Holy Modal Rounders

****1/21 & 2 (1964; Fantasy, 1999)
***1/2Live in 1965 (1965; DBK, 2002)
***Indian War Whoop (ESP/Calibre, 1967)
***1/2The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders (1969; Water, 2002)
***1/2Good Taste Is Timeless (1971; Sundazed, 2003)
***1/2Bird Song: Live 1971 (1971; Water, 2004)
*****Have Moicy! (1976; Rounder, 1991)
***1/2Last Round (1978; Adelphi, 2000)
****Too Much Fun (Rounder, 1999)
****1/2I Make a Wish for a Potato (Rounder Heritage, 2001)

Peter Stampfel is that rarest of all creatures, a modest genius. He has one of the most distinctive voices in American music, a twangy screech which somehow he can actually sing in. What makes him so modest is his conviction that all of the really great American music was done a long time ago, and mostly collected on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music. What makes him a genius is that he instead of putting his beloved old timey music up on some pedestal, he makes it an organic part of his own life experience -- which is mostly that of an radical '60s speed freak who appreciates nothing better than a cosmic joke.

When Stampfel hooks up with guitarist Steve Weber, as he has infrequently for a third of a century, they knock off a Holy Modal Rounders album. These are filed as Folk, because their first two albums, now known as 1 & 2, with Stampfel on fiddle and banjo, are full of public domain songs like "Flop Eared Mule" and "Fishing Blues." But it also has a novelty called "Mr. Spaceman," and prophetic songs by future Rounder Robin Remailly and fellow traveler Michael Hurley. It may have sounded weird way back when, but it sounds fresher than ever today.

The other '60s Rounders albums are curiosities, conceived as psychedelia and sloppily executed, but there is a rousing "I.W.W. Song" on Indian War Whoop, and The Moral Eels Eat generates dimwitted glee on pieces like "My Mind Capsized" and "The STP Song." The '70s albums are folkier, but most of the songs are originals and the band has devolved into posthippie counterculture. They seem to be crawling back into print, along with old tapes like Live in 1965 and Bird Song: Live 1971. Good Taste Is Timeless is blessed with new notes by Stampfel, but both it and Last Round are very inconsistent: some of the best songs (like "If You Want to Be a Bird") are remakes, and the inspired titles ("Boobs a Lot" and "Snappin' Pussy") aren't as good as you'd hope. Meanwhile, the live tapes add period color, like Stampfel's wit in 1965 and the indiscriminate banging and tooting of their loud 1971 band (seven pieces, including sax).

But Have Moicy!, attributed to "Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones," is an improbable masterpiece. The extra songwriters broaden the worlview: Hurley is comfy, Frederick has a bitter streak, and Antonia has her mind on sex and drugs. And every song is quotable, from "oh I see the dishes over there/they fill me with despair" to "I got a jug of wine, Griselda/why should you waste your time in sorrow/hold out your hand and have no fear/if we're caught I'll marry you tomorrow" to "they're bringing thunderbird wine and a pound of hash/come on along if you're one of the people/'cause we're going to get the spirit down at the hoodoo bash."

Stampfel's albums under his own name are out of print, including You Must Remember This (Gert Town, 1995), where he reworks pop chestnuts. But Weber surfaced again for 1999's Too Much Fun, where the Rounders returned strongly to traditional material, including some of their own. The Rounder compilation, I Make a Wish for a Potato, tries to synthesize another Have Moicy! by slipping tracks from Hurley and Frederick solo albums into a passel of Rounders songs, including one that goes, "Superman's/on the can/contemplating synergy."


Out-of-print, related albums.

Alleged in Their Own Time (1975)
Jeffrey Frederick:
Spiders in the Moonlight (1977)
Live at the Ice House (Frederick, 2003)
Michael Hurley:
***1/2Armchair Boogie (Warner Bros., 1970)
Hi Fi Snock Uptown (Raccoon, 1972)
****Long Journey (Rounder, 1977)
***1/2Snockgrass (Rounder, 1980)
***Watertower (Fundamental, 1988)
Wolfways (Koch, 1995)
Weather Hole (Rounder, 1999)
Sweetkorn (Trikont, 2002)
Blueberry Wine: The First Songs of Michael Hurley (Locust, 2002)
Stampfel & Weber:
Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder, 1981)
Peter Stampfel & the Bottlecaps:
***1/2Peter Stampfel & the Bottlecaps (Rounder, 1986)
***1/2The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll (Homestead, 1989)
Peter Stampfel:
****You Must Remember This (Gert Town, 1995)
The Du-Tels:
No Knowledge of Music Required (Shimmy Disc, 2001)

  • Old Version
  • History: this steps year-by-year from 1963-1999, although it gets a bit thin toward the end. Constructed with quotes.