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Peter Stampfel: Music for Everyone

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Peter Zoe.jpg Peter Stampfel and daughter Zoe.

There are always waves of popular music, but discovery is found in the undertow.
That's where Peter Stampfel exists with unbridled integrity, joy and adventure.

Stampfel, 71, is founder of the Holy Modal Rounders (that featured playwright/roadie Sam Shepard on drums) and original member of the weird New York-based street band the Fugs. Yo La Tengo and Bob Dylan are fans.
He won a Grammy for his 1997 liner notes to "The Anthology of American Folk Music." And his wife Betsy's father Donald Wollheim was the first person to publish William Burroughs. Wollheim was a 1930s pulp publisher at Ace Books who edited science fiction and "sweet romance," which is what women's literature was called back then. Stampfel still works full time as a book editor with DAW Books, his wife's New York-based publishing company.

Stampfel makes his first full-tilt Chicago club appearance in 16 years at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Hideout. He'll be playing wonderfully innocent music from the just-released "Dook of the Beatniks" that was recorded in 1999 at the Boiler Room in New Orleans......

....There's wacky originals like "Oomalooma Messy Dessy," a children's song where I hear the distant melodies of the Gullah singers in the low country of South Carolina and "Black Leather Swamp Nazi," which sounds like a Cramps outtake. There's also covers of Johnny Cash's "Big River" and Sam Shepard's "Message to Omie."

Stampfel's intense, curved phrasing sounds like Neil Young in a whirlpool. Stampfel will play fiddle, banjo and guitar at the Hideout. His daughter Zoe plays hand drums and sings. They're also working on covers of Curtis Mayfield's 1963 composition "Mama Didn't Lie" (a hit for Jan Bradley) and Sherriff & Ravals "Shombalor," a bizarre 1955 African/Caribbean/Doo-Wop/Ska rave up on Vee-Jay Records based on an African-work song. This alone is worth the $10 cover.

Stampfel is the hipster saint for the freak-folk movement personified by Devendra Banhart.
"I've been reading science fiction since 1950," Stampfel said earlier this week in an engaging conversation from New York. "There's a whole area of science fiction-fantasy-music which is called 'Filk' music. Song lyrics are informed by science fiction and fantasy but they go on and on. But its difficult to put forth a whole new world in a song."

But he sure tried in "Wisconsin Honeymoon," a rollicking true story with a bluegrass-Polka motif that pays homage to summer sausage, mashed potatoes and Leinenkugel's beer.
"I wrote the music first, which I rarely do," he said. "The songs that blow my mind maximumly go from G to B flat. That happens in 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.' I became aware of that in Jerome Kern songs like 'Long Ago and Far Away,' written in 1944 and one of the most beautiful songs in the history of mankind. Kern also employs it again in 'All Through the Day,' which he wrote in '46. My wife has often mentioned, 'You never wrote a song about me.' I thought, here we go."
In 1982 the new Mr. and Mrs. Stampfel drove 1,500 miles on "blacktops" throughout Wisconsin.
"We went across Milwaukee to Madison to the House on the Rock," he recalled. "Absoultely one of the most amazing places I've seen in my life. Then the Circus Museum in Barabaoo. Then we went up the Mississippi to Duluth (Mn.) and Superior (Wis.)
"Driving on blacktop roads is one of my most favorite things to do."
This is my kind of guy.

Stampfel grew up in Milwaukee and went to the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee. His father Peter was a factory worker at Allis-Chalmers, American Can and also delivered bread. "I was going to be the first kid in the family to go to college, but I got kicked out twice," he said. "Never finished."

Music kept a callin'. In 2001, Stampfel was a member of the Du-Tels, which included former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas and Jeff Buckley. And the Sam Shepard surf-meets-Little Richard track from "Dook of the Beatniks" dates back to 1969.
"I always thought it was a great song," Stampfel said. "He dismisses it as an early inconsequential effort. I like the old school rock n' roll structure and the really nice words: 'Creep up to her window/rap upon the glass/tell her that the wind blows and nothing ever lasts/but my love for her is going to grow and grow..." Its right on.
"I actually met Sam in 1966. I had pawned my fiddle to buy amphetiamine. I got a gig offer and needed my fiddle. So I went into the pawn shop and Sam was there, who of course, I didn't know. He asked me if I played bass, which is an odd question to ask someone carrying a violin. I said, 'Sure' and he asked if I wanted to play with him and a friend. He was 24 but I didn't know he had already won a number of grants and Opies for plays. He was this cool guy who played drums."

Shepard became a member of the Holy Modal Rounders for three years. In 1968 the band performed "You've Got The Right String, Baby, But the Wrong Yo-Yo" on the "Laugh-In" television series.

They were not permitted to finish the song. "They had Ruth Buzzi and the Dirty Old Man (Henry Gibson) break up the song when we were half way through," Stampfel said. "Anyway we're there for posterity. Sam looks great on drums." The band's "If You Want To Be a Bird" also landed on the "Easy Rider" film soundtrack.
Ironically, Shepard's 22-year-old son Walker now plays guitar and banjo with Stampfel.

In Sam Douglas's 2007 documentary "Holy Modal Rounders...Bound to Lose," legendary rock critic Robert Christgau cites Stampfel as the only genius besides Dylan to emerge from New York's nascent acoustic scene. "The hell with Joan Baez," Christgau snorts. "P.U.!"

Stampfel came to New York in 1959 where he first heard Volume Three of the Harry Smith anthology. (Smith actually produced the first Fugs album.)
Stampfel had already heard the New Lost City Ramblers in 1958. "I knew there was stuff happening before bluegrass which sounded more interesting than bluegrass which was homogenized," he said. "Everyone can play great chops but they sound pretty similar. On the anthology, for the first time I heard Uncle Dave Macon. Its like, 'Wow, this guy is way better than Grandpa Jones.' That was my first exposure to the Carter Family. It leaked into my life and I was obsessed with playing that music.
"I felt like it would die if I didn't start playing it."

Bob Dylan came on the New York scene soon after Stampfel and has also credited Harry Smith as a cornerstone of his roots music exploration. For example, Dylan's "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance" is lifted from the anthology's track of Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas singing "Old Country Stomp."

"When Dylan started writing songs, in fact, they were anthology songs with new words," Stampfel explained. "They were early efforts. Just like writers in their early twenties start off with parodies. They're first steps. Its a good way to learn the craft of writing. I still do that, taking old anthology songs and written new words to them."

That's Stampfel's inner beauty. He's still learning.

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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