20th Century in 100 Songs
Louisiana Red Hot Records
This might be one of the most intimidating projects I’ve ever covered. Peter Stampfel played with the Holy Modal Rounders and has one of those “made for the blues” voices. He’s not slick or over produced, but you can tell he’s in love with musical forms that make the great American song book. He’s gone back over the entire 20th century and selected a single song that he regards as the best of the day, then he sings it with minimal accompaniment – a piano, a guitar, maybe a mandolin. That’s 100 tracks, totally about 5 hours of musical history all presented in project that took nearly 20 years to complete.
The earliest tunes are some of the best on this collection. He starts with the 1900’s “I Love You Truly”, a rather sappy love song from the Tin Pan Alley days when every middle class house had at least a piano to allow folks to entertain each other. This music often comes to us via rips of old shellac discs, compete with their low fidelity, non-mixed lo fi sound. This is the world of American tunes so old and familiar we consider their origin: “row, row, row your boat”, “Take me out to the ball game,” “Toyland” and “Look for the Silver Lining” all feel as comfortable as grandma’s overstuffed couch. Between these “Hits” are tunes I never heard before “Ida”, “Ace in the Hole” SOMETHING. They form a cocoon of old memories, and frankly, they are not bad songwriting by any standards.
As we cruse though the ’20s and ’30s the music of the talkies appears. Movies helped spread popular music, and in this era we find standards including “Charleston” and “Blue Sky” and “Moonglow.” Stampfel is still in his meter of old-time music, he did some time with the Holy Modal Rounders. They were an odd bunch, mostly known for their Dr. Demento hit “Do you like Boobs A Lot?” Stampfel is a guy I could hang out with. Along with these standards we find lesser tunes: “East of the Sun” and “My Reverie” will likely draw blanks. By the 30’s jazz thoroughly infused the musical texture of American pop tunes, and it was the high energy Dixieland sound underneath makes even the lesser known tunes like “Love on a Gray Hound Bus” and “How Are things in Glocomora?” still appeal. Next we hear the 1949 tune “Slipping Around.” This country some open addresses infidelity and may be one of the earliest glimmers of that “Countrypolitan” sound that dominated 1960s and ’70s commercial country music scene.
As Stampfel enters the swinging ’60s the collection begins to get interesting for a new reason: What was he thinking of when he arranged these tunes? The first sign of fun is the 1960 goofy “Running Bare” which centers folks caught skinny dipping. The Johnny Mercier hit “Moon River” takes the 1961 slot and with “Along Comes Mary” and we are now square in the rock and roll era. The 1970s tunes start with a country arrangement of Elton Johns “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and a very interesting take on Dylan’s blues-rock “Tangled Up in Blue.” It’s certainly a blues style, and a significant broadening of my musical world. But things are now getting weird: the 1977 punk tune “2-4-6-8 Motorway” by Tom Robinson is totally transformed. Stampfel goes wild with The Buzzcocks “Have You Ever Fallen in Love with Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen in Love With?” and Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk.” As we roll into the ’90s “Laura the Horse”, the cross species story intrigued me, and there is a gradually returns to earth with Ben Folds treatise on shopping and poverty “Common People.” By the time we hear “Earth To Grandma” all sense of cross style musicianship is subsumed by the sheer scope and weirdness of this project. It overwhelms me. By now, a blues arrangement of “Tubthumping” doesn’t even make me blink. You gotta hear this stuff, you’ll never view music the same way again.