To a music lover scanning the list of American standards to be heard later this month at “Symphony at the Seashore” in Cape Cod, most of the composers are instantly recognizable.
Who doesn’t know George Gershwin, or marching band maestro John Philip Sousa, or country music’s Lee Greenwood, or national anthem author Francis Scott Key?
Among the marquee names, however, there are a couple of other songwriters on the program who stand out. Take Steve Schaefer, for example. His name commands your attention, as in, “Who the heck is he, and how did he and his music get invited to this star-studded party?”
Therein lies a tale worth telling. It’s a tale of perseverance, faith, and not forsaking your creative muse—even when it has nothing to do with your day job. Since it’s a storybook tale, allow me to tell it in the present tense.
Stephen Schaefer is typical in many ways of Westchester and Putnam residents like you or me. He has worked for four decades at Prime Automotive, where he runs the IT department, which he created in 1979.
Growing up in Queens, Steve studies singing with the choir director at his elementary school, and learns to play bass guitar from the school’s music teacher.
Shortly after moving to Yorktown in 2000, the devout Schaefer joined the choir at the local St. Patrick’s Church. “Most of my prayers are for others,” he says, “but since we didn’t know anyone up here, and knew very little about Yorktown, I asked God to point us to a place to call home, to good neighbors, and to a church where I could continue singing. I am grateful he answered all three prayers.”
In 2008, St. Pat’s choir director Kathey Lewis and husband Rick Dalby, also a musician, who recently passed away, invites Steve and wife Ramona to stay with them in Cape Cod for a weekend. It is the first time the Schaefers have experienced the magical vacation destination, and, like countless others before them, they immediately fall in love with its myriad charms.
A year later, they eagerly return to the Cape. A week before heading to New England, Steve starts writing a song titled “We’re Going to the Cape.” He finishes it on West Dennis beach during the vacation. Back in Yorktown, it is produced by the multi-talented Rick Dalby at his home studio, with Steve on vocals and guitar. The song can be heard on YouTube, where it is accompanied by a slide show of scenic Cape photographs.
In the course of surfing YouTube for other songs about Cape Cod—besides the best known of all, “Old Cape Cod,” recorded by Patti Page—Steve is struck by one selection in particular called “Tightrope.”
He loves the voice of the singer, Jesse Terry. A year later, after reaching out to Jesse, the two arrange to meet, for the first time, at a farmers market in Greenwich, Conn. They become close friends, with Steve hosting the world-touring singer-songwriter (JesseTerryMusic.com) at his home for house concerts, as well as arranging special performances at local venues like The Winery at St. George and Yorktown Stage.
Steve is encouraged by friends to do something with “We’re Going to the Cape” beyond posting it on YouTube. He contacts the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce about using the song to promote tourism on its website.
Nothing comes of his outreach to the chamber. The support from friends he receives, though, served another purpose. He says it unleashed in him “a wave of original songs.” Until that point, Steve had scratched out only a couple of tunes, including one in 1978 dedicated to wife Ramona. Since 2009, he has penned 25 songs. Two were written, within two weeks of each other, about his mom, right after she passed away last winter.
Undeterred by the Cape Cod Chamber’s indifference to his overtures, Steve took it upon himself to create a website, GoingtotheCape.com. The song can be purchased online, along with other Cape Cod souvenir merchandise. For the next few years, he decided to reset, taking a well-deserved breather from his entrepreneurial music activities.
By the time 2013 rolls around, Steve feels the urge to rekindle his muse. Cape Cod calls to him again. As he relaxes at the shore, the serenity of the surroundings result in a tune whose title borrows a page from Patti—“It’s Old Cape Cod.”
As with all his original compositions, as soon as the thought lands, he immediately captures the seed of the idea on his phone for further nurturing. The song’s thematic threads that came to him in the moment were “nautical, historical and natural… to relax and just to be by the sea.”
This time, he recruits pal Jesse Terry to sing lead vocal. In 2015, Steve posted the song on YouTube, adding images of the local landscape photographed by Betty Wiley.
A few months pass after the song is posted online, and someone in Cape Cod does contact Steve. It’s not the Chamber of Commerce. This someone is very interested in Steve’s latest musical valentine to Cape Cod. This someone happens to be the conductor of the Cape Symphony.
His name is Jung-Ho Pak, and he has some questions for Steve. One of them is if there is an orchestration for the song. Steve replies there is not, quickly adding that he can make it happen. Steve contacts Mark Girardin, music director of St. Pius X Church in Yarmouth, Mass., where Steve and Ramona worship while at the Cape.
Mark Girardin jumps at the chance to turn “It’s Old Cape Cod” into, as Steve says, “a big symphonic piece, the way some of John Denver’s simple songs were recorded with a symphony.” (The song definitely has echoes of John Denver at his best. Listen to it on YouTube here: “It’s Old Cape Cod with Orchestration”)
When the simulated orchestration arrangement makes its way to Jung-Ho Pak in 2017, he loves it. He asks Steve to please be patient, as it may take a while to fit “It’s Old Cape Cod” into one of the symphony’s concerts, which are planned way in advance.
A few months ago, Jung-Ho gets back to Steve to say he wants to include the piece in the Aug. 24, 2018 live concert, titled “Symphony at the Seashore” (capesymphony.org). The conductor wants Jesse Terry to perform it with the orchestra. Steve is beside himself with joy.
I ask Jung-Ho Pak his reason for adding an (as he puts it) “amateur” songwriter like Steve Schaefer to the immortal composers in the concert. “I like the song,” he replies, “because it has an easy and relaxed feeling, like some of the great songs of the ’70s. Jesse sings the song extremely well. His voice has a beautifully lyrical quality. With the guitar [played on the original recording by Andy Abel], there’s a folk element that makes the song feel familiar. I can’t wait to work with Jesse.”
“People like Stephen,” Hung-Jo continues, “create out of a sense of passion rather than duty to profession.”
And what does the Hudson Valley IT guy have to say about seeing his name and song staring back at him from the Cape Symphony website, smack dab, no less, between Stephen Sondheim & Leonard Bernstein (for “America” from West Side Story) and John Williams (for the main theme from Jaws)?
“It’s pretty surreal to see this,” says Stephen Schaefer. “My mom and dad loved these composers, and my son Fred grew up on John Williams music. Needless to say, to be included in this list of composers is a real honor that I still cannot believe is happening. I am pinching myself.”
In summer 2019, Stephen Schaefer will have another chance to pinch himself, when he releases through CD Baby his first full album, titled, “Out of the Pockets of Yellow Shorts.”
Steve can be contacted through his Facebook pages Stephen Schaefer Music or We’re Going to the Cape. He can be emailed at email@example.com.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events, and people through marketing agency APAR PR. Among his clients are Krav Maga New York, Our Montessori School, Yorktown Grange Fair, Yorktown Feast of San Gennaro, GoJo Clan Productions, Quantum Dynamix, Peekskill’s Art Industry Media initiative, the forthcoming book “Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer,” and interdisciplinary artist Elizabeth Phelps Meyer. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.