A Century in Four Hours and Forty Minutes
Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs
|Robert Christgau||Apr 30|
By my count, Peter Stampfel’s new album is his 13th of the 21st century, and although one of them was recorded live in 1970 and another unearths 1984 demos, the new one corrects for those asterisks by comprising not two or three discs but five, every one strictly studio. And though the Wisconsin-raised Stampfel has been a Manhattanite since he was 20, every one was produced by his Louisiana pal Mark Bingham. To be perfectly clear, when I say discs I mean discs—the compact kind, none of your heavy-ass vinyl for this been-there-done-that 82-year-old. And though all this music is streamable, it would be bad money after good to hear it more than once that way, because the physical package is as sumptuous as it is economical, designed to fit neatly onto the jammed shelves of the music obsessives who might conceivably buy one.
Slightly slimmer than the “expanded” version of Rod Stewart’s 1975 Atlantic Crossing that still clogs my A shelves and less than half the rigid polystyrene width of my 1991 remaster of Miles Davis’s Agharta double, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century in 100 Songs folds out into five CD-appropriate cardboard sections that accommodate 1) a track listing with each year’s song title rendered in its own period typeface, 2) nine well-curated 20th-century illos, and 3) an 88-page booklet where Bingham details impressively varied recording sessions that date as far back as 2002 even though many weren’t completed till 2019 and Stampfel fleshes out each song’s history with composer bios, personal reminiscences, explications des textes, and random arcana. For those daunted by this minitome, which I admit took me several days to read, the foldout summarizes the project’s basics: the songs had to be “catchy” (Stampfel’s forthrightly democratic term, though he does kvell about chords as well), historically redolent, neither obscure or obvious, and within Stampfel’s capabilities as a performer. This last was a conceptual concern when the project began—as far back as 1980 or so, Stampfel reports, he’d been feeling out of touch with the music of his younger peers, so he wasn’t sure how well he could handle the century’s final decades. But before the project was done it would prove a physical challenge as well.
Although conceived as the 21st century got rolling in the long wake of 9/11, the project had a predecessor: Stampfel’s 1995 You Must Remember This, produced by Bingham in various living rooms, kitchens, and lofts. It opens with a spirited banjo-and-tuba “Goldfinger,” a cover that had been wowing Stampfel crowds sans tuba for years. But after the Stampfel original “Take Me Away” and the New Christy Minstrels showpiece “Mighty Mississippi,” it embarks on a tour of old pop hits from his pre-rock childhood like Jack Leonard’s 1940 “Indian Summer” and Don Cornell's 1950 “It Isn’t Fair” before bidding farewell with Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Tit Willow,” a substantially revised Carter Family “New Matthew 24,” and—whoa!—Thomas Moore’s circa-1800 “Believe Me, if All These Endearing Young Charms.” Great album, I thought, and gave it a full A while the rest of Rockcritland waxed ignorant. Great performances, great material, great tone. Discogs classifies the few copies it has for sale as “Vocal, Parody,” which is so wrong: Stampfel sings these chestnuts like he loves them, which he does. And though he was approaching 60 by then, he's seldom been in better voice.
Say his enthusiasm is comic if you like; for sure there's some jollity in there, as there has been with Stampfel since he doubled as a Fug while recording Holy Model Rounders excavations like the jug-band standard “Hesitation Blues” and the 1890s smash “Bully of the Town.” But one reason I consider my pal Peter a great artist is that he doesn’t think love and laughs are mutually exclusive. So although there are funny ones on Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century for sure—1919’s “Stumblin’” and 1943’s “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” the 1953 find “Tennessee Wig Walk” and the 1993 sleeper “Loser”—the laughs tend gentle, as when Stampfel’s romantic indignation gets the better of him at the end of “It Isn’t Fair” or a sweet mixed-gender quartet takes over the burden of 1979’s “I Will Survive” only to be rejoined a minute later by the boss, whose sing-along turns gibberish by the end. Nonetheless, sincerity is a currency throughout this project. That’s one reason it’s launched by Wisconsinite Carrie Jacobs Bond’s solemn wedding-day praisesong “I Love You Truly,” which as Stampfel observes has a “mid-19th century feel”—Bond also wrote “Silver Threads Among the Gold” if you know what that is. Next comes 1902’s “Under the Bamboo Tree,” a marriage proposal devised by John Rosamond Johnson, younger brother of James Weldon Johnson if you know who he is, which after two instrumental iterations of its easygoing intro gets down to cases: “If you like-a me like I like-a you/And we like-a both the same/I like-a say this very day/I like-a change your name.” Then follow three songs whose refrains still stand as indelible fragments of a shared national culture: “Ida” (“Sweet as apple cider”), “Toyland” (“Little girl and boy land”), and “Whistler and His Dog” (an ineradicable tunelet devised by trombone-wielding pre-WW1 superstar Arthur Pryor).
