Peter Stampfel

Goodbye 20th Century:
Peter Stampfel Bids It a Fond Farewell, but Leaves the Light On

“Good ol’ Ricola.”

Peter Stampfel paused to unwrap a lozenge nearly an hour into a lively conversation. This was no product plug, but rather a coping mechanism. Stampfel suffers from dysphonia, and has completely lost his voice for extended periods multiple times in recent years. The 82-year-old possesses encyclopedic music knowledge – particularly of the first half of the 20th century – and it’s obvious the only thing slowing him down is the effort required to coax his thoughts through his larynx.

Stampfel is a survivor of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene – he actually arrived before Dylan – and made his mark in counterculture legends The Holy Modal Rounders and (briefly) as a member of wild-eyed radicals The Fugs. “I’m still in New York – been here since 1959,” he reports from his Soho apartment. “My wife and I moved into this place in ’78, which is why we can afford to stay here.”

Though he’s never retreated from his way-left-of-the-dial musical mission, Stampfel earned a dose of straight world acclaim in 1997 when his extensive liner notes to a six-CD reissue of Harry Smith’s iconic Anthology of American Folk Music was awarded a Grammy. A few years later, Stampfel embarked on his own somewhat likeminded and equally audacious project.

In 2001 Stampfel set out to record 100 songs, one for each year of the 20th century, aiming in each case to convey the prevailing vibe of the period. Two decades later the fruits of that labor – the five-disc collection Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs – finally sees the light of day on February 5. Not without a series of fits and starts and a bevy of technical and medical challenges, however.

The thought crossed Stampfel’s mind that his project might never find its way to conclusion. By the time his latest batch of co-conspirators convened in Louisiana to record in 2019, sessions from the early aughts required remastering. “We had to transfer from obsolete technology four different times, because it was no longer possible to add on parts with present day gear.” A household name like ProTools hadn’t yet been embraced as an industry standard by 2001, let alone its multiple upgrades. Considering the long run of the 78 RPM lacquer that underpins roughly half of Stampfel’s source material, it’s a telling statement on our accelerating sonic evolution.

Then there was the matter of Peter’s non-compliant vocal cords. “I had lost my voice previously a couple of years ago, and an ear, nose and throat doctor gave me a steroid course because I had a gig coming up.” He returned to the same specialist for another regimen before his 2019 Louisiana junket. The benefits last about a week – just long enough to get through the recording sessions. “My voice was still fucked up, but I could still do an OK enough job to finish.” Better living through chemistry.

A silver lining is that Stampfel’s sonorous tone has never been his calling card. Purists may even bristle at what some might view as irreverent takes on classic material. Closer inspection makes clear, however, that he’s wholly respectful of all genres and is interested in opening them up to new possibilities – democratizing them, if you will. Stampfel and his Holy Modal/Fugs cohort were essentially freak folkies well before such a term existed. There’s a clear through-line to latter day artists like Devendra Banhart. Outsiders like Jad Fair and Eugene Chadbourne (of Shockabilly) also come to mind.

Stampfel has been aided and abetted throughout 20th Century by Mark Bingham, a producer/engineer with an insanely lengthy and eclectic resume ranging from Roy Orbison to Lil Jon to Allen Ginsberg.  “I met Mark, but didn’t meet him, when recording The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders,” he recalls – sort of – about their initial 1968 encounter. “He was an 18-year-old from Indiana who had sent Elektra some home recordings and they invited him out to Los Angeles to intern. I was totally ripped on speed the whole session and don’t remember him at all. But then I met him in 1975 for real and we’ve been close friends ever since.”

Bingham’s credits also include the highly regarded series of Hal Willner tribute albums, which share a spiritual bond with Stampfel’s undertaking. Those Moray Eels sessions also spawned fascinating yarns about actor Sam Shepard – who drummed for the Rounders at the time – and the notorious art film Zabriskie Point. But those are for another time.

A surprising and important contributor is Michael Cerveris, who’s better known as a Broadway actor whose credits include Evita and Fun Home – the latter being where he befriended Bingham. “Michael has his own rock band – he’s a killer musician, a great backup vocalist who plays a hell of a guitar.” Cerveris was central to the 2019 Louisiana sessions, and given that he once played in Bob Mould’s touring band perhaps his presence isn’t so bizarre.

From 1901 into the 1970s, Stampfel was able to pluck titles directly from his memory bank. “I then had to do the research to find out what years they were from,” he explains, and also to unearth background on the writers and performers to inform his lovingly curated year-by-year notes, which are an essential part of the experience. For instance, the 1908 entry is “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but before hearing Stampfel’s rendition how many realized we only remember the chorus, and that an entire verse precedes it? Or knew the composers had never been to a ballgame before writing the tune?

The first glitch in Stampfel’s recall came in 1974. “I had never heard ‘September Gurls,’ what a great song,” he says of Alex Chilton’s Big Star landmark. Stampfel’s selections from the late Sixties through the early Eighties convey the remarkable explosion in popular song over that condensed stretch – which is essentially his goal. Within a 15-year stretch he draws from Dylan, Buzzcocks, Curtis Mayfield, Gloria Gaynor, Elton John and 1983’s Country Single of the Year (John Anderson’s “Swingin’”).

Add The Kinks, a few years earlier. “’Waterloo Sunset’ had to be there; what else could 1967 possibly be?” he gushes. Ray Davies’ stunner is the collection’s second non-US title, and “one of my reasons for bringing the UK into the mix” of what was originally intended as a survey of the American songbook. “I’d hear UK rock ‘n’ roll up to 1965 and think, ‘meh, they don’t get it.’ When I heard The Beatles my first thought was, ‘but they’re an anomaly.’ But then I heard Dusty Springfield and I understood it wasn’t just The Beatles, the UK had cracked the code.”

Although Stampfel drew on others’ knowledge and recommendations to build out his 1980-99 selections, he’s adamant that his relative lack of familiarity with the era is situational rather than a value judgment. “I had about half of the Eighties and Nineties songs picked out – not because I thought pop music had gone bad – not at all! It’s just that the opportunity to listen no longer existed. I’ve been hearing that bullshit line ‘all new music is crap’ since the ’70s. The Balkanization of pop began by the late ’70s. By the ’90s there were two dozen genres of metal, everyone crawled into their little ghettoes and shut the doors. Plus the number of releases went up exponentially.”

Some of Stampfel’s mid-century knowledge is owed to pure osmosis. “I lived with this woman Antonia between 1962 and ’78 and she always had the radio on, including at night, because she was plagued with night horrors and it would help to alleviate them. So my exposure was pretty non-stop. I moved in with my current wife in late ’78, and didn’t listen to the radio as much because she doesn’t like much pop music. I’m OK with listening to music I don’t necessarily like – I’ll occasionally turn on the country station just to see ‘what are they doing now?’

“Country tends to be about 20 years behind pop music,” he continues. “In the late ’90s/turn of the century, for instance, there were a lot of Beatles influences. Then after 5-10 years the grunge guitars started coming in, and now you’re hearing the rap influences. This is not a failing or criticism, it totally makes sense. You turn on a country station and even on the less good songs every guitar rig is going to be fucking great. Every time. In 1960 Marty Robbins was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry because he tried to bring drums onto the stage. But country music is the conservative branch of popular music, so that’s as it should be.”

“One other thing about country music, though – you can always understand the words.” Stampfel namechecks St. Vincent (“brilliant beyond description”) as a current fave who succumbs to this pet peeve. “If I spend all my focus on trying to understand what she’s saying, it means missing a lot of the total sound. I’m so annoyed by these great pop/indie songwriters that choose to mix their vocals so that despite their brilliant wordmanship you can’t understand what the fuck they’re saying.” This was the closest our 90-minute conversation came to a Get Off My Lawn moment.

Adding to the irony, Stampfel chose R.E.M.’s “Texarkana” to represent 1991, given the band’s earlier status as standard bearer for indecipherable vocals. “That’s my favorite of their albums (Out of Time), because it has the greatest variety of sounds and structures to it.” It also sports Bingham’s fingerprints, as the man behind the string and horn arrangements.

He also used drew from longtime friend Robert Christgau’s website to fill in a few gaps, which explains the presence of the Ass Ponys’ “Earth To Grandma,” a band that seems firmly in Stampfel’s sweet spot. Christgau also suggested John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” which completes the set as 1999’s entry. “I really like the symmetry that 50 years previously, Jimmy Wakely established the cheating song genre (with the country hit ‘Slippin’ Around’ – wanna bet they couldn’t get ‘sleepin’’ past the censors?) And here in 1999 we have the exact opposite dynamic, the happy relationship.”

Prine’s version is a duet with Iris DeMent in the paramour role. Stampfel enlisted Lilli Lewis – the “boss lady” behind Louisiana Red Hot Records – the label releasing 20th Century – to do the honors. Stampfel was unaware post-punk pranksters Viagra Boys beat him to the punch with their own cover mere weeks earlier. He later emailed me his assessment: “Nice job – goes on too long, though.”

In addition to singing, Stampfel is credited with playing juke on much of the set. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I did a fair amount of searching for more info on this instrument but came up empty. Turns out it’s Peter’s one of a kind creation. “It’s a National steel ukulele strung like a banjo. I saw it on the wall in a guitar store in the late ’90s – I didn’t know such a thing existed but apparently they’ve made them since the ’20s or ’30s. I thought, ‘That’s the most adorable thing ever.’ I went ‘plunky plunky’ on it because I didn’t play uke, so my deal was to try to string it like a banjo, with steel strings instead of nylon. They put in a pickup and raised the bridge a bit. It sounds like wind chimes – a lot of people think it’s a mandolin. I always play it through effects boxes, which makes it even more mysterious and strange.”

Given Stampfel’s history with Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music I was interested in his take on Dust-to-Digital’s recent Harry Smith B-Sides collection, particularly the label’s decision to omit a few tracks with racist lyrics. “I would rather they left them in,” he offers, unsurprisingly. “Their assumption was that someone somewhere would be playing it in a public setting, and that someone else would walk by that place at that precise moment and would hear the n-word. Where that setting would be, I have no damn idea. But then, oh Lordy. Lordy…”

Stampfel wrestled with some of those same questions himself for an archival release planned later this year for his “regular” record label, Don Giovanni (he has a pretty sweet deal – “they told me I can release anything I want, as often as I want, period”). He’s packaging live 1965 Holy Modal Rounders recordings reclaimed from noted cult label ESP-Disk with a collection of mid-Sixties writings for Broadside magazine as well as his loving yet unsparing obit/tribute to Rounders co-founder Steve Weber, who died last February.

“I was concerned about the fact there’s a lot of politically incorrect stuff in it – ’cause it was written like 50 years ago. I talked about it on my Facebook wall and everyone said to go with it as it is,” he says. “I’ll include an explanation that I know you shouldn’t call girls ‘chicks,’ but that’s how it was. Us guys were the cats and I talked about the cats and chicks getting their kicks at the hop!

“I broke up with Steve Weber in 1965, for a number of reasons,” Stampfel says rather cryptically. He’s far from cryptic in the obit; Bound to Lose, a 2006 documentary chronicling the Rounders’ ill-fated reunion also sheds fascinating light on the duo’s dysfunctional relationship.

Stampfel gives props to another recent Dust-to-Digital reclamation project. “I just bought Excavated Shellac,” the label’s survey of 1907-67 world music. “It’s a total mind blow. An even greater mind blow is Turn Me Loose, White Man,” Allen Lowe’s two-volume set of 30 CDs each painstakingly documenting all forms of American music from 1900-1960.  “The liner notes for the first volume alone are a 350 fucking page book. I’m up to disc six and there are only six tracks so far with which I’m familiar. I’ve seen no one one who can explain the interaction between white and black music the way he does. I’ve been into roots music since 1959, I know a thing or two – and Alan Lowe’s knowledge dwarfs mine. I realize I don’t know shit.”

Though most of Stampfel’s work with Don Giovanni has centered on reissues, don’t count out the possibility of hearing more new material, his voice permitting. “It’s kind of on and off,” he says. “I’m working with a really good vocal coach and am doing exercises, which are helping a lot. It’s a function of heredity, age and prolonged misuse of my voice, which I just found out at my last vocal session. While walking the dog, back when we had a dog, I used to do vocalizations to amuse myself. I’d inhale and exhale while singing or making noises. My coach explained that you should never, ever vocalize on the inhale because it fucks up your vocal cords something fierce. I thought, ‘holy shit, my cumulative time doing that probably added up to hours.’” Consider this Stomp and Stammer’s public service announcement for the month.

Those looking for more can work their way backward to You Must Remember This, Stampfel’s 1995 album (recorded in ’89, and also abetted by Bingham). “My guiding inspiration was that you’re listening to an oldies station and you mostly hear The Four Tops. But there’s all these other songs, and the ones that are remembered seems to be totally arbitrary and capricious. These were all radio songs I remembered from my childhood that I hadn’t heard since – and they were as good or better than the ones people remember. 20th Century was the opposite – I had no problem with a song being super well-known – I wanted to embrace the totally familiar as well as the totally obscure.”

 True to his Sixties counterculture roots, Stampfel is interested more than anything else in sharing the experience and engaging in a dialogue. Already quite active on Facebook (“The thing about Rounders fans is that they’re all smart and interesting – I’ve only met one that was kind of creepy”), he’s established as an interactive forum for continued discussion. In addition to the superb 88-page booklet that accompanies the box set, Stampfel’s penned an even better 20,000-word essay he plans to post to the site.

“One of the purposes of the whole thing was to create a fast and easy way to absorb the whole of the 20th century. It’s one of the most awesome cultural phenomena that humanity has produced – on so many levels.” And he’s not concerned about the conversation gravitating to the Sixties material forward that wasn’t his initial muse. Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century is finally out in the wild – make of it what you will.

Photo by Lily Dean Stampfel.