Kicking the gong for you (phoria)

There’s a (banjo-toting) elephant in the room, I feel.

I think it’s time somebody, somewhere, said something about the Holy Modal Rounders – clearly someone’s got to tackle this thorny subject, and as nobody else seems to be covering the hippie bluegrass Greenwich Village scene these days, it may as well be this idiot.

Lucky Seven – the Holy Modal Rounders

In as much as anybody spares a thought for the Holy Modal Rounders these days, they’re generally thought of as Fabulous Furry Freak Brother types – daft, ridiculous and tiresome. If you know anything about the Rounders, it’s probably from hearing the novelty strains of “Bird Song” as Jack Nicholson falls in with Hopper and Fonda on the way to Mardi Gras – “Oh, I’ve got a helmet!” (Cue fond memories of seeing Easy Rider in an unlikely midnight showing at the old ABC cinema in Kings Square, Gloucester…)


That’s pretty much the Rounders post 1965 career, to be honest, a prolonged stoned, thumbing of the nose to The Man, making records that sound like they were a whole lot more fun to make than they are to actually listen to, the rest of the world playing the part of being the only straight guy at the Rounders’ own Acid Test. There’s quite a bunch of records like this that ran through the rest of the sixties and seventies and included a period working with the Fugs (imagine…).

But, and this is the point I’m getting to, thankfully there were a couple of releases before all this, which are substantially better. The first of these was recorded in the New Year snow as 1964 gingerly popped its little head out, at precisely the same time as, thousands of miles (and another world) away, yours truly was making his own even-less auspicious debut. Fifty four years on and The Holy Modal Rounders remains one of my very favourite records – it’s an infectious, intriguing, intransigent belter of a record, that charms and exasperates in equal measure.

In the early sixties, the Rounders were idiosyncratic Greenwich Village folkies Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel, brought together by a mutual girlfriend and a love of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. They hit it off straight away and started playing what Stampfel called “progressive old-timey” music based on their love of bluegrass, mountain music and psychedelics.

This first record is made up of lovingly produced trad arrs and “original” songs that “evolved in the usual way – hear song, forget song, try to remember song while adding your adding your own person wrinkles”. The “wrinkles” are of course what make the record so great. It’s a bunch of authentic voices from disappearing generations, passed through the fuzziest of lenses, all livelied up by a twinkling sense of mischief.

Each song is based around Weber’s country blues guitar picking and sparingly decorated with Stampfel’s banjo or fiddle playing. The vocals are pretty distinctive, gruff, harsh, often silly – an acquired taste for sure, but if you listen to the Harry Smith stuff, not so very different…

Men like Clarence Ashley and Uncle Dave Macon infused their songs with a sense of jeopardy, a chill even, which now gives them a certain supernatural life in a new century. The Rounders’ versions on the other hand, fooling around at a carefree distance of fifty years, are full of yippee-ish anarchy, fun (and fondness). Never too precious with the originals, Weber and Stampfel felt free to rewrite lines, add verses and “revolutionise” the content. Famously, in “Hesitation Blues” (a Charlie Poole song from the 20s) Stampfel worked in the first recorded use of the word “psychedelic” (alright, “pyscho-delic”).

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Rounders treated their source stuff with derision, feeling at liberty to ridicule and spice it up, that’s really not the case – the songs are treated with the sort of teasing irreverence that you might reserve for a twinkly-eyed Nan. But some of the songs do manage to retain the haunting sound of the past to great effect – my favourite being, the poignant “Bound to Lose” (“Riverboat gambler’s born to lose…”). Beautiful, graceful music…

This being 1964, there’s no footage of Stampfel and Weber playing before the peyote broke all pretence of self-control, which is a real shame. So, I’ve done a Lucky Seven collection for you to judge for yourself, and if you do find yourself tempted to seek out a little more W&S quirkiness, tell ‘em I sent