Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

By Jim Testa

At 82, freak folk legend Peter Stampfel remains one of the hardest working people in rock ‘n’ roll. He’s released over a dozen albums since his Seventieth birthday, with plenty more in the works. But first and foremost, there’s Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In 100 Songs, a magnum opus 20 years in the making. Working with New Orleans producer Mark Bingham, Stampfel recorded 100 songs, one from each year of the century in chronological order, from silly novelty tunes to timeless standards to pop hits like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and Chumbawumba’s “Tub Thumping.”

A few years ago, Stampfel was stricken with dysphonia, a disease that attacks the vocal cords and makes it nearly impossible to speak. The man whose insane cackle and yowl first caught America’s attention with the Holy Modal Rounders in the Sixties had to learn how to sing again. We caught up with him, sequestered in his Soho apartment with wife Betsy, weathering the COVID epidemic like the rest of us.

Q: Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century In 100 Songs is something that you've been working on for literally decades, could you just talk a little bit about how this all came to be?

Peter Stampfel: It was an, um… inspired idea? An idea I had 20 years ago by the way, which is irrelevant for many reasons. I began it with (producer) Mark Bingham, and when we started I was recording with him in New Orleans. One of the reasons it’s taken so long is because of the distance between us, I’m here in New York City. But we basically soldiered on, we got together when we could but we were separated for years, mostly because of money, basically. Then two years ago, we were going to make a push and finish it, but I ain’t gonna lie, I lost my voice. The condition is called dysphonia and it’s caused by genetics and age, and many years of abusing your voice. Anyway, that's basically it.

Q: It would appear, from several of the choices you made, that you have a weakness for novelty songs. Or do you do not believe in the concept of novelty songs?

PS: In the overview I wrote, I go into the derivation of every song. It’s not that I like novelty songs as a blanket thing. There are many that I would be happy never to hear again, or never to have heard at all. Like anything else, there’s good ones and bad ones. But I like goofy shit, goofy is a category that I, you know, find one of the most admirable characteristics of humanity and human endeavor. Goofiness has been one of mankind’s survival traits, it’s how humanity has kept its spirits up.

Q: I noticed that you included a couple of your own songs on this collection? Is that cheating? Or do you honestly think those were the best songs that came out that you those years?

PS: They're not the best songs. The whole thing isn’t meant to be the best songs of any particular year. A couple actually may be possibly the best by those songwriters, but they’re not meant to be the best songs of that year. They are my favorites. And they had to be songs that I was able to pull off fairly well. They’re all songs I really like, and they’re all really good songs. I don’t think there are any bad choices. .

Q: When I first heard all 100 songs, I was surprised that I knew so many from the first several decades of the century. I suspect that’s because growing in the Fifties and Sixties, I was exposed to so much of that music, a lot of those artists were still alive and playing those songs on television, and a lot of TV back then was simply old movies. Today, I think kids get less exposure to singers from other generations, because popular culture is so involved with what’s going on that minute, right now.

PS: On the other hand, young people have access to old music on a scale that’s unprecedented in history. I have a good friend that I asked once about what new music he liked, and he said that he didn’t listen to new music at all because there was so much old music he hadn’t heard yet. I can understand that. I went and got Spotify finally, and my first issue was that I had these huge gaps in my knowledge. Like, I was aware of Peter Frampton and Mongo Santamaria from 50 years ago, so I had a clue when I was picking songs from those eras. But I had huge gaps when it came to the Eighties and Nineties. I blundered into this list of indie bands on Spotify, it was like a grab bag, basically. And there's a lot of interesting stuff I was unfamiliar with, so I started writing down the ones I wanted to hear more of, and I was down that rabbit hole for quite a while.

I can only do this basically when I'm cooking. My problem is my wife doesn't want to hear what I want to hear. So basically, I've been unable to play music for the last several decades to a large degree. Anyway, well, to generalize about indie music, in the last 10, 20 years, I hear lots of really great vocal backups, vocal harmonies. Almost everything reminds me a little bit of late period Beach Boys and/or Fleetwood Mac, a lot of groups sound really similar to each other to a great degree. But the songs don’t impress me as much.

