The legendary Peter Stampfel talks to AUK about his magnum opus, 100 songs plucked from all 100 years of the 20th Century
As one-half of the legendary Holy Modal Rounders, Peter Stampfel was one of the prime movers behind the freakier side of 1960s counter culture. The Rounders were the original freak folkers and were the first to use the word psychedelic in song (on their 1964 recording of ‘Hesitation Blues’) and, when they teamed up with fellow New York freaks, The Fugs, they arguably laid the groundwork for Frank Zappa’s satirical barbs. Featuring on the soundtrack of the award winning hippie film ‘Easy Rider’, recording ‘Have Mercy’, the pinnacle of 1970s American folk albums and winning a Grammy for his part in writing the liner notes of the ‘Harry Smith Anthology Of American Folk Music’ reissue in 1997, are just another couple of notches on his belt.
Now in his early 80s, Stampfel shows no sign of letting up having released several albums over the past decade with Baby Gramps and Jeffrey Lewis and with various combos including The Ether Frolic Mob and The Atomic Mega Pagans. He remains witty, goofy and exuberant. As he writes in the liner notes for his latest project, “I believe Goofiness is one of the most powerful tools in Personkind’s survival tool kit.”
This latest project is the most ambitious of his long career. Back in 2002, Stampfel and his collaborator here, Mark Bingham, decided to record a century’s worth of songs. 18 years later, ‘Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In One Hundred Songs’ is set to be released as a five CD set with Stampfel offering his unique take on one hundred songs selected from each year between 1901 until 2000. As such, Stampfel mines obscurities along with better-known vaudeville, jazz, folk and pop hits with the chances that you might know the songs increasing as the years pass by – an interesting concept which obviously depends on the age of the listener. It’s a fascinating listen as Stampfel stamps his trademark voice on each and every song while retaining many of the elements which originally surrounded each selection.
AUK managed to chat with Peter over Skype to discuss the album but first of all, we asked how he was coping with the pandemic in his New York home.
I’ve been basically following lockdown, I go to the store a couple of times a week and I’ve been to see some doctors but overall I’m being careful and keeping safe. I have taken up cooking however and I’m saving tons of money that way. I’ve had some great fun from cooking and it’s been really nutritious for me. So, overall, we’re doing OK. Thanks for asking.
You originally had the idea to record this back in 2002. What took you so long to see it to fruition?
There’s been several things. I’ve basically recorded all of it with my producer Mark Bingham and he lives 1500 miles away so that made for slow progress in the first instance and both Mark and I have been involved in so many other things. It’s also all been self-financed so that had an influence on when we could record. We did sessions in New Orleans and in New York in 2001 and then again in 2003, some of those recordings were in a New York loft, and that gave us around 60 songs. I found it harder to select songs from the later years and the project was kind of left for a long while but we got back together in 2016 in New York and got another 12 songs done but then I lost my voice. I developed dysphonia and had to get treatment. So it wasn’t until last year that I was able to sing again and we recorded the last songs in Louisiana with an amazing bunch of musicians.
Given that there are a countless number of songs from the 20th Century to choose from, how did you go about selecting these ones?
Well, first off, I had to love the song and then I had to be able to pull it off. Ideally, I was hoping that a song would be a good fit for its year. Some songs resonate with the year they came out more than others do, so when that works it’s great. I have those Fakebooks (collections of pirated song sheets) from the 1940s and 50s, the ones that every piano bar had so that they could play any requests, and they had thousands of forgotten songs in them. My other main source was the internet where you can find out just about anything. When it came to the eighties and nineties I wasn’t as familiar with what had come out so I relied a lot on suggestions I got from friends and hardcore music geek websites such as Robert Christgau’s Expert Witness Facebook page which he had handed over to his fans. I had to learn how to play the vast majority of the ones I selected as I hadn’t played them before. Some of the songs are very well known but most of them much less so. I’m looking forward to finding out how many of them people will know once they’ve heard the whole set.
It’s being released as a five disc CD set and a download but you have said you want the album to have an interactive life on the web.
I’ve written a fifty-page booklet detailing all of the songs along with some potted biographies and as much information as I could muster on them. When I showed the notes to my writer friend, Elijah Wald, he pointed out several errors, mainly due to erroneous internet information. He also added several interesting comments on several of the songs and when I’ve shared some of the song titles on Facebook some folk have replied with new information and stories about the songs. So, I want to put the notes online and get feedback from people who have heard the records. I find that when you ask a question on Facebook you can get some amazing information back from really knowledgeable people, I think that the art of threads is like a new literary form.
