The Home Key #1

An Interview with Peter Stampfel


Rick Moody

If you had a genuine folk music streak, a streak in which you loved, for example, the music produced in the early 1960s folk revival in Greenwich Village, you heard, and likely admired, the Holy Modal Rounders. They were a couple of freaks with good educations in the old music, who sounded more antique than they were, and also further out, and who were also funny, and, later, fully fledged in the department of psychedelics. The Rounders, like a lot of great music from the period, burned most bright for a short time, after which Peter Stampfel, half the team, went on to do dozens of other things, applications of his talent, made what might conventionally be called rock and roll with other parties, and folk rock or folk-inflected things, and later made indie rock with the Bottle Caps, worked in book publishing, played live with everyone who was anyone in New York music. My particular infatuation with this particular by-way of folk history dated to my folk reawakening on the occasion of the re-release of the Anthology of American Music, on compact disc, in 1997. That revelation sent me back to the early folk revival, which was about trying to reach back to the earliest recordings, Dock Boggs, Skip James, etc., but which included learning about, and loving Stampfel’s original work, especially the earliest recordings of the Holy Modal Rounders, their first blushes. When I began writing about music, ten years later, I conceived of a wish to interview Stampfel, which has endured since. The reason for the interview at last coming about is the release of Stampel’s conceptually arresting, beautiful, funny, powerful new album entitled, Peter Stampfel’s Twentieth Century (Louisiana Red Hot Records), a compendium of covers of songs, one for each year, from 1901 to 2000. (An easy place to find the album is on Bandcamp, thus: Astute listeners will quickly surmise that the earliest songs on the album, the pre-WWI songs, are not the implausible ones, owing to Stampfel’s long-standing historical and curatorial smarts. Instead the ones from 1990 on are somewhat implausible, for an artist of this artist’s vintage (he’s been playing music professionally for sixty years), but they’re here,too, those songs from the nineties, including, you know, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Loser,” “Tubthumping.” There are also, naturally, songs from the fifties and sixties, the period of his youth, and from every other decade, the well known and the barely known. It’s a great celebration, this album, an act of love and creative curiosity, and also a huge and complicated project to mount, about which you shall soon hear. I interviewed Stampfel on the phone in January 2021, and notwithstanding all the reports that he is a hilarious, garrulous, exceedingly enthusiastic human, who can speak on any topic with great verve (all true), I was really nervous, because it’s so rare one gets to talk to a true legend, one who has worked with everyone, one who sang with Karen Dalton and Bob Dylan. The instrument known as Peter Stampfel’s voice, for reasons to be discussed, was all but silent, what was left somewhat agonized even, but the wit and wisdom were entirely intact, no matter the agony. In fact, on top of everything else, Peter Stampfel is a shining example of a human still excited and curious about the world in his ninth decade, in a way that one cannot help but admire him thoroughly. I was right to be nervous, see, in every way he is a legend.

Rick Moody: Peter, first I’m wondering how you’re doing in the whole pandemic thing, how you’ve been getting through.

Peter Stempfel: I’ve learned how to cook.

RM: (laughs)

PS: My daughter Lily gave us a free subscription to Green Chef; they give you the food and how to do it and we tried it for three days. They give you three meals for two all for 85 bucks. The first one is free and we decided to subscribe. I’ve never really learned how to cook before and it means cheaper food and reasonable portions. We chose Paleo, which simply means no starch, no grains, and leafy vegetables, which is perfect. So, lots of meat. I’ve written about five songs and have been practicing on a regular basis, working shit out. I’m working on about 35 songs right now with the idea of doing videos of them and polishing them. I finished the 100 songs and, right now, my record label, Don Giovanni (not the other song label but my regular one) is doing a double vinyl set of my two ESP albums: Indian War Whoop and Live in 1965, which they gave us back the rights to. I’m writing extensive notes about my relationship with Weber,1 basically. It was my obit I wrote for Perfect Sound Forever.2
You know that site?

RM: Yeah. Sure, yeah.

PS: I wrote one for Sam [Shepard] and one for Weber; they’re both there and I’m very proud of them both because my genius editor wife edited me line by line and gave me results at least twice as good as they were before they were edited.

RM: I was going to ask you about the notes for The Hundred Songs because they’re so great and, in some ways, I feel like the notes are an essential part of the product.

