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Most quotes in what follows are from a gigantic interview I did a few years ago with Peter Stampfel in Bixobal #3. Good luck finding a copy! Apologies to Peter Stampfel for having taken so long to get around to this, but (…excuse, excuse, excuse).
The Anthology of American Folk Music, painstakingly curated by occultist/ filmmaker/ painter/ oddball Harry Smith and released in 1952, had one of the most arrogant-cum-prescient covers ever designed, showing a hand reaching from the heavens to tune a musical instrument. This instrument, those in the know will tell you, is actually the Grand Octave, a concept from the Qabbalah that speaks of levels of reality and spiritual development; the suggestion seemed to be that the anthology – a survey of folk, bluegrass, Cajun reels, transplanted Old World ballads, and proto-country-and-blues, lovingly sourced from forgotten old 78’s – would have a world-altering impact on the world of popular music, which, in fact, it did, presaging an unprecedented explosion of folk music out of New York, spawning both mini-stars (Dave van Ronk, Phil Ochs) and mega- (Dylan), and bringing to the attention of the world several old bluesmen and folk artists who had been completely forgotten, who, in some cases, like Mississippi John Hurt, would experience far greater fame (and record a great deal more) after their rediscovery than before. Of the music set in motion by Smith’s octave-tweaking, few bands got it more right than the Holy Modal Rounders.
Rounders co-founder Peter Stampfel says of Harry Smith, now, “I revered the man. I thought that Harry Smith was absolutely one of the great geniuses of the 20th century. Hearing the Anthology and looking at that booklet, with the grand monochord of the fucking universe on it, y’know? – I mean, the guy really called to me, like, amazingly.” Stampfel’s not sure where he met Smith, but he thinks it was in 1964 or 1965. “There were a bunch of people somewhere on the Lower East Side, I don’t remember where, and (adopts a voice): ‘Do you know that that’s Harry Smith over there?’ ‘You mean him? Oh my God!” It wasn’t a good “Oh my God,” either, Stampfel notes. “It was like – ‘Who’s that creeped out guy dressed like a bum with dishevelled hair who is, like, drunk and obnoxious?’ I was expecting this Godlike figure. But, y’know, appearances, and blah-blah…” Stampfel worked with Smith on one album, during the time when the Holy Modal Rounders were incorporated into the better-remembered freak-folk act The Fugs, but didn’t stay in touch thereafter. “Besides my disillusionment,” he explains, there was “the fact that he was kind of usually, like, drunk and loud… People would be worried about his collection of films and stuff like that, because he was careless with his smoking, so this one guy offered to take all his stuff and store it in this nice safe place, and a week later, it burned down. He was kind of like that – there’s a cartoon strip called Li’l Abner, and there’s a character called Joe Btfsplk, who always has a storm cloud above his head, and wherever he would go, catastrophe ensued, and Harry Smith was a bit like that. Although miracles ensued as well.”
The Rounders fused a genuine reverence for oldtimey with an irreverent, drug-soaked approach to music, performance, and life. While most of their early recordings are at least based on traditionals, they felt free to improvise their own lyrics, inserting a reference to psychedelics, for instance, in their 1964 version of “Hesitation Blues” (it’s now regarded as the first-ever use of the term “psychedelic” in a pop song). They also wrote some of the great drug songs of the time (including but not limited to “Euphoria” and “If You Want To Be a Bird,” with lyrics by Antonia Stampfel, the then-partner of co-founder Peter Stampfel; the latter song appeared on the Easy Rider soundtrack and is perhaps their greatest claim to fame, along with their brief incorporation of playwright-turned-actor Sam Shepard as drummer, during their more rock-oriented period in the late 1960s/ early 70’s). The Rounders also completely lacked the in-your-face earnestness of the “protest music” side of folk. “I really had a thing about the seriousness of folk music,” Stampfel says now. “It used to annoy the fuck out of me, y’know? And I mean, that’s one reason that the Rounders were goofy. I mean, with oldtimey – Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss-hair Pullers, these old ‘20’s groups —they were all fuckin’ goofy-ass, weird nutty shit, you know? I loved the weird nutty shit and I thought the weird nutty shit was more, like, the point of it than the serious meaningful ‘People’s Rhetoric’ approach.”
This included a “bad attitude” towards Phil Ochs, whom Stampfel met in 1963, when Stampfel, Ochs, and Tiny Tim all were playing (separately!) at the same NY coffee house. “I found a lot of Phil’s music kind of annoying, but when I met him – I’d just gotten gonorrhoea and he’d just gotten gonorrhoea and that was kind of like a bonding point, a little bit. I felt – ‘We both got the clap, he can’t be that bad!’ He wrote this one song which this group called Jim and Jean used to do: ‘When the river of rebellion overflows, I’ll be there!/ When the seed of discontent plants and grows, I’ll be there!’ I’m just – ‘Oh nooooo! Stop! Stop! Stop!’” (He also tells a tale about seeing Ochs perform his attack on racism, “Here’s To The State of Mississippi” – which instructs Mississippi to “go and find yourself another country to be part of” – at a live performance where black musician Mississippi Fred McDowell was glowering in the audience, mightily unimpressed to hear his home state being put down.)