I’ve had a chance to read those and, besides being very entertaining, they really set the scene for each of the songs. You also include an essay.
I wrote my own overview of popular music in the 20th century and I worked my ass off for that but then deadlines and my own knowledge faltering for the latter decades led me to ask Christgau if I could use some excerpts from his writings regarding the 60s and 70s and then Jeffrey Lewis did some brilliant writing on the 80s and 90s.
As a bit of a graphics geek, I’m really happy with the way the package has turned out. Each song is listed in a period specific font and each of the decades will be represented by popular artwork from that decade. We’ve got classic pinups from Charles Dana Gibson and John Held, cartoons like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo, the first issue of MAD and a brilliant National Lampoon cover, along with illustrations from Art Spiegelman and Daniel Clowes who drew Maus and Ghostworld. I think it’s really cool and the package looks great thanks to a fan of mine, John Hubbard, who did a really good job on it.
Up until the sixties, it’s strictly American popular music but in 1965 you have your version of ‘Concrete And Clay’ from the UK and from then on you include a fair number of songs from this side of the pond.
The collection is essentially a repository of 20th century American popular music but in the sixties American and UK pop kind of blended together. The sixties are just one of the most amazing and astounding artefacts in the history of the human race and, I mean, how can 1967 not be represented by ‘Waterloo Sunset’?
There’s a huge variety of arrangements in the selections ranging from your solo rendition of 1941’s ‘Oh Look At Me Now’ to a variety of duo, trio and full band setups. I thought that on the earlier songs the arrangements are quite reverential but as time goes on you get more outrageous especially on your wigged vocals on Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.
On that last session, we only had seven days to record 30 songs and I was having problems with my voice. A doctor gave me a course of steroids which let me use my voice but I probably did go overboard on that one. Mark did have a fantastic band there, amazing musicians. It was down in Louisiana, Cajun country and the band were some of the best Cajun players about which was just as well as we didn’t have time to mess around and record over and over again so these were mainly first takes. First take best take might be a cliché but it’s often true
You explain your choices in the notes but I wanted to ask you specifically about one which really tickled my fancy. 1971 is represented by Middle Of The Road’s ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ which you transform into a Pete Seeger like end of the world lament. It’s one of the most audacious choices here.
Way back then, The Rounders had a gig in Massachusetts and I always liked to look at the jukebox and I saw this song, ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, and I had to put my quarter in. I thought it must be a cover of some Caribbean pop hit, at the time I had no idea it came from the UK. The weird thing is that when I heard the song I thought that they were singing, “Little baby boy” when it’s actually “Little baby bird” and so that’s what I sing, and I added another verse where he not only loses his mummy and daddy but everyone in the world disappears leaving him all alone. That’s OK because I have a history of mangling songs and it fits in with The Guardian newspaper who named it the all-time number one unintentionally creepy song because of its theme of child abandonment. Interestingly, there’s less than fifty songs which have sold over 10 million copies worldwide and ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ is one of them.
You also include a song by your buddy Michael Hurley, 1972’s ‘Eyes Eyes’.
I actually learned that song in our bed. Long before John and Yoko were doing it, Antonia and I used to hang out in bed and people would come over and climb into bed with us. No sex, just hanging out. One day Hurley came over and got into the bed with us and played us this song. It’s the only one on the collection that I learned from the writer himself.
The album comes out in January but I’ve heard that you have several other releases in the pipeline.
I’ve been recording a double album with Jeffrey Lewis and it should be ready soon but the third album by The Atomic Metapagans is on hold right now as Doc Gregory got kicked out of his studio and with lockdown we haven’t been able to get together. As for older stuff, there’s a cassette recording by The Dysfunctionells ready to go and my record label, Don Giovanni, have got the rights back to some of the ESP recordings so we’re going to be issuing some vintage Holy Modal Rounders including ‘Live in 65′ – a very long story behind that one – and ‘Indian War Whoop’. There might also be some Unholy Modal Rounders recordings coming out. I’ve also just go an old reel to reel recording I made in 1956 singing a parody of ‘Rock Island Line’. My first recording and even back then I had a fake hillbilly voice.
‘Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In One Hundred Songs’ will be released on January 22nd.