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Holy Modal Rounders: Oddly Influential Folk

Take me back to Random Canyon, Where the gryphon's always riffin', And the unicorn is horny in the spring. Where the crystal coyote calls Over sleepy garden walls And the wireless wombat wanders on the wings. And the wireless wombat wanders on the wings. -- The Holy Modal Rounders, "Random Canyon"

In the early 1960s, the Greenwich Village folk scene took a left turn away from the clean-cut sounds of, say, The Kingston Trio. Bob Dylan was singing "Masters of War"; Phil Ochs had "Power and the Glory." That didn't sit well with Peter Stampfel.

"I really hated the seriousness of the people on the folk music scene," Stampfel says. "I thought it was stupid. I mean, it was beautiful stuff, but it was goofy, too. At least some of it was, and I thought the goofiness was one of the great things about it."

Stampfel admits that his own band, the Holy Modal Rounders, was silly. But it wasn't doing parodies of old folk songs. Its members knew the music inside and out.

"I got the idea in 1963: What if Charlie Poole, and Charley Patton, and Uncle Dave Macon and all those guys were magically transported from the late 1920s to 1963?" Stampfel says. "And then they were exposed to contemporary rock 'n' roll. What did they do? And that sounded way, way, way more interesting than trying to be Mr. Note Perfect 1929."

The Holy Modal Rounders filled out an odd profile in the thick of the 1960s folk movement: It was challenging tradition by taking it into weird and psychedelic realms. The Rounders had a small but intensely devoted following, and one of the group's songs was even included in a major motion picture.

The duo's influence has grown steadily over the intervening decades, inspiring a younger generation of innovative folk musicians — and filmmakers. The Rounders are now the subject of the new documentary Bound to Lose.

Seriously Free Spirits

Peter Stampfel grew up in Wisconsin during the 1940s, and discovered folk music and the five-string banjo at the University of Wisconsin. His partner in musical crime was Steve Weber, a country-blues guitar player who grew up in Philadelphia. Weber dropped out of high school and lived on the streets of New York City for a number of years before teaming up with Stampfel. Even today, Weber is a free spirit.

"Even if you ain't got one yourself, you can break into a party and make it your own," he says in Bound to Lose. "And that's what I've been doing all my life. Ain't that right?"

The film's co-director, Paul Lovelace, was less than prepared for Weber's antics.

"I've never met anyone that just completely lives by his own rules," Lovelace says. "You can ask him, 'Where are you playing tomorrow night?' And he would have no idea, and no interest. But at the same time, he does take the music part of it seriously. His abilities as a musician, his abilities as a singer and a guitar player — he really has a lot of pride in that."

Weber's seriousness was evident from The Holy Modal Rounders' very first gig together, Stampfel says.

"We were on stage at some little club on Bleecker Street, and all of a sudden I hit a bad note," Stampfel says. "And Weber winced as if he had been kicked in the gut and played an excruciatingly dissonant chord on the beat following my bad note, followed by four more chords — each one more dissonant than the one prior to that — and then he screamed and leaped off the stage. 'And I thought, 'Wow! This is great!' "

The Punishment Brothers

Both on- and offstage, Weber and Stampfel were like oil and water: Much of their relationship was built on bickering. Paul Lovelace saw a lot of this during the making of the documentary.

"Peter and Steve would bicker very, very often," he says. "They really are like an old married couple. They love each other to death at times, but they also just can't stand being around each other at times."

Bassist Dave Reisch noticed the tension the minute he joined the band in 1971.

"Peter and Steve had a strange relationship," Reisch says. "They bounce off each other. They also had a little shtick — they were 'The Punishment Brothers.' They said, 'I'm cruel and he's unusual.' "

Their odd behavior may have been fueled by drug use, which Stampfel does not deny.

"Our first album was recorded on speed and pot," he says. "All our early albums were recorded on... well, I was on amphetamine and marijuana and beer. How [the substances] affected it was what you hear when you hear the records."

Wins And Losses

Despite the Rounders' self-destructive behavior, their song "If You Want to Be a Bird" wound up in the movie Easy Rider. But the musicians couldn't capitalize, and the group split up in 1971. Weber and the rest of the band moved to Portland, Ore., where the guitarist succumbed to heroin addiction. Stampfel stayed in New York.

Years later, the two would reunite for the occasional album and gig. But Weber was a no-show for the band's 40th-anniversary tour in 2004. He refuses to talk to Stampfel and has disappeared somewhere in West Virginia.

"Yeah, he won't speak to me," Stampfel says. "His girlfriend convinced him that I have stolen the Rounder millions. I mean, there's occasional Rounders hundreds, but as far as Rounders millions goes, that would be nice, but no."

While The Holy Modal Rounders never reached a mass level of popularity, the band's cult status continues to grow. It's influenced a new generation of musicians, including bands like Yo La Tengo and Espers. But Stampfel says he wanted that influence to be broader.

"I felt that something big and amazing was going to happen to popular music that would change everything," he says. "And of course I was right about that, and it was The Beatles. The delusional part was that I thought it was going to be The Holy Modal Rounders."

Even though the title of the documentary says the Rounders were Bound to Lose, in the end, they won in a way, showing purists a thing or two about letting go.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Chris Boros