Talking with Peter Stampfel can be a dizzying experience. In the course of a 30-minute phone conversation, he delivers a crash course in the history of string-band music, live radio in the '30s and '40s, and Filk music (a subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy-related folk music), and waxes eloquent on the unique brilliance of his friend and fellow musician Michael Hurley. And those are just his digressions.
This erudition and enthusiasm flows naturally from Stampfel, who has been writing and performing music for more than 50 years. He's well-versed in pop, show tunes, blues, country and, especially, folk music. He's currently in the process of recording a song from each year of the 20th century.
"I can nail everything up to around 1980 or so, then it gets more difficult," he says. "I don't want it coming off like this old man doing younger people's music. But there are a lot of good songs from those years. I thought I didn't like that song ‘I Will Survive,' but I've been playing it and realized it's a good song."
Stampfel lived in the East Village in New York and was active in the early '60s folk boom. He formed the Holy Modal Rounders with Steve Weber, and the duo recorded two LPs in 1963 and '64, primarily made up of unorthodox and funny takes on folk standards. The Rounders were speed freaks, hell-raisers, and wise-asses, generally looked down on or ignored by the standard-bearers of what John Fahey disparagingly called the "volk movement." Stampfel and Weber went on to play on a few albums with dadaist satire band the Fugs before recording a pair of bewildering, chaotic folk-rock records (Indian War Whoop and The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, with a band that included playwright/actor Sam Shepard) that have since been recognized as psychedelic classics. Then followed four decades of intermittent performances and albums, pleasant enough, but none of which quite matched the exuberance and inventiveness of the '60s work, save perhaps 1976's Weber-less Have Moicy!
A documentary on the Rounders, Bound to Lose, was released in 2006, and served as both a history of the band and an occasionally uncomfortable look at Stampfel and Weber's tempestuous relationship.
"My first reaction was an occasional cringe," Stampfel says of the film. "There are some embarrassing moments, like when I lose my temper with Weber. But on the other hand I like the idea of being a jerk in public. It offers a more well-rounded version of who I am that's not so stage-managed."
Today, Stampfel lives in Manhattan, holding down a day job as a reader for DAW Books, the science-fiction/fantasy imprint published by his wife, Elizabeth Wollheim, whose father launched the company in 1971. Though he'll probably always be best known for his work with the Rounders, he has continued to perform and record with an array of musicians, most notably with the bands the Du-Tells and Bottlecaps. When we spoke, he had just returned from Portland, Ore., where he had recorded an album with elderly steel guitarist/sea shanty-throat singing folky Baby Gramps. (Check him out on YouTube).
Stampfel seems to know more about folk and popular music than most scholars, and is always happy to upend prevailing myths and narratives of American music history. Last year, he contributed an intriguing essay to the web zine Perfect Sound Forever, dissecting the freak-folk scene of the last decade or so, tracing its debt to outsider folk musicians such as the Rounders and Hurley, and delineating an even more atavistic connection to the "old, weird America" found in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. He was surprised, though, by the openness and abilities of younger folk-informed musicians, contrasted with the austere attitude of most '60s-era folkies.
"There are tons of young people who play well and are willing to take more chances and do weird stuff," he says. "Folk musicians in the '60s were a stuffy lot. The general feeling was that this was something serious and respectable, and it annoyed the hell out of me, that sanctimonious attitude"
He has a regular gig in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where he plays with musicians much younger than himself, and recently he began performing with his 23-year-old daughter, Zoe, who accompanies him on drums.
"They Might Be Giants wanted me to open for them, and I asked Zoe along to keep me company on the drive," Stampfel says. "We hadn't planned on it, but we started working on songs, worked some out for the show and people loved it. And for me, playing with Zoe has been beyond fun, incredibly satisfying. Words can't describe how great it is on so many levels."