I’ll give you an example, a band I found that I really like is Yeasayer, so I started listening to their albums. And basically they’re good but I didn’t find much variation between between songs. Another artist I ran into on the indie list was St. Vincent, who, I don't know what you’d call her proper category, but long story short, she has a brilliant melodic sense. Oddly, a lot of the indie groups are just geniuses at harmonies, but there aren’t that many killer melodies. As opposed to St. Vincent, which is chock full of killer melodies. Also, she has great variation between a wide variety of structures, as opposed to most indie groups. But I do like exploring music, especially more recent music.

Q: Let me go back to your 20th Century project again. What is your ultimate hope for this project?

PS: Basically I’d like people to get a bare bones idea of what happened to popular music in the 20th Century. So it was an educational thing. I wanted to impress younger people with how much better melodies used to be. Melodies are one of the weakest characteristics in contemporary music as opposed to, you know, the Great American Songbook and early rock and roll. Basically it’s a brief history lesson, which I feel it’s a good thing for people that are into music to know.

Q: I have quite a few younger friends who are interested in the history of popular music, I think this will be a fascinating voyage for them. I really enjoyed it. Especially the oldest stuff, the very earliest 20th century songs. There were a couple there that were floating around, in the farthest reaches of my mind, from wherever I first heard them, and I thought, Oh, yeah, this is a really cool song. It's good to hear it again.

PS: Antonia and I discovered these 1,000 fakebooks in the 1970’s that had transcriptions of lots of old songs, and we, of course, looked up all the songs we'd liked as kids. In every case, we still liked them. And in every case, they were really great tunes and chords. Maybe we were just born with good taste. (laughs)

Q: How have you been doing with the COVID lockdown these last ten months? Have you been keeping yourself busy?

PS: I just finished the liner notes for 20th Century and sent him off I think in late July or August, so there was that. Also, Don Giovanni Records got the rights back from ESP to (the Holy Modal Rounders’) Indian War Whoop and Live In ’65, and they’re going to put it out as a double vinyl release. And I wrote a long piece about me and (Steve) Weber. Honestly, it’s excerpts from my memoir, along with my obit. They’re all going to be included with the album.

I’m also working on about 35 songs now. I’ve written five songs during the lockdown. And I’m working with a vocal therapist as well. It’s made for huge improvements in my singing, thank God. The condition is supposed to be incurable basically. But there are a lot of work-arounds. There's a lot of cheats you can do. I'm going to have to basically learn to use a microphone more effectively.

Q: The last time we spoke was back in April, 2020, when Don Giovanni released the Peter Stampfel & The Bottlecaps Demo ‘84, and at that time, you said that you and Jeffrey Lewis had another record in the can that would be coming out soon. Do you know when we’ll be hearing that?

PS: That’s a double album too. We're talking about having streaming be the cheapest way of doing it. But it’s all finished. We just need to write the liner notes. There’s also the album I made with Walker Shepard (Sam Shepard's son) and Eli Smith as The Wildernauts. I needs to put vocals on some of the songs, but of course the process of recording has been forbidding during COVID. And there's also another Meta Pagans album that needs a couple more tracks as well.

There's also going to be a Unholy Modal Rounders album, quite possibly a double album, taken from our last show at the Bottom Line. We were only a band for not much over two years duration but we probably had dozens of really good songs. And I'll be really glad to have people finally hear it. That one’s for me, basically. It will be great to have that out there.

I’m also trying how to get the liner notes for Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century online to be interactive. We’re figuring out the logistics for that. Basically the idea is for the overview and the song notes to be a historical geek hangout, and have people come and leave comments and have discussions about the songs.

Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century is available as a 5-CD box set and digital download at Louisiana Red Hot Records and is also available on all streaming platforms.

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