Captain Yonder

April 28, 2005

Captain Yonder is, essentially, Ryan Pfeiffer, who conceived of this project in honor of his late friend and mentor “Captain“ Jack Yonder, a brilliant-but-unrecorded country musician who died virtually unnoticed last spring. At his death, Yonder bequeathed Mr. Pfeiffer hundreds of song tabs and lyrics, many incomplete, which his benefactor has doggedly begun to resurrect and record. In August, with help from Tarbox Road Studios and producer Bill Racine (Mogwai, Hopewell, Flaming Lips’ 5.1 Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots co-engineer, Rogue Wave, Odiorne), Mr. Pfeiffer recorded his second album, “Mad Country Love Songs“, which reflects Yonder’s stylistic method of imagistic narration in the context of original American-gothic songs about madness, infatuation, solitude, country, and nature. Mr. Pfeiffer’s first album, “Whence, Whither Hence, the Sordid?“ represents (in Mr. Pfeiffer’s own words) a “sort of posthumous collaboration“ with the Captain, inasmuch as the songs were communicated to Mr. Pfeiffer through the inherited musical notation and in a series of “horrifying but thankfully productive“ nightmares.

In addition to Mr. Pfeiffer and core performing member Esmé Schwall, many fine musicians contributed to “Mad Country Love Songs.“ And many traveled far and wide to do so, coming from Rhode Island, Maine, Minnesota, and California. The song is alive.

“God rest in peace, my good friend. And, thanks to the musicians and collaborators who have accompanied the project into its most recent stages.”


Ryan Pfeiffer: Voice, Guitar, Baritone Guitar, Cello. Ryan recently quit his job as staff attorney for the federal government in St. Louis, MO (where he specialized in criminal appeals), and moved to a log cabin in northern Michigan, where he lives alone in the woods with a squirrel (yes, it’s true). He is currently finishing his third album, called “A Shirtful of Ephemera,“ and hopes to soon proceed into the studio to record it. When not holding a musical instrument, a motorcycle wrench, or a maritime device, he might be seen with a can of Old Style, a fishing rod, or some Orwell in his lap.

Esmé Schwall: Esme is a cello teacher, and English teacher, and a francophile. She performs regularly with the Yahara String Quartet.

Captain Yonder (who was never a Captain) straddled a mossy hillside fence somewhere in the Ozarks. On the northeastern horizon was the bare and brazen outline of St. Louis; in between, rusted road signs signified a tangle of defunct scrap metal dealers. Down the hill to the south was a narrow but vibrant trout stream, the gurgle of which was slightly audible above the chirping of a few songbirds on that bright blue day. Yonder’s hands smelled of fish, and his boots smelled sweetly of cow dung. On his face was a shit eating grin. He was happy, because he had been trespassing, and had caught fish while doing it. He was also happy, because a sweet melody had busted into his head from somewhere yonder. He whistled it, until a stray fox squirrel reminded him of the .410 he’d forgotten back at his trailer. “Son of a bitch,“ he said. It was then that he told me about how his third wife had tried to kill him and almost succeeded. The story was long and intricate, but concluded simply enough: “She gave all my guns to her lover.“

Yonder & I used to go to that hill together pretty regularly-to fish, shoot, shoot the shit, and teach each other old folksongs-until a land developer bulldozed it this last winter, thereby disrupting and totally muddying the trout stream below. Yonder died shortly after that, ripe in age, experience, and heart. He rode the rails with his guitar during the Depression (and claimed on more than one occasion to have written songs with Woody Guthrie); served in WWII on the deck of a naval minesweeper; went to college on the GI Bill; taught poetry at a small Midwestern liberal arts college; and, having no children of his own, provided a college education to an African-American high school student in his trailer court. Yonder was an anomalous man, a great friend and musician, and I will miss him dearly.

At his death, Yonder bequeathed to me two things: a dusty photo album which (unsurprisingly) lacked a single picture of himself (he hated cameras), and the rights to the lyrics and chords of more than a thousand folksongs he quietly wrote during his lifetime. In his will, he prophetically stated: “Ry, you will do something with these songs.“

In this-my latest-musical project, I have embraced Yonder’s challenge. “Captain Yonder“ it is, and in the next decade, my task is to complete, record, release, and perform Yonder’s many strange, dark, beautiful, and often enigmatic melodies and lyrics, which operate furtively in a traditional roots style defined by folk like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston. I use the word “complete,“ because the majority of the Captain’s songs were unfinished, unrecorded, and untranscribed. It will be my responsibility to stitch, mend, & fill. And in cantinas, bars, and barges along the way, I will continue to write and perform songs that some of you will recognize as my own.

God rest in peace, my good friend. And, thanks to the musicians and collaborators who have accompanied the project into its most recent stages.

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