Peter Stampfel Excavates a Century’s Worth of Music in 100 Covers

“I finally got on Spotify about a month or so ago,” says Peter Stampfel chatting from his New York City home. Jumping from St. Vincent to Regina Spektor, and whatever grabs his ear at the moment, at 82, the folk artist is constantly adding to his encyclopedic knowledge, and wonderment, of music. “My recent, two band faves are wussy and Tele Novela,” he says. “They (Tele Novela) have three albums out, and there is not a bad song on any of those. I’m really blown away.”

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Stampfel, who just released 20th Century (Louisiana Red Hot Records) a 100-song album, featuring a cover of one song from each year within the 20th century, beginning in 1901 with the Carrie Jacobs-Bond-penned “I Love You Truly” and closes on Coldplay’s “Yellow,” is an almanac of popular music throughout the century.

Conceptualizing the 100-track album just at the turn of the 21st century in 2001, and recording majority of the first half of the century at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios with producer Mark Bingham, the project took nearly 20 years to complete. Excavating music history is like a drug for Stampfel. 

“It’s been a life-long obsession,” says the singer and songwriter, known for his fiddle playing and co-founding ’60s-‘70s psych-folk band The Holy Modal Rounders with the late Steve Weber, a band formed just a few years after Stampfel jumped ship from his hometown Milwaukee to move to New York City in 1959 when he was just 21. 

More than 60 years deep into his career, Stampfel is still looking for more music.

Hands on for the 20th Century project, Stampfel wrote all 25,000-plus words of the album’s liner notes over the summer of 2020, and began packaging a re-release of a Holy Modal double album of the band’s Live in 65 and 1967 release Indian War Whoop, originally off cult label ESP-Disk. Voraciously writing, Stampfel recently penned an obituary for his Holy Modals partner Steve Weber, who died at 76 in February of 2020—and an earlier one for one-time Modals bandmate Sam Shepard, who passed away in 2017—in addition to liner notes for an upcoming re-releases of a double album he worked on with Jeffrey Lewis. 

Sifting through notes from the ’60s, and writings for Broadside magazine, also being worked into the Modal release, Stampfel jokes that most was written with a ball point pen, while smoking weed. Asked if the idea to release an album of 100 songs dating back to the turn of the century was a result of the “green stuff,” Stampfel laughs, “I think it was the weed.” 

Diagnosed with dysphonia in 2016, a condition which left him temporarily unable to speak, much less sing, Stampfel worked with a vocal coach to find a suitable lower register, and returned to finish 20th Century with Bingham in 2019.

The other delay in the project: the 1980s and ’90s. Perusing the ’10s, ’20s and earlier centenary decades with more ease, it was the more modern ones that left Stampfel stumped. When you get to the ’80s and ’90s, I have less awareness and there’s also the difficulty of ‘here’s this old guy doing younger person’s music,’ which tends to be various degrees of disaster—unless you’re Johnny Cash. Then the guy from ‘The New Yorker’ said that I don’t like music after punk. What the fuck.” 

“I wasn’t a big fan of punk when it was happening, but I can see it context,” he adds. “I understand its inevitability, and I like some of what was called punk at the time like The Clash.”

On 20th Century, punk gets its place with The Buzzcock’s 1978 single “Ever Fallen in Love,” and Stampfel admits to having some difficulty with 1974, which he filled in with Big Star’s “September Gurls.” Padding in the 1990s, Stampfel pulled together a fun rendition of The Spice Girls’ hit “Wannabe” (1996), Ass Ponys’ “Earth to Grandma” from 1994, and a slow stoned take on Beck’s “Loser.”

He’s always had a fascination with the forgotten song. “Why are they [forgotten]?” wonders Stampfel, referencing his 1995 release You Must Remember This and parody covers of  “Haunted House,” originally written in 1948 and covered by Perry Como, along with “You Gotta Get Me Someone to Love” and “My Darlin.’”

“I’ve always had this thing for old songs,” he says. “I feel like they’re abandoned children.”

Resuscitating 100 more in an age of Spotify playlists and singled out tracks, 20th Century is a CliffsNotes history lesson in popular music. It’s easily digestible, yet doesn’t even touch the surface of the music of the last century. “That was part of the idea, to provide a basic grammar for people that were interested the fascinating history American-UK popular music, which is one of the most glorious cultural achievements of humanity,” shares Stampfel.

Reflecting on his past work, Stampfel never imagined writing when he was 13, then found himself years years later, soaking up the revivalist era of Greenwich Village and writing his first song in 1964 for the Holy Modals.

Peter Stampfen (Photo: Elizabeth Wollheim)

“Learning to write songs was a process, because it was nothing I had a natural talent for,” shares Stampfel. “I had to work pretty hard at it for a long time, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the 100 songs, to force myself to learn a bunch of structures that I didn’t know.”

He’s fascinated by why some writers go stale, citing Irving Berlin post-1960, but is in awe of Willie Nelson’s musical prowess at 88. “Willie Nelson is the absolute winner of the longest stretch of quality work,” says Stampfel. “I’m really in awe of Willie Nelson. He keeps going. One of the reasons of that is—not to make a generalization about country songwriters—they understand the value and enjoyment in collaboration.”

Admittedly undereducated in Latin music, Stampfel says he’s going to school himself, an there’s always something to pull from a song, even music that doesn’t resonate. “I listened to a lot of stuff that I am not that crazy about just to see what that’s like,” says Stampfel, who jumps around from African gospel music from Cameroon one minute and returns to a favorite Serbian music channel, and is still trying to find this “old country Russian folk” band he once heard in a taxi radio, whilst in Russia, in 2014.

Buried in releases and words, and retracing nearly 60 years of notes and songs, Stampfel also completed a memoir, which caps at December 1970.

“I was told that in order to sell it I had to have the ’60s in it,” jokes Stampfel, who had to cut the original draft in half because it was too long.

Now, there’s more Stampfel needs to accomplish—including trying to figure out how to listen to Sound Garden Radio while using other apps. Stampfel doesn’t seem like he’s from any particular time himself. Music of different eras inspires him. People of different ages fuel him—even his band has had members in their 20s through 60s.

“I really like the approach of taking advantage of different age groups, because people of different ages know things and have approaches that are singular,” says Stampfel. “Being able to work with a variety of ages is casting a broader net in your artistic approach, which I feel makes for a broader and better result.”

What has been one of his greatest lessons, in music, Stampfel responds “That’s an interesting question. Let me think.” Recounting when he first met Dylan, his one-time roommate, when he was 22 and Bob was 20, Stampfel lost any filters around age.

“I always had much to learn from younger people,” says Stampfel. “Just about everybody that exists can show me something, or teach me something that I don’t know that I really should know.”

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