Stampfel adds, however, “I’m really sorry about Phil, and like, if I had a do-over, I saw him on the street a couple of months before he died, and he said, ‘Oh, hi,’ and he obviously wanted to talk, and I was like (adopts cranky self-righteous tone), ‘I don’t want to talk to this guy – I don’t respect him musically!’ Which is a real asshole/jerk way to have been – I didn’t understand that the guy had been seriously depressed. And also, the last album that he made, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, where he started singing this country stuff was fucking great! If he’d have gone towards being a populist country singer, he would have, like, fulfilled his destiny, and achieved a wider success and been more on it artistically. If I could go back to that time when I last saw him, I would try to convince him of this. But… you can’t go home again.”
More of the Holy Modal Rounders backstory can be seen in the documentary, The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound To Lose, including some embarrassing, painful bickering between Stampfel and the other co-founder, Steve Weber, who departed from the band while the film was being made, and, to my knowledge, remains out of touch with Stampfel. In the meantime, let it hereby be known that Peter Stampfel, one of the few active members of the original NY folk boom, has released a new solo album, Dook Of The Beatniks – it’s actually been sitting on my “to get around to” pile for awhile, as life buffeted me this way and that, but is no doubt still available through www.pietystreet.com or via Stampfel’s Myspace page, www.myspace.com/peterstampfelmusic (If you contact Stampfel, there’s a chance you can buy a numbered, signed copy!).
The album’s a lot of fun. There are upbeat, Bottlecaps-y rock tunes (“Big Slop Buckets” – inspired by a William Burroughs quote! – and “Bamalamaramalamaloo,” inspired by a dream involving Little Richard). There are rockabillyish covers of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” – with a few updated lyrics from Stampfel. There’s a giddy foray into 1940’s pop exploitation of Native Americans, “Pass That Peacepipe” (Stampfel never really was all that politically correct – the Rounders also were known to do “When The Iceworms Nest Again,” a silly love song based on a mangling of Inuit culture). There’s a rockin’ original from 1969 by Sam Shepard, “Message to Omie.” And there’s also thirteen brand-new Stampfel tunes, one (“Oomalooma Messy Dessy”) co-written with daughter Zoe and four co-written with Antonia (“New Adam in the Garden,” “Black Leather Swamp Nazi,” “Bad Karma,” and the very strange “Laura the Horse,” about a young woman who finds fullfilment after undergoing a trans-species transmogrification). “Beware the Chupacabra” is a hilarious, Latin-styled, crytpozoological gem, written for the soundtrack of a movie that was (probably) never made; “Once Upon a Long Long Time Ago” twists a nostalgia-laced tour of lost Americana into an increasingly grim portrait of a past best left behind us, reminiscent of *Eugene Chadbourne*’s “Let’s Go Back in Time.” A few songs on the disc rank up there with the very best of the Rounders’ output – especially, for me, “Our Lady of Oklahoma,” a speedy, almost punky, Catholic-hued survey of the ills that have befallen America, offered as, as Stampfel explains in his downloadable liner notes, “a combination rant and prayer.” (“Our lady of Oklahoma/ Our lady of nameless dread/ our lady of carcinoma/ our lady of the living dead/ our lady of crack babies/ our lady of bad vibes/ our lady of bats with rabies/ our lady of the lost tribes/ pray for us, pray for us/ you’ll know what to say for us/ grab God’s ear and tell her hard/ ain’t no fun in our back yard.”). Also very funny is the title track, “Dook of the Beatniks,” which seems to make fun of Stampfel’s own old-timer’s pedigree while simultaneously mocking the very idea of “beatniks,” whose reality Stampfel questions. His fiddle at times has the same red-tinged evil glow that you can hear all over Indian War Whoop, and his voice – screechily inimitable and filled with humour – is in fine form throughout. For a man in his 70’s, Stampfel’s done a damn fine job of staying young and fresh.
Dook of the Beatniks may be a bit on the light side at times – almost something one could listen to with one’s children, assuming they’re weird & smart enough – but the disc is a treat no less, especially for people who want to connect with America’s musical history. Very few musicians remain active (Dylan, Ed Sanders) who were standing on the bridge between the past and the future when Harry Smith’s anthology was released: none of them are making albums as fun or energetic as this. Check it out.
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