I hope some of the tune-pods that follow remain familiar as well: “School Days” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for sure, “Put Your Arms Around Me Honey” and “Ah Sweet Mystery of Life” at least as catchphrases. Many of Stampfel’s 1901-1950 picks, which occupy just two of the five discs, have a way of popping up in sitcoms, commercials, and period movies. Like Peter, I’m old enough to have internalized many of them well before that, not as a lifelong music critic but as someone whose family bought a seven-inch TV early, so that I had already spent six years consuming old popular culture as per Ed Sullivan and The Colgate Comedy Hour as well as chart-hawking WINS DJ Jack Lacy when Alan Freed and “Maybellene” changed my life forever in 1955. But Stampfel’s 1938 birthdate gives him a big three-and-a-half years on me—he was pushing 17 by “Maybellene” time, and though he says Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Ray Charles were his “heroes” by 1956, Domino’s “I’m in Love Again” plus Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and the Charms’ uber-classic 1954 “Hearts of Stone” are the only rock and roll standards here. And by 1958 Peter was in Greenwich Village turning into the weirdest folkie on Macdougal Street not counting his junco partner Steve Weber.
Because Stampfel has always been an exceedingly intelligent working-class Wisconsin boy who came of age before rock and roll broke, the earlier history he carries with him has got to inflect this one-of-a-kind project. Having grown up with pre-rock pop, he feels it even deeper in his bones than I do because he’s a few years older. But by the same token, listeners born post-1960, who’ve come to the same music in dribs and drabs of secondary reference if at all, may well find it unredeemably corny or just alien, and for millennials and their successors it’s terra incognita—nobody under 25 can be expected to recognize a single one of these songs, with the best bets the Spice Girls’ 1996 “Wannabe” and maybe Coldplay’s 2000 “Yellow,” a gorgeous piece muffled into marginality for me back then by Chris Martin’s ingrained anonymity. I reserve hopes, however, for a few rock chestnuts—“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Tangled Up in Blue” for Pete’s sake, the football chant “Tubthumping” I assume, the magnificent “Waterloo Sunset” I pray, Springsteen’s “My Hometown” sure sounds undeniable, OK probably not the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” slowed way down though it sounds great that way (and hey, there’s a Chuck Cleaver number I didn't even recognize here too). But Stampfel’s purpose with this five-pack isn’t merely to complete an impossibly ambitious tribute to the ever-evolving art form he’s devoted his long and excitable life to. It’s to insist that the art form is all one thing despite its incomprehensible diversity. Also, he really wants to sell these songs. Not for money, which is no object here. For love.
And so he sings and sings. Because Stampfel’s voice has always had its peculiarities—a cartoonish quality he cultivated rather than repressed and a wobbly relationship with pitch—he hasn’t always gotten respect as a singer. But because I’m so big on fun, these supposed flaws have been ringing my bell ever since 1976, when he took the elevator to the fifth floor of the Village Voice and handed me a copy of my most played album of the past half century: Have Moicy!, opening track a rewrite of Con Conrad and Herb Magidson’s 1935 “Midnight in Paris” that took off with the lines “You wear my beret and I’ll use your bidet, cheri/I’ll be clean you’ll be free.” In point of fact, however, Stampfel’s peculiar voice got stronger as he got older, not to mention as he took lessons and got the better of assorted inebriants.