PS: Absolutely.

RM: Was the writing happening while you were compiling the songs?

PS: I’d written a couple of blurbs early on but I didn’t really start until last year, actually, doing them. I put it off until, you know, I knew it was actually happening and I’ve used, basically every year, Wikipedia and a little help from the Lincoln Center Music Library. I wrote 14,000 words in a booklet in the package and I wrote an overview of the twentieth century which is going to be online only. That was really fun to do and I found out a lot of stuff I didn’t know in the process of figuring it out and, because of my knowledge falling off in the ‘80s and '90s, I asked Jeffrey Lewis to write about the '80s and '90s. I was able to have a pretty good picture of the twentieth century, which I feel pretty good about.

RM: I was sort of thinking that, conceptually, the album seems like a companion piece to The Anthology of American Folk Music, like a sort of post-modern version of The Anthology of American Folk Music and I was wondering what that anthology meant to you in the '60s. I think you knew Harry Smith, right?

PS: Yeah, he produced the first Fugs record.

RM: What was your reaction to the anthology when you first encountered it?

PS: One of the most profoundly life-changing experiences of my entire life. Jeffrey Lewis, who wrote about the '80s and '90s for this album describes his songwriting career as being basically pre-Daniel Johnston and post-Daniel Johnston. I consider my music career to be basically pre and post-Smith. I recently realized that the impact of the anthology was very similar to the impact of hallucinogens on me. Coincidentally, I experienced both within weeks of each other in 1959 and, in both cases, they made me both aware that the universe was more vast and strange than I had realized. Are you familiar with Allen Lowe’s From Minstrel to Mojo? 3

RM: Alas, no.

PS: This was a seven CD set with text from about twenty years ago or something like that; it goes from 1890s to about early-mid '50s: only, he includes popular music, blues, country, all categories. His take is omnivorous and his most recent work, which I just got, is called Turn Me Loose, White Man ( This is his liner notes: it’s a thirty CD set and that’s only volume one, basically about black influence on American music and the liner notes are a 350-page fucking book! And he also just did a streaming only with amazing online graphics, which is basically a hundred-track early world music compilation, again taking all these works (mine and Lowe’s), which are expansions on the basic theme. Did you ever see The Secret Museum of Mankind series? That was actually a world music compilation done by…Oh, Lordy, how can I be blocking his name? Hell, hell, hell. I’ve known this guy for years and years; my brain farted out. I’m sure I’ll think of it. Anyway, I’m basically following a path along with a number of others who are doing the same thing in various overlapping ways, a part of the zeitgeist. It’s definitely that sort of a deal going on.

RM: Did you think about recording these old songs, the first couple decades’ worth on the anthology, at any earlier point or has the real genesis of it been recently? Did you think, for example, about recording these songs in the ‘70s?

PS: One of them, my ideal, was played by the Holy Modal Rounders in the mid '70s and another Great American Songbook song—"Across the Alamo" on Alleged in Their Own Time— I recorded in 1972. I’ve always wanted to get my hand in The Great American Songbook. I mean, I heard this stuff since I was a kid, a child. You know, like a toddler. You know the basic 1950 “Thousand Song” fake books? I got ahold of them in 1970 and went through them with my ex-old lady and collaborator, Antonia and, basically, looked at all the songs we used to like when we were kids and we thought our taste was impeccable. This was in 2002.

RM: You started doing it in 2002? So, this was eighteen years, almost nineteen years.

PS: That’s right. Mark Bingham (producer, -ed.) has been in New Orleans and I’ve been up here so there was a logistical barrier and we had to pay for the whole thing ourselves. With the time and the expenses, between the two of us we’re about $35,000 into it. But, you know, I’ve had a lot of traveling and per diems and he had to go through four or five tranfers from obsolete recording systems.

RM: Were the recent sessions all digital? Did you have any fetishistic ideas about whether you should do it on tape or any of that stuff?

PS: Recent is all digital; some of the early ones might have been on tape but I don’t remember. Mark did all the heavy lifting: producing, recording, arranging. There’s much I don’t remember or else I’m simply not paying attention.

RM: I’m interested about tracks where your love for them is perhaps, sort of, non-musical or extra-musical in the sense that maybe there are biographical stories orbiting around that particular song that doesn’t have to do with “Oh, that has great passing chords” or “This is a beautiful melody.” So, why would you include a song like “Take Me out to the Ballgame”?

