSSLIN: They would just sit and listen to country Western music, the old country Western music, not the new stuff.

VEDANTAM: They were friends. They were also business partners.

ENSSLIN: They wrote songs together. They recorded a few songs together.

VEDANTAM: Mainly, though, they worked on Riley's encyclopedia. Ted saw the genius in it.

ENSSLIN: They spent hours and hours and hours just collecting all of the material and then categorizing it.

VEDANTAM: Steve says Riley was still consumed by the project.

ENSSLIN: Well, he had music spread all over. I mean, he had tables and chairs and floor and everything. And he had had this music spread out, and he was trying to get it in some sort of a chronological order and by the artist. He was trying to get the artist with the song, and he would have the song and then he would have the artist. And so he would try to cross-reference all of those. So it was a labor of love, I'll tell you that. But he was - he'd just - no, I haven't got time for that. I don't want to eat. I just - I got to get this done. This is important. And so he would just (laughter) he was funny.

VEDANTAM: Steve and his father both felt they were in the presence of an extraordinary human being.

ENSSLIN: Riley Shepard was a master. He did a lot of things, but he was quite a master.

VEDANTAM: Steve's father willingly gave his time to the project, and he gave money - plenty of it. Steve says after Riley died, Stacya got in touch. She was concerned that her dad had conned his dad. But Steve says the money wasn't important.

ENSSLIN: The money doesn't mean anything as far as - I saw the enjoyment that it brought to my dad.

VEDANTAM: Riley left his life's work, the encyclopedia of folk music, to his friend Ted Ensslin. There were 40 boxes. Ted stored them in his old insurance office, and that's where they sat for years.

ENSSLIN: I kept asking, Dad, you know, what are you going to do with these, Dad? What are you going to do with these? And he says, they're worth a lot of money. And I said, well, I know, but what are you going to do with them?

VEDANTAM: Ted never did anything with them. He was old and suffering from dementia. Instead, he just relived his friendship with Riley.

ENSSLIN: And after Riley died, my dad had a little record player in his office, and he would put on a lot of Riley's country Western music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED")

SHEPARD: (Singing) It was fun while it lasted, but it didn't last.

ENSSLIN: And he just enjoyed Riley. He enjoyed his friendship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED")

SHEPARD: (Singing) ...Done me wrong. But darling, I still believe in you. Won't you please come back? You know I'll love you till the end.

VEDANTAM: When Ted Ensslin died, Steve gave the encyclopedia to another man in town, who happened to be a country music songwriter. Steve says he was told the pages of carefully indexed entries were eventually split up. Some were shipped off to Nashville and some to the Buck Owens museum in Bakersfield, Calif. Other copies are also floating around. Not long ago, Stacya says a couple who'd invested in Riley's encyclopedia got in touch. They were willing to sell their copy to her for $500. She bought it. She says it's huge.

SILVERMAN: Well, it's weird to see the whole thing and how much work he actually put into it because after I realized how much my father fabricated on various things, from, you know - it - he just was a compulsive liar. Sometimes, he would make things up. And I couldn't figure out why. Why did you lie about that? Why didn't you brag about the songs you actually wrote? Why did you (laughter) say you wrote "Blue Christmas" or whatever? And so I became kind of jaded. And I began to think that maybe the whole project, the encyclopedia, was not even worth thinking about at all. I loved my dad. But I kind of rolled my eyes whenever I thought about these projects because so much smoke and mirrors around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED")

SHEPARD: (Singing) Won't you please come back? You know I'll love you till the end. But if you don't come back, my broken heart will never mend. It was fun while it lasted, but it didn't last too long. You left me for somebody new.

VEDANTAM: In the conversation near the end of his life, the one recorded by music historian Kevin Coffey, Riley Shepard doesn't sound bitter or frustrated. He sounds like a man still doing what he loves, honoring the music he had learned as a boy, trying to preserve it. In fact, he told Kevin, there were still plenty of songs and music that were left in him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEPARD: I'm writing one now called "The Older You Get" - the more it's going to cost...

COFFEY: (Laughter).

SHEPARD: ...to do the things you did when you were young. When an old man's in love, he just thinks he's encloaked (ph). He's not cooking with gas. He's just warming it over.

COFFEY: (Laughter).

SHEPARD: Little something like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Songs and novels are filled with stories about people with great obsessions. We have strong opinions about such people. When they succeed, when they produce the Taj Mahal or "Hamlet" or the iPhone, we hail the obsessions that built the monuments of this world. When we count the collateral damage that people with obsessions leave in their wake, especially when those obsessions only produce the unreadable tome on the evil eye or an unpublishable encyclopedia on folk music, obsessions start to look like folly. Trouble is you usually do not know whether an obsession is a great quest or a great folly until it's over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle. Special thanks to Ashley Messenger (ph). Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel, Thomas Lu and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Engineering support from Patrick Boyd (ph) and Andy Huether. Our unsung heroes today are Huw Williams and Radio Orkney in Scotland. One of the difficulties we faced with this episode was finding audio of Riley Shepard's voice. Happily, we discovered that music historian Kevin Coffey still had tape of the interview he did with Riley. Our next challenge was connecting with Kevin, who lives in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Huw Williams and his team at Radio Orkney were able to help us record an interview. We are so grateful for their help. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can find us on Facebook and Twitter. To see a slideshow of photos of Riley Shepard, visit our website npr.org/hiddenbrain. If this episode spoke to you, please take a moment to share it with a friend. I'm Shankar Vedantam. And this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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