ISTHMUS (Madison WI) ARTICLE
Forever Lou and Peter Berryman
by Kenneth Burns
Isthmus, Madison, 9/26/08
If you live in Madison, you almost certainly know Lou and Peter Berryman. They're that smiling man and woman who, for many years, have been singing jolly songs about cheese and snow. Peter plays 12-string guitar, and Lou plays accordion. They're east-siders who came here for college in the 1960s, and they look it. They're so Madison.
What may never have struck you is that they're among the city's most prolific and enduring songsters. Madison acts come and go, but the Berrymans endure.
Over more than 30 years, the pair, both 61, have built a devoted national following. They have released 16 full-length recordings, including last year's The Universe: 14 Examples. They have ceaselessly toured the nation since 1985, performing on both coasts and throughout the Midwest. Madison Repertory Theatre mounted a stage revue of their songs. They have published three songbooks of their material, with playful illustrations by Peter, and a fourth is due out this fall.
But although they ply the live folk-music circuit that dates back to the folk revival of the 1950s, the Berrymans do not perform that circuit's standard fare of traditional tunes. Their repertoire consists almost entirely of their own songs, with Peter's lyrics at the center.
The Berrymans' recorded output approaches 200 songs. These touch regularly on topics that are everyday, even banal: cheese and snow, dogs, appliances, cars, Cher. But there are darker themes of sorrow and addiction; of struggling with relationships, with the music business, with clutter. There is sprightly, often brittle humor, and there are moments of peace and benediction. The words, ominous and gleeful alike, are sung to the sweet waltzes and polka tunes Lou composes.
It is an astonishing body of work.
"Back in late '70s," says Peter, "when we quit what had been part-time jobs, one goal was plain old survival, to see if we could make a living playing music."
That is still their goal. "We've never had any real delusions about getting famous or rich," says Peter. Above all, he says, "We've wanted not to compromise our art."
Last month the Berrymans performed at the Orton Park Festival, the classic isthmus confab that features local and touring artists. "I have a button that says Orton Park '82," said Peter from the stage. The sun beat down that Saturday afternoon as the duo played for a crowd that - distracted by the food, the weather, each other - was not paying close attention.
Those who were listening, though, were pleased by a gag about Republicans (this was the east side, after all), a plug for nearby Broom Street Theater, and songs about deer, snow and the Madison Gas and Electric Company's smokestacks at Blount Street. "We've been playing this fest for 30 years," Lou told the crowd, adding, jokingly, "We haven't changed a bit."
Audience members laughed uproariously at Peter's lyrics, including the ones to the song "Odd Man Out," a staple of Berryman sets. The laughter puzzled me, because the song doesn't strike me as laugh-out-loud funny. It is a masterpiece, but a droll, menacing masterpiece, one that appears on the Berrymans' 1998 CD Some Kind of Funny. Set to a languorously rising and falling melody, the lyrics challenge the listener to a game: find the word that does not belong - the odd man out - in lists of words.
One list is of men's names that end with O: Harpo, Ringo - stucco? Okay, easy enough. Then come planets: Mercury, Venus - Pet World? Ha ha. But as the song proceeds, its true theme playfully, circuitously emerges, and it goes something like this: Lovers are sometimes cold, and that's a puzzle, a crime, a natural disaster.
"Odd Man Out" is a breathtaking, multifaceted, economical bit of poesy from a master lyricist who, unlike many songwriters, is not afraid to be subtle. "I like when the audience is encouraged to do a little bit of work on their own," says Peter.
The lyric of "Odd Man Out" is essential Berrymans. There is wry humor tinged with pathos, plus pop culture references (Drew Barrymore makes an appearance) and clever rhymes (Peter rhymes Orlon and Al-Anon).
And, most essentially, there is list after list after list. Peter Berryman writes a lot of list songs. From 1984, there's the frantic list of oddball to-do items in So Comfortable's "Pack Up a Picnic" ("Graduate, jog a lot, know the mayor, read the news"). On 1990's Cow Imagination there's "Earth Anthem," a tribute to the planet that is a list of stuff, um, on Earth: "On Earth: Nepal, the cloud, the kidney stone, the Sousaphone, the mornings of remorse."
Why write list songs? "It's fun," says Peter. "If you start making lists of something, it amazes me how far you can go."
