An exclusive chat with the American folk legend about his ambitious salute to pop’s first hundred years
Peter Stampfel may be best known to music lovers for his work with The Holy Modal Rounders, the acoustic duo he started in 1963 with Steve Weber.
The Rounders mesmerized and perplexed the New York City folk scene, inventing the psychedelic style that became known as freak folk almost 30 years later. His fiddling and banjo playing broke all the rules, helping The Rounders deconstruct and rehabilitate folk music and obscure pop gems. They slowly evolved into a folk rock band, breaking up and reuniting countless times in the decades since the 60s.
On his own, Stampfel pursued his singular muse, playing avant folk with the Atomic Meta-Pagans and The Brooklyn & Lower Manhattan Fiddle and Mandolin Swarm. He also expressed his fondness for the Great American Songbook on his 1995 collection, You Must Remember This, a collection of pop obscurities, arranged and reinvented with the same panache he exhibited in his work with The Rounders.
That album inspired Stampfel’s most recent collection, an impressive five disc, 100 song boxed set entitled Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century. During its four-hour span, it explores the evolution of American popular music, from 1900 to 2000. Stampfel started the album in 2001 and finished the last recordings in 2019, quite a stretch for one project.
“I was stoned when I got the idea,” Stampfel said, speaking from his New York City apartment. “It was an interesting moment of, ‘Hey what if I actually made a 100 song album?’ I asked my long time producer Mark Bingham if he’d be interested in helping me. He said yes and we started. I had to go to New Orleans, cause that’s where he is. That’s one reason it took so long – we live 1,500 miles apart.
“When we did You Must Remember This, we focused on forgotten songs. This time, I wanted to record the hits, trying to pick songs that defined each year. I remember hearing many of them on the radio, when I was a boy. I went through the old fake books [collections of sheet music that print out the basic chords and melodies of popular songs] I’d been collecting since the 70s and started looking up songs. I discovered that all the songs I liked when I was 7, 8, 9, and 10 years old, were great. I picked my favorites, but as I say in the liner notes, they had to be songs I’d be able to pull off, ideally with a resonance for the year in question. As I sorted through them, I often used my favorites like ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe’ (1912,) ‘Along Comes Mary’ (1966) and ‘Ace in the Hole (1909).’”
Mark Bingham supplied the arrangements that keep the album moving along, without ever getting bogged down, or sounding obvious. He uses straightforward pop, blues, folk rock, acoustic folk and quirky lo-fi studio tricks to keep things interesting. “We took it on a song by song basis, with no thought of an overarching style,” Stampfel said.
Some highlights: “Rave On,” the Buddy Holly hit from 1958 has Stampfel’s reverb drenched vocals dancing around a rhythm that’s nothing like Jerry Allison’s four on the floor backbeat. The Ramones “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” slowed down to a crawl, with clanging dissonant guitars and “By the Beautiful Sea,” overdubbed with odd noises that make it sound like the studio’s sinking under the waves of an incoming tide. Favorites like 1904’s “Toyland” and 1907’s “School Days” include the opening bridges, with lyrics seldom heard in modern arrangements.
The five CD box includes a booklet with lengthy musical, historical and socio-economic notes on the music. It’s a fascinating read and compliments today’s rapidly changing political climate. “American popular music wouldn’t exist without Blacks and Jews. As I was doing the research, this was driven home to me. Everyone knows, or should know, about the racial aspect – Blacks are responsible for almost all American music. I didn’t know about the birth of Vaudeville and the way Jews first came to be on the stage. The first Jews that appeared weren’t Jewish, but people dressed up like Jews, doing disparaging skits, like whites in blackface. The Great American Songbook is a Black Jewish conspiracy. It wasn’t conscious but, of course, on the other hand it was: music was used to put a face on the faceless. As I got deeper into it, I discovered yellowface, also popular on the Black vaudeville circuit. That was a new one to me.”
AUDIO: Holy Modal Rounders Indian War Whoop (full album)
Since this music resonates so deeply with him, Stampfel wanted to share his thoughts on the songs with his audience and start a dialogue. He’s putting up a website to gather the thoughts others may have about these seminal hits. He’s also busy on half a dozen other projects. He’s writing liner notes for a two-disc reissue of the Holy Modal Rounders albums that came out on ESP – Indian War Hoop (1967) and Live in 1965. He’s also finishing a new freak folk album with The Atomic Meta-Pagans, as well as a set with folksinger, guitarist and banjo player Eli Smith and drummer/percussionist Walker Shepard, son of playwright Sam Shepard, who briefly played with the Rounders in the late 60s.
“I’m 80 years old and I’m staying alive,” Stampfel concluded. “I’m still writing songs and working on new stuff. I’m relentless and never satisfied, always aware of things I want to do that I haven’t done yet, so I plan to keep working and moving forward.”