Reflections: Peter Stampfel

Mike Greenhaus on April 8, 2021
Reflections: Peter Stampfel

Peter Stampfel was ready to dive into a massive, all-encompassing studio project featuring a standout song from every year of the 20th century when he had a major realization— he was out of touch with popular music.

“I did a lot of research and instantly knew which songs I wanted to use for a lot of it, but the difficulty was in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” the fiddler master admits, thinking back to the genesis of Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century, the 100-song set he’s been working on for nearly 20 years. “I was less attentive in those years.”

It’s a slightly overcast October morning, and Stampfel is sitting on a Manhattan park bench overlooking the Hudson River—wearing a mask that covers his trademark, thick Magnum P.I. mustache, with his fiddle case beside him— the day before his 82nd birthday. He’s just walked across town from the SoHo apartment he’s owned for decades, where he’s ridden out the novel coronavirus pandemic since March.

Despite numerous setbacks, Stampfel anticipates finally releasing his decades-in-the making retrospective in late[1]January through Louisiana Red Hot Records. Yet, the Milwaukee, Wisc. native still laughs it off as a lark.

“I got the idea while I was stoned on weed,” he says. “My daughter quit taking piano lessons so I continued taking them instead. When the teacher left the state, I has this 100 songs idea.”

Stampfel has long proven himself to be an American music scholar, co-founding the pioneering psychedelic[1]folk act The Holy Modal Rounders—Sam Shepard played drums with them for a spell and their take on “If You Want to Be a Bird” will forever be tied to its use in Easy Rider—and performing with the experimental, comedic proto-punk collective The Fugs. After first conceiving the ambitious 100-year project in 2001, Stampfel laid down the majority of the tunes from the first half of the century at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios with producer Mark Bingham, New Orleans Klezmer All Stars’ Jonathan Freilich and a number of their associates. A few years later, Stampfel and Bingham completed a second batch of covers during a marathon, heat-soaked 10-day session in New York. But after he realized that the end-of-century material was a rare blind spot, Stampfel paused the project for over 10 years.

He finally regrouped with Bingham in 2016, spurred on by some song selections he received from friends, journalists and others in his musical orbit. They ran through some more tunes in Brooklyn, and Bingham— who had become closely aligned with The Lost Bayou Ramblers—was planning to use members of that esteemed New Orleans community to complete the project.

That’s when Stampfel was diagnosed with dysphonia. He was temporarily unable to speak and had to relearn how to use his voice, settling on a lower register and less volume when he sings. Eventually, he made another trip to the Big Easy during the fall of 2019 to resume their previous plans and finished the final 28 selections, tracking material by R.E.M., John Prine, Elvis Costello, Beck, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and, in a fitting moment of anarchist humor, Chumbawamba.

The resulting collection runs the gamut of U.S. pop, from Carrie Jacobs Bond’s 1901 parlor song “I Love You Truly” to Coldplay’s 2000 smash “Yellow,” nodding to various facets of ragtime, jazz, blues, folk, rock and Great American Songbook fodder along the way. “When writing pop songs, Jews were often describing an America that was better than the one that was there,” he says of one album through line he’s noticed. “In the process of inventing themselves as Americans, they were inventing a better America.”

While working on the set, he also made sure to point out some curious moments: “James Reese Europe was the Duke Ellington of ragtime. Eubie Blake called Europe the Martin Luther King of Black music, and Europe and King were both murdered at the age of 39.” Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century also arrives along with in-depth essays on each of the 100 songs. Mostly written by Stampfel himself—anti-folk mainstay Jeffrey Lewis, with whom he has recorded several albums, contextualized the later years—they shed some light on his personal journey as well. (“This is the first of the 100 songs I ever actually sang. I was two years old, serenading my mommy while I sat on the toilet, which was our tradition for a couple years,” he writes before Junie McCree’s “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey, Hold Me Tight;” “I had a bad case of the don’t-wannas in the mid-‘70s regarding live music and never went to CBGB to see them,” he admits while discussing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”)

Though Stampfel still says he has more interest in looking back on the sounds of the 19th and 20th centuries than 2020 playlists, he does enjoy some more modern artists—Perfume Genius, St. Vincent, Fiona Apple, Wussy, Taylor Swift and Big Thief are recent favorites—and even got a new phone not too long ago to listen to music. And, he’s ready to live in the present once concerts are able to safely resume. “I don’t think these ‘20s are going to roar,” he says with a chuckle. “But who knows.”