Lists on their own are just lists, of course, but in songs like "Odd Man Out," Peter makes merry lists in the service of larger, often darker, ideas. Another example is "Bird Bird Bird," from 2003's The Pink One. Set, by Lou, in a mournful minor key to a conga beat, the song re-creates the experience of driving into a city with lists of words - from the countryside ("bird bird cow cow"), through sprawling suburbia ("Wal-Mart Wal-Mart Wal-Mart"), then into a desolate downtown ("Empty storefront plywood plywood").
"That was written against the way big-box stores are destroying small towns," says Peter. "But we don't want to be too preachy about stuff. I shop at big-box stores, so I'm the biggest hypocrite in the world."
"Bird Bird Bird" is a work of relatively mellow social criticism, funny and tuneful, if sad and wryly detached. All that can be said of many Berrymans songs, from 1988's "Why Am I Painting the Living Room" ("Holes in the ozone the size of Brazil... Why am I painting the living room?") to 1984's "When Did We Have Sauerkraut," in which cleaning the refrigerator is an occasion to muse on nuclear annihilation and memories of earlier, more remarkable times.
But along with songs of political uncertainty, the Berrymans' repertoire features songs suffused with romantic tenderness, like "We Strolled on the Beach" and "We Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way." (These are Berrymans songs, of course, so they're also wryly detached.) These songs are gentle reminders that the saga of Lou and Peter Berryman, who married in 1967 and divorced in 1980, is, among other things, a remarkable love story.*
Peter Berryman and Lou Noffke met when they attended Appleton High School. Both came from musical families, and both had fathers who worked for the paper companies in the area. They loved music and formed a folk group in 1964. Peter was articulate, and that attracted Lou. "I'd never met a guy who talked before," she says. "The mill worker male is the strong, silent type."
"I'm the weak, chatty type," winks Peter.
They came to Madison to attend UW in 1966, as campus foment loomed. They opposed the Vietnam War, but they were not radicals. After the 1967 Dow riots, says Peter, "people came back from the campus, grabbed bats, wanted to beat up the police. We were against that."
"It was frightening and upsetting," says Lou. "That attitude of violence when you're trying to be a peacenik shocked both of us."
Peter was drafted, and the couple fled to Canada. Lou is tearful when she recalls those days. "We were trying to figure out war and college and life," she says. They arrived first in London, Ontario, and then made their way to Vancouver. They played some music with a band, and they worked on visual art, Lou as a weaver and Peter as a painter. They returned to Madison in 1973, when Peter was no longer in legal peril. "It was difficult to live in Vancouver because we were unskilled laborers," explains Lou.
In 1977 they began a stint at the now-storied Club de Wash nightclub. At first they played a mix of covers and original songs, which Peter had begun writing in high school. The stint lasted nine years. The time is immortalized on the Berrymans' first album, 1980's (No Relation), whose cover photograph is of a boozy Club de Wash crowd.
Berryman songs from the period celebrate a still-familiar sort of noble, east-side-of-Madison squalor. The tunes' young bohemians struggle with poverty but temper it with friends, drink, music. The lifestyle is attractive, but the wistful 1980 song "Alice Hotel," which draws on the pair's years in Canada, has a grimly humorous conclusion: "How do you make ends meet? Maybe the same way we did - scratching."
In the wake of an unsatisfying early experience with a record label, the Berrymans began releasing albums on their own imprint, Cornbelt Records. They also learned to record themselves, and those techniques have served them well: Their newest records sound more or less like their oldest ones, down to the almost completely unvarying instrumentation of accordion and guitar (there are gentle touches of tuba and keyboard here and there).
The pair expanded their performance schedule to college and coffee house gigs elsewhere in the Midwest, and in 1980 and 1981, they performed on public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Then, starting in the mid-1980s, with help and advice from the Maine folksinger Michael Cooney, the Berrymans went national, performing at venues on what remained of the old folk circuit. Over the years they have dramatically expanded their reach.
By way of illustration: In 1985, half their schedule was shows at Madison venues plus jaunts to other Midwestern cities, as well as their first, six-date East Coast tour. Last year, the Berrymans played 68 shows in 17 states, with legs that brought them to California, Oregon and Washington on the West Coast, and Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine in the east. They play coffee houses, theaters and folk-music societies, as well as storied folk venues like Berkeley, Calif.'s Freight & Salvage.