PS: I thought that I was going to have a really hard time picking songs from that decade—the first decade of the century—because my basic take was that the songs were more prosaic than what started to happen in the teens. Actually, I found out that I really love the songs from the period and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame … The fact that it had this great A part that nobody knows, well not that nobody knows, but is pretty unknown really opens up the song. It’s just a good damn song.

RM: What team did you root for as a kid?

PS: The Milwaukee Brewers when they were in the American Association. I’m from Wisconsin and I got hardwired into it, you know. When the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee, I was of course a big fan there and I renounced sports when I discovered bohemia at the age of seventeen. I was a lower middle-class kid and didn’t know bohemia and I was going to be the first kid in the family to go to college and went to the University of Milwaukee where I found bohemia and folk music. That was a game changer of my mythology, basically.

Anyway, so I renounced sports and actually won a ticket to a World Series game between Milwaukee and the Yankees but I no longer gave a damn about sports. People told me I could get fifty dollars for that ticket! I gave that ticket to my kid brother, who was twelve. It was one of the best things I did. I thought "I will never, in my life, possibly ever, be able to give something that means so fucking much to them as a World Series ticket.” So, I renounced sports. I do follow Wisconsin teams still. I’m not hardcore but I do, you know, pay attention and I hope the Brewers win and the Packers win. It’s better to give a shit about something than to not give a shit about something.

RM: One of the stand-out tracks, at least from my point of view, because it’s emotionally complex, is “Moon River.” It’s one of the most beautiful renderings of “Moon River” I can think of.

PS: Well, thank you. Thank you so much.

RM: A song that is often over-emoted but, in this case, it’s so beautiful. I was wondering if you had stories about that song and encountering that song for the first time.

PS: Of course I heard it in 1961 when it came out; it was ubiquitous. As I say in the notes, Audrey Hepburn actually played it on guitar and sang it. One of the execs didn’t want it in the movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), which is pretty jaw-dropping. It’s just such a great fucking song! Originally, Mark Bingham recorded a really bizarro electronic noisy version and I said “I’m sorry but I really hate it. I want to do it straight.” I feel that irony has its place in some cases but here it’s definitely uncalled for.

RM: Were there songs that you were intimidated about trying to do? I was thinking about “Tangled Up in Blue” and how the original rendering has so much influence that it could be daunting.

PS: I would give myself a grade of B-, C+, actually, on that one. I fought the song and the song won (laughs). A close friend of mine says that he thought it was basically a real fail. I get a basic, barely passing grade as far as I’m concerned. The other daunting songs were “Girls Talk” and “Stepping Out.” I didn’t know if I could pull them out and they’re both recorded along with “Tangled Up in Blue” in my fucked up voice, dysphonia period. There were in the back of the last thirty songs recorded in October. I’ve got dysphonia and I’ve seen several doctors. I’m working with a voice therapist to deal with it. My voice is definitely not what it used to be before being stricken; I’ve actually been working on “Girls Talk” on a regular basis since, oh Hell, since recording it last October … October before last. Finally, it took me a half a year to be able to play it without having to look at the chords and the words but I finally did. I’m going to post it on my Facebook wall. My daughter recorded me recording some songs I did and I can’t manage to get the fucking videos from my desktop to the Facebook wall. I’m basically going to ask for technical assistance and go on FaceTime with somebody who knows more than I do about the subject. I’m very proud of myself to be able to fucking perform “Girls Talk” by heart and I’m glad I was able to pull off “Stepping Out.” Those are the three really challenging ones and, in all three cases, they were all just like song of the year to me, you know.

RM: I really like “Girls Talk,” too. It’s funny; it’s really a great song, deep, complex.

PS: It’s amazing. I didn’t realize Elvis Costello wrote it and that Dave Edmunds rearranged it and changed the words and the opening and the bridge are in a different key—that’s all Dave Edmunds. He made the song twice as good as the Elvis Costello version.

RM: I feel like the Elvis version is more mean-spirited than the Dave Edmunds version. There’s a complicated joyous quality to Edmunds.

PS: Yeah. I remain awe-struck by that song. It’s just so fucking brilliant on so many levels.

