Springfield, the third-largest city in Missouri, sits about 500 miles southwest of Chicago and has been a frequent stop on the curiosity-fueled journey that is the life of Dave Hoekstra.
One of the most talented and stylish newspaper writers of his generation, he's been out of that racket for more than three years and is now deeply involved in the wicked world of filmmaking.
"I know, I know," he said a couple of days ago, sitting in the Billy Goat, a place where once newspaperfolk gathered to talk about life and complain about work. "Everybody in the world is making a documentary, but this one means a great deal to me and I know it will to many other people."
"This one," or at least an engaging portion of it, can be seen at 8 p.m. Thursday at FitzGerald's in Berwyn ($10; www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com) when Hoekstra and some of his collaborators screen a portion of their documentary-in-the-works about Springfield and its musical/cultural scene.
The film contains commentary from such artists Lou Whitney, Dave Alvin, Beatle Bob, The Del Lords, Robbie Fulks, Merle Haggard (in one of his final interviews before his death in 2016), Brenda Lee and Dan Penn, as well as animation from Sharon Rutledge. The event, which is billed as "Springfield Jamboree," will also feature live performances by some of that city's musicians: Ruell Chappell, Nick Sibley, D. Clinton Thompson and Abbey Waterworth.
Hoekstra first visited Springfield some 15 years ago for a story he was writing. He has since been back "at least nine times, a solid eight-hour drive each way." Each trip, some in the company of pals with cameras and sound equipment, solidified his feeling that the city had an important story to tell, one that went beyond music.
"We aren't just interested in playing songs created in this neglected pocket of regional music, though they are essential to the story," said Hoekstra. "It is about how the air, food, history, religion, geography all combine to create a sense of place and contribute to the creation of the music."Ting Shen/for the Chicago Tribune
Former Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra’s latest project is a documentary about the music and cultural scene in Springfield, Mo.
Former Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra’s latest project is a documentary about the music and cultural scene in Springfield, Mo.(Ting Shen/for the Chicago Tribune)
What people will see is part of an ambitious project called Songs of an Unsung America (www.songsofanunsungamerica.com, where you can also see a short clip and meet the other members of the documentary team), which intends to explore other hidden musical hotbeds, says Hoekstra, "such as the rich rhythm and blues of the beach music legacy in the Carolinas or the Gulf music of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi."
Hoekstra, a likable and self-effacing man of palpable passions, seems eternally upbeat, even when talking about how his more than 30-year-long newspaper career came to a close in March 2014. As he wrote on his ever-intriguing and lively website at the time, "Working at the Sun-Times was a dream come true. If I had the skills of a good baseball player, filing stories from 401 N. Wabash (long home to the paper and now the site of Trump Tower) would have been the same thing as playing at Wrigley Field."
He was an all-star, covering all manner of beats including music, clubs, food, travel, sports and anything else that grabbed his insatiable interest. He is not at all bitter about being among the many local journalists who were victims of staff cutbacks over the past decade.
"The time was actually right, since the paper had mostly stopped covering many of the things I wrote about," he said. "And there was actually a great reward being freed from the daily chores of newspapering in that it allowed me to spend more time with my parents."
Those parents, father Alfred and mother Irene, were in their early 90s, living in Naperville and beset by aging's physical and mental plights. In 2016, both died within months of one another.
In addition to caring for his parents, Hoekstra had been keeping busy. One of his first steady if hardly financially lucrative post-newspaper jobs was at WGN radio, where he began a weekly program late in 2014. Airing from 9-11 p.m. on Saturdays and called "Nocturnal Journal," it remains a popular and eclectic listening experience.
He also continued writing books, which had begun with 2013's "The Supper Club Book: A Celebration of a Midwest Tradition" (Chicago Review Press). It's vintage Hoekstra, a gathering of what are essentially oral histories and feature stories about each of his selections with lyrical writing such as this: "The slow good-bye to the warmest of seasons comes from the signals of state fairs, a chorus of cicadas, and not wearing white pants after Labor Day. But summer always leaves in the dead of the night. Suddenly, like a one-night stand."
That book was followed by 2015's "The People's Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences from the Civil Rights Era to Today" (Chicago Review Press), another charming and important work.
His latest was last year's "Disco Demolition: The Night Disco Died" (Curbside Splendor), about that that crazy July night at Comiskey Park in 1979, written in collaboration with Steve Dahl, with a foreword by Bob Odenkirk and photos by Paul Natkin. That book and its photos inspired an exhibition at The Elmhurst History Museum that will run June 9 to Oct. 8.
And later this year will come another book, "The Camper Book," about his travels across the country in a camper van.
But this film project sits on the front burner.
He is producing it with award-winning veteran producer Jamie Ceaser. They worked together many years ago, he writing and they co-producing a WTTW-Ch. 11 special titled "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," which was nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy.
Their new project is the sort of ambitious thing that does not come cheap, and the team has already invested tens of thousands of dollars of their own money in the venture, with music rights being particularly expensive. There may be some people in the crowd Thursday night at FitzGerald's who might be able to open corporate checkbooks to fund the project, and that would be nice. In a world awash in dancing celebrities, this sort of musical/cultural material has heft and meaning.
Hoekstra is confident and so are those who know him.
Says Ceaser: "Dave is an analog type of guy. He calls people, works really hard to find resources and make contacts, in this case driving to Springfield to find obscure archival footage, photos, audio … everything. He's primarily working this project by himself. He's really dedicated to it. He just keeps pushing along. Believe me, I know, it's not easy."
Esteemed author/critic Peter Guralnick, who has written books about Sam Cooke and Elvis Presley, among others, has this to say: "Dave has always pursued his passions, even against overwhelming odds. This project is what America is all about. It represents American exceptionalism at its best. Dave has a way of shining a light on things that other people pass right by, and here with this project he is on to something at the heart of America. I've know Dave for 30 years and I think he'll pull it off."
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