But as he turned out those 13 21st-century albums, it was possible to discern, if you checked, that as he passed 70 Stampfel’s boyish and peculiar voice was thinning out a bit and drying up a tad, albeit less than most 70-something voices. So as a friend and a journalist, I sometimes feared that Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century was stalling even as I was given samplers of completed tracks; logistics with Bingham were complicated, and Stampfel never stopped networking in his quest for new bandmates and live frontiers. (Peter says he doesn’t recall this, but I swear that one year he set himself the task of playing out somewhere every single night.) In 2019, for health reasons of my own, I only saw Peter and his wife Betsy Wollheim once or twice, although that spring I emailed back and forth with him about a lecture for April 2019’s death-themed MoPOP Pop Conference titled “All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson.” But not too much later that year there was a calamity: a fast-progressing case of a many-faceted malady dubbed dysphonia that soon reduced his voice to a hoarse whisper when he could vocalize at all.
As the session dates that accompany each of Bingham’s notes make clear, Peter Stampfel’s 20th Century bears the scars of Stampfel’s illness: after many recordings in 2002 or 2003, there are almost none until 2019. And as I played the five discs in order, my heart sank a little. By putting off the completion of this life project as he advanced toward 80, Stampfel had damaged it irreparably: as early as 1955’s r&b obscurity “Shambolar” and most of the time post-1971—the first three discs encompass 70 years, the last two only 30—he was whispering his precious selections rather than singing them. Not only was the “Goldfinger” voice I’d imagined would be on call to earmark this eccentric aural wonderland kaput, Stampfel’s trademark hyperenthusiasm was on hold, quite possibly never to be voiced again. But when I dug in on repeated listens, as is always my m.o.—especially with recalcitrant material I have reason to hope more from—something happened.
It began with two warhorses: Elton John’s 1973 “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which I’d always ingested as a musical whole when compelled to hear it at all, and Bob Dylan’s 1975 “Tangled Up in Blue,” another musical whole, but one so familiar it’s hard to hear fresh. Since Stampfel recorded the first entirely in 2003 and the second entirely in 2019, their vocals are very different: Peter’s Elton almost boyish when he’s 64, his Dylan when he’s 80 marked by a gargle as liquid as Stampfel can manage until he whistles the outro. This last is a stroke in itself—as in “Whistler and His Dog” and other tracks too, Stampfel is an accomplished whistler. But a bigger stroke is that for the first time in years I was hearing the words of these chestnuts. And that was only the beginning. For the entire final quarter of this project, Stampfel strategizes around his limitations cannily, generously, and effectively. He’s an old man for sure, but he’s rejuvenating a lot of these songs.
Way back on the 1961 pick Bingham changed keys until he found “the right spot” for Stampfel’s “fragile” voice, thus midwifing “a Moon River unlike any other” into existence. Harmony vocals from Bingham and Michael Cerveris help bring 1967’s inevitable “Waterloo Sunset” home. Most of 1977’s “2-4-6-8 Motorway” was laid down in 2016, as was the “Midwestern weirdness” of the Ass Ponys’ 1994 “Earth to Grandma”—in a voice fuller than Chuck Cleaver’s, which says something remarkable about what it was and sad about what has befallen it. But voice shot or no voice shot, Stampfel delivers Elvis Costello’s 1980 “Girls Talk” safe and sound 3:44 later, and murmuring 1983’s “Swingin’” suits John Anderson fine, as does muttering Beck’s 1994 “Loser.” Just don’t try to outmurmur Michael Stipe on 1991’s “Texarkana” much less outcroak Leonard Cohen on 1988’s “Everybody Knows.” Instead, assign a gaggle of male backup singers to wrest 1996’s “Wannabe” from the Spice Girls or ask equal partner Lilli Lewis to render the 1999 Christgau nominee “In Spite of Ourselves” whole. As for the climactic “Yellow,” it was always about the guitars, here replicated masterfully by Bryan Webre and the invaluable Cerveris, clearly Bingham’s adjutant in pulling this project out of the fire and rolling it down the hill.
Since it might arguably be inappropriate to address a century of history without acknowledging the inevitability of physical decay, it might also be argued that there was a certain poetry to my pal Peter’s unanticipated vocal limitations. But fuck poetry, especially the sad kind—I’ll take lyrics any day, and so will Peter. How about the 1924-1928 sequence of George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me,” Ted FioRito and Gus Kahn’s “I Never Knew,” Kern-Harbach-Hammerstein’s “Who (Stole My heart Away),” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still”?
Or to put another way, I like New York in June, how about you?