RM: I was going to ask you about the sort of punk rock section of the album, which I believe qualifies as: really punky. I think the “Girls Talk” recording sort of punkifies the original a little bit, but more salient as regards this point is “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” which I think is really great. It’s sort of more punky than the original, which we would think of as somewhat canonical in the punk rock way. I was wondering what your feelings about punk in general were, if you had an ideological position about it while it was happening.

PS: Oh, yeah. Have you seen Jeffrey Lewis’s The History of Punk Rock on the Lower East Side?

RM: I haven’t seen it.

PS: Oh, boy. Where to start… I went to a birthday party at the Bowery Poetry Club for Ed Sanders and a lot of people were playing music and these two kids got up on the stage and they’re both in their twenties and one said “I wrote a piece that’s called The History of Punk Rock from the Lower East Side from 1950 to 1975” and I thought “This is gonna be good! Okay, kid: let’s hear it!” It started with The Fugs. They knew nothing about music, they had a bad attitude and they just wrote sixty songs, you know. That was the punk aesthetic. Jeffrey starts in 1970 and Harry Smith comes to the Lower East Side and he plays a little snippet from the Anthology, he goes to the Holy Modal Rounders and plays a little snippet from Euphoria and then he goes to The Fugs. I thought “Shit! Smith and us (proto punk before The Fugs)!” 1: It was very flattering and, 2: I could see where it made a kind of sense.

Anyway, he name checks every proto-punk band and plays a little snippet from each one. It takes twelve minutes and ends up in 1975 and the Ramones get to London and everyone thinks punk rock is suddenly invented. Point being (there’s a chorus entry backstory here): it was a job I never could have done myself. I went up to Jeffrey Lewis and didn’t want to gush but it was fucking amazing! And, um, long story short, he’s the best collaborator I ever worked with.We made two albums and recorded a double album which is coming out soon. And of course I asked him to write about the '80s and '90s, for the 100 songs, which he does from a young person’s standpoint, of course. (He was in his teens and '20s then). I think he captures that period with a freshness of which I was incapable and this showed me how in sync we are. In his writing he talks about Daniel Clowes. He says that Eightball is the greatest comic book that ever existed.

Okay, so anyway: about punk rock. My take was that it was A: it was a reaction to wake up the hair bands, you know, arena rock thing going on and it was harkening back to 1957, basically. There was a degree of simplicity. 1957 with potty mouths, basically. In 1957, you couldn’t even say “hell” on a record or in a comic strip. So, I basically understood and sympathized with punk but I didn’t really care for that much of it, you know, screaming the lyrics was very teenage, early twenties and I wasn’t an angry teenager in 1975. Of course, punk has legs. It’s turned into a permanent genre. Rock and roll has pretty much taken over the world. I heard Bob Dylan say that it came to an end in the early '60s, but I consider rock and roll to be electric guitars and electric basses, you know. The whole template of guitar-based drums has taken over the whole fucking planet! Rock and roll will never die. I think that metal probably has more subgenres than punk but punk is probably a close second. Curiously, many aging punk rockers get into country music.

RM: Yeah, that’s true.

PS: Punk’s roots are in rock and roll.

RM: I’m sort of one of those people because I’m in my late fifties and I was sort of a late punk in the late'70s and now I’m the kind of person who likes the Holy Modal Rounders.

PS: (laughs)

RM: I’m really interested in the last song on the collection because it’s a very hard song to like but I’m really interested that it’s on here and really interested in your version of it. Can you talk about that song “Yellow” by Coldplay a little bit?

PS: I was aware of Coldplay before I actually heard them. All I knew was that they were suddenly a very popular, good band. When I first heard “Yellow” I didn’t know it was Coldplay and I thought “This is a really, really beautiful song and it’s a really, really beautiful arrangement.” It’s incredibly heart-on-sleeve, which is something I admire greatly. I’m an old fogey on many levels, an old corn ball. I appreciate straight-forward, non-cloying sentimentality, you know. I was knocked out by the song; I thought it was a masterpiece. My daughter said recently “You’re not going to use that song, are you?,” but then, years later, she said it was okay that I did that song. Do you not like that song?

RM: I like your version better than Coldplay.

PS: Well, thank you. I felt that their version had a lot of heart for a contemporary pop song but, if you think I did a better job, I will happily accept that. Thank you very much.

RM: I’m wondering if the album, to you, looks like career retrospection at all. You’re in your eighties, right?

PS: Eighty-two, yeah.

RM: Is it a record that a person releases in their eighties that sort of looks back on stuff? Does it have that retrospective cast?

PS: When I got the idea eighteen years ago I was still in my sixties and, one thing I wanted to do was, like I say in the notes, was force myself to learn these period structures, eventually being able to replicate them which I can’t really do yet. I would love to do a Great American Songbook-style song that could hold its head up with the good ones from the period. I can’t do that yet but I want to. More immediately, I want to be able to write songs in the early '60s rhythm and blues style. It’s the golden period time for me: 1960-65 about: “Doing the Things you Do,” “Smoky Places,” “What Kind of Fool Do you Think I Am?,” “Mama Didn’t Lie.” I wanted to teach myself how to be able to do something like that and, on the other hand, I wanted to have something to show to young people, to basically give them a pocket-size crash course in twentieth century Anglo-American music which, as I said, is one of the most amazing fucking accomplishments of humanity. What would be the most magnificent cultural things that have ever happened? Gothic cathedrals, man.

RM: (laughs)

PS: Absolutely on the same level, actually, superior. Also, the fact that The Great American Songbook couldn’t have happened without black music and Jews. Could not have happened. It was like a black/Jewish subversive plot on one level. It just fucking happened. There was no conscious planning involved in this; it just was a function of the fucking United States of America that happened. I am really deeply in love with the subject.

RM: Is it okay to ask a little about your voice injury?

PS: Dysphonia, a general term, is caused by 1: genetics, 2: aging, 3: prolonged mis- or overuse of the voice or a combination of all three. On one hand, it’s supposed to be incurable and irreversible. On the other hand, I have a voice coach which I located through a friend who, curiously, is also from the south side of Milwaukee, from the suburbs south of Milwaukee called Greendale where we have some family friends. She went to Marquette University, the capital university of Milwaukee, majoring in voice and is a jazz singer and is teaching me to work with a microphone and an amp and, using that approach, I can basically sing in a way that works as well as all sorts of various things that she’s told me about, like … holding notes.

I’ve never really held notes for that long; I only hold the vowels longer. “Wow! Goddamn!” Basically, we have weekly sessions and my voice has absolutely improved since I started working with her. What I’ll end up with is a different tool that could do things that I couldn’t do before because I didn’t know about it. I’m optimistic about the future of my singing. Knock wood. Knock, knock, knock.

Addendum (by Peter Stampfel)

actually, 1st peyote experience predates meeting weber by 4 years and 7 months. hooboy! pick dem nits!

says notes in booklet was 14K words. actually notes were 40K, liner notes, the bulk, in the enclosed booklet, and the 20th century overview online only. both will be online and interactive, but I don’t think they’re up yet. I said 40 but it sounded like 14.

re minstrel to mojo, I misspoke-9 CDs, not 7

the streaming-only 100 early global music tracks Id not Lowe, but dust to digital. the package is called excavated shellac, and it’s beyond amazing. highest recommendation!

the secret museum of mankind is a multi-CD release by pat conte. I think the 1st global music smith anthology equivalent. dint remember pat’s name when we talked.

the (1930) song, My Ideal, should be in caps.

university of wisconsin-milwaukee. UWM

Jeffrey Lewis starts his punk rock history in 1950, not 1970.

the “anyway he name-checks every post-punk” paragraph, further down it should say there’s a quarter-century back story (to punk rock).

not “course entry”. hee hee

after I heard him do it (his punk rock history) you say I went up to him and dint wanna gush, but I did! I did a fully intentional fanboy gush, just like I did to Dylan when I 1st heard him in 1961. my 1st fanboy gush was to the guy who was the weird instrument wrangler for spike jones (all time hero) when wrangler guy was running a music store in LA in 1958. I’m an unabashed forever fanboy. my latest fanboy gush was to Natalie Ribbons of tele novella, although it was online and not face to face.

shows how in synch (Jeffrey) and I are—while he was writing that (clowes) 8 ball comics was the best comic book in history, unbeknownst to him I was asking clowes if I could use some of his art for vol. 5 of the 100, which was where J was making that mention. we even collaborate unconsciously.

I meant to say many aging punkers get into roots music, not just country.

examples of early 60s R & B-“the way you do the things you do”.