From the earliest days of his musical career, Peter Stampfel has avoided popular music’s main roads, preferring to wander down side streets that have allowed him to be his idiosyncratic self and innovate. In the early 1960s, he cofounded the quirky psychedelic folk group the Holy Modal Rounders, which reinvented songs dating back to the 19th century. He also played and sang on the first recordings by the even quirkier Fugs and, in later years, performed with off-the-beaten-path artists like Yo La Tengo.
Age has not rendered Stampfel any less adventurous or ambitious. Now 82, he has recently released the mammoth Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs, a five-CD set that includes more than four-and-a-half hours of music and finds him tackling one song for each year from 1901 to 2000. It’s such an interesting idea that you may wonder why no one has thought of it before.
“I’ve been, for most of my life, fascinated by the way songwriting styles change,” says Stampfel, “and how difficult it is to make up a song from a past era that doesn’t have at least a touch of modernity to it. And how a kind of song can be in the air, then one day, suddenly, songs like that aren’t in the air anymore, and good luck trying to write one.”
This project, which Stampfel has been working on for nearly 20 years, finds him taking some liberties with his song selections. For example, his choice for 1962 is “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” which was a hit that year for Patti LaBelle and Her Blue Belles but actually dates from 1946. For 1950, meanwhile, he offers “It Isn’t Fair,” which did enjoy a revival that year but first became popular in 1933.
Stampfel’s presentation is highly personalized. He does not feature the most popular songs of each year but rather his favorites. More than a few of them were hits but more than a few others are obscurities. And he makes no attempt to incorporate what are arguably the most obvious or important bases. For example, he gets all the way through the 20th century without featuring a single Beatles song. (The closest he comes to the Fab Four is 1969’s “Goodbye,” a number that Paul McCartney wrote for Mary Hopkin.) Moreover, while some artists’ cover songs ape the originals so closely that you think, “What’s the point?” that’s never even close to being an issue here; these versions find Stampfel radically reimagining virtually every number.
The result is a wild ride that drives home just how varied popular music has been over the past century. Reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour in the way it embraces multiple decades and genres, the program features songs as different as, say, Jerome Kern and B.G. DeSylva’s “Look for the Silver Lining” and Elvis Costello’s new-wave rocker, “Girls Talk.” Among other unlikely companions in this collection: Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”; and Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazybones” and Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit, “I Will Survive.” How’s that for diversity?
Stampfel’s voice, which is as unusual as his song choices, will be a deal breaker for many listeners. He developed a vocal-cord problem some years ago that made it impossible for him to speak, much less sing; and while he recovered to the point where he could deliver soft vocals in a lower register, you’d be well advised to listen to some of the raspy singing in this set before you turn over any cash for a copy. By comparison with Stampfel, Daniel Johnston can almost sound like Frank Sinatra and Jonathan Richman like Bing Crosby.
On some numbers—such as Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Ray Davies’s “Waterloo Sunset,” Stampfel’s croaky, nearly whispered delivery proves better suited to the material than you might guess. He does especially well when the production is lush or when he shares vocals with another singer, as he does on John Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves” and his bouncy reading of Floyd Tillman’s “Slipping Around.” But some of these tunes—such as the Association’s 1966 hit, “Along Comes Mary,” which Stampfel performs with just his banjo for accompaniment—offer a rather painful listening experience.
A big plus is the set’s 88-page booklet, which evidences Stampfel’s meticulous research and attention to detail. It even presents each song title in a typeface that was designed in the year the number represents and provides the names of the fonts and their designers. Also included for every song are personnel information and notes from producer Mark Bingham as well as the artist’s own frequently fascinating commentary.
Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century isn’t likely to find a wide audience, but some listeners are bound to have hours of fun following his journey through 100 years of music.
Steve Goodman, It Sure Looked Good on Paper: The Steve Goodman Demos. In 2019, the Omnivore label issued expanded versions of several albums by Steve Goodman, who died of leukemia in 1984 at age 36. This 20-track latest CD, also from Omnivore, is more revelatory in that it consists entirely of previously unreleased demos. An accompanying booklet includes insightful liner notes by journalist Lee Zimmerman but, unfortunately, no recording dates and almost nothing about the personnel on the four songs that feature a band.
The program offers versions of many of Goodman’s best-known songs, among them his own classic “City of New Orleans,” as well as “You Never Even Call Me by My Name,” which he wrote with his buddy John Prine; Mike Smith’s wonderful “The Dutchman”; and “Face on the Cutting Room Floor,” which Goodman penned with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibbotson.
Granted, few if any of these recordings outshine the familiar versions; but some of them are just as good and many of them differ significantly and in interesting ways from those renditions. I’ve been missing Goodman for nearly four decades now, but I missed him a little more after listening to this record.
The Crickets, The Crickets and Their Buddies. This 2004 album by Buddy Holly’s group has just been made available for digital download for the first time. The set includes excellent versions of many of the songs most associated with Holly and features a great lineup of guest vocalists.
Bobby Vee, whose earliest material echoes Holly’s, sings lead on “Blue Days, Black Nights” while Graham Nash—whose 1960s group, the Hollies, tipped a hat to Buddy with their moniker—delivers “Think It Over.” Also here: “Well…All Right,” with a vocal by Waylon Jennings, who famously gave up his seat on the airplane whose 1959 crash killed Holly. Other selections include “Rave On,” which features the Everly Brothers’ Phil Everly and his son Jason; “Everyday,” with a vocal by J.D. Souther; “Oh Boy,” sung by John Prine,” and “Love’s Made a Fool of You,” with Johnny Rivers center stage.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.