They also perform numerous house concerts, including a regular slot in the series hosted by Bill Wagman of Davis, Calif. He reports that the Berrymans regularly fill his 50-capacity home, and that their many Wisconsin-themed songs go over well, even in California. "There's actually some folks I know who have lived in Wisconsin and appreciate them for that," says Wagman.
In the 1990s, the Berrymans settled into an efficient and productive routine of writing, recording and touring. To look over their schedule of the last 20 years is, in some ways, simply to admire the work of dedicated professionals. But the themes of the songs have changed over the years, as the early, bohemian songs gave way to middle-aged concerns.
"You're looking at 35 years of songwriting, and we grew up in that time," says Lou. "There was a time that all of Peter's songs seemed to be about home maintenance," because he and wife Kristi Seifert had bought their first home. These days, she jokes, "We're inventing a whole new genre, sort of middle-class retiree music."
The years also have seen milestones, including grants from the Wisconsin Arts Board and other organizations to fund songbooks, performances and recordings. And two years ago their song "Wonderful Madison" was designated an official song of the city, along with other tunes. (Disclosure: I was on the committee that chose those songs.) It is perhaps the only such official song anywhere that includes the word goiter.
And in 2004 came one of the Berrymans' most stunning achievements, when Madison Repertory Theatre staged Love Is the Weirdest of All: The Music of Lou and Peter Berryman, a revue of 28 songs, sung by actors and accompanied by a small ensemble. In that setting, the repertoire glittered.
"The songs are so singable, and really work with voices that are not necessarily rooted in folk music," says Wisconsin musical theater veteran Jack Forbes Wilson, who performed in the show, arranged the score and co-wrote the book with Colleen Burns. "Lou's melodies are filled with a variety that bounces around between folk and jazz and blues and Gilbert and Sullivan, with all kinds of fun in between."
"We always thought our music was part theater," notes Lou. She says of watching the show: "It was amazing to feel your music was bigger than you ever dreamed it would be."
Though the Berrymans are veterans of the national folk scene, they've never quite fit into the genre. In the early days, says Lou, bookers at folk clubs told them, "We only book traditional artists." Now, says Peter glibly, "People won't hire us because we're too traditional."
Their uneasiness in the genre may owe to the fact that their music mines Upper Midwestern folkways, as opposed to the southern, eastern and western traditions at the core of the ongoing folk revival. "A lot of their songs have a real strong feeling for what it means to be from this region," says James Leary, a professor of folklore and Scandinavian studies at UW-Madison. "They incorporate a lot of regional dialect and wordplay."
Leary especially cites the Berrymans' accordion-based sound - the serendipitous result, Lou reports, of a gag in their Canadian days. "It started as a joke, when Peter had written a polka," she says. "I hadn't been playing anything in the band, and I wanted to play an instrument, too. I fell in love. It's really complicated. It's really versatile."
"You can't grow up where they did, in the Fox River Valley, without knowing about polka dances at ballrooms, weddings," says Leary. "They've had that immersion."
Among folk musicians, the Berrymans also stand out because their repertoire is broadly comic. It is otherwise a genre noted for its solemnity, the Smothers Brothers notwithstanding. "There's a funny thing we noticed early on," says Peter. "Performing songwriters would perform our songs and never record them. I'd ask why, and they'd say they didn't want to put anything funny on their records."
But even though they inhabit the folk-music world uneasily, the gigs come, a testament to the Berrymans' dedication. They are doing what working musicians everywhere aspire to do. Between sales of CDs and books, live performances, grants and royalties, they are making a living playing music they wrote. They live comfortable lives, Peter with wife Kristi Seifert, Lou with husband Mark Hodgson.
"This career has taken us a lot further than we thought," says Peter.
"Something I love puts bread on the table," says Lou, with gratitude and disbelief in her Fox Valley voice.
* Note from Peter: Some folks have misunderstood this line about a "remarkable love story" and wonder about our current married relationships. Lou and I respectively have been in love with and married to our spouses Mark and Kristi for over thirty years, as is mentioned elsewhere in this article. The relationship Lou and I have consists of a very close friendship, and of an extremely compatible business and musical partnership.