Book Review: Amy Yates Wuelfing, with Joan Arkuszewski and Loren Hunt “Still Drinkin’ & Smokin’, Rockin’ & Rollin’: An Oral History of New Hope’s John & Peter’s”.

DiWulf Publishing, 2023

The majority of books that we get for review here at AUK take the form of biographies or personal memoirs. This is a book that really falls a bit into both categories, yet it has little to do with one individual person but rather with a very individual bar. John & Peter’s is a bar that has been at the forefront of providing live music to its community for over 50 years and is still going strong. It is considered to be the oldest continually operating live music club in the U.S.A. and features live music and other entertainment seven days a week, 365 days of the year. They claim to have showcased more than 48,000 musicians and are dedicated to featuring musicians playing original material. It’s a phenomenal story that has seen artists across a whole range of genres perform at this small, intimate venue. It gave early gigs to rising stars like Norah Jones and Mary Chapin Carpenter, it boasted frequent appearances by the likes of George Thorogood, who treated the place like his own home venue, and has featured on live albums and TV recordings, such as Ken Burns’ PBS series on American Jazz.

This book provides an oral history on this fascinatingly diverse and eclectic entertainment venue and it’s a joy to read. I’ve never been to New Hope in Pennsylvania, but this book makes it feel like I’ve missed out on one of the great American destinations and anyone reading this book is going to be adding J&P’s to their bucket destinations list, guaranteed!

Opened in 1972 by original proprietor John Larsen, the bar started out as a coffee shop and was known as John’s Place. Peter Price came on board the following year when a liquor licence became available and John Larsen needed a partner to help fund the purchase and turn the coffee shop into a bar. That was the start of John & Peter’s and a partnership that carried on until 2018, when the bar was sold to a trio of dedicated employees and continues to work in exactly the same way today, despite being closed down by the pandemic almost as soon as Mike Wieners, Chris Williams and Kevin Rauch completed the purchase from Larsen and Price – and that story is one of the highlights of this book and a testament to the community spirit of businesses in New Hope.

“Still Drinkin’ & Smokin, Rockin’ & Rollin’” was, apparently, a labour of love for author Amy Yates Wuelfing who, along with Joan Arkuszewski and Loren Hunt, interviewed over 100 individuals for this book and waded through photographs and archive material to piece together this impressive history of a town bar that comes across as so much more than just a town bar. Using interview pieces of varying length, the team slowly build up a comprehensive story of John & Peter’s. The book is made up of 40 chapters that break down into 3 sections – ‘The First Generation: 1972 – 1992’, which deals with the establishment of John & Peter’s place and its early growth as a bar and venue; ‘The Second Generation: 1992 – 2012’, addressing the first twenty years and the consolidation of John & Peter’s place and its value to the community, and ‘The Third Generation: 2013 –  2023’, bringing the story up to date, and laying the ground for the sale of the venue to the trio of staff members that have taken it on. Cleverly, it closes with John Larsen’s 95th birthday, chapter 39, and a final chapter 40, which is a series of blank pages for the reader to write their own John & Peter’s story.

The interviewees broadly break down into staff members, musicians/performers, and members of the public. Still, these lines often blur as punters become workers, workers become performers and everyone melts into this fascinating stew of loyal members of the John & Peter’s community because, what becomes very apparent, very quickly, is that this place really is a community centre above everything else. Along the way, as you read this book, you meet a whole host of fascinating characters, not least John Larsen, who started the whole thing going, and then Peter Price, who helped to move things up a notch, but also significant staff members like Big Sue, Patti – Patti, Cribber, Dogboy, Cheyenne Justine and a whole host of others. Musicians like Mountain John, jazzman Richie Cole, George Thorogood, who started out playing at John & Peter’s to 19 people, next time it was 50 and the time after that the lines went around the block. You find out about The Invitational, the Wednesday night that started up as an event for local musicians to scope out other local musicians and grew like Topsy. You read about Penn & Teller and their early days at John & Peter’s, “It was a cosy place with a low burlap covered ceiling over the stage. So when Penn ate fire, he had to sit on a stool instead of standing up. That was the start of that tradition in our show that continues today” (Teller). You meet Miss Pumpkin and hear about the Drag shows, and there are bands like The Razorbacks and Ween – the list goes on and on.

Of course, this book is going to, primarily, appeal to New Hope residents and those who have been lucky enough to spend some time at John & Peter’s, but the book deserves a wider audience because, apart from being a fun read, it’s a great history of one bar/venue that clearly went above and beyond to entertain the local community. We all know venues like that, no matter where we live, and they deserve to be celebrated. That’s exactly what Amy Yates Wuelfing’s book does – it celebrates what sounds like a great bar and live venue and does it through the eyes of many of the people who have been in and out of the place, for one reason or another.

In her promotional blurb for the book, Wuelfing says, “As bars and clubs become more and more homogenized, preserving the history of a place like John & Peter’s is priceless. It’s the idea of one man starting a coffee shop that became a beacon for artists in every medium. One person can make a difference to an entire community, and this, even more than the music, is what makes this such a rich and textured story.” That’s exactly what this is, a rich and textured story about a place, and a group of people, that made a real difference to an entire community and beyond.

Put it on your Christmas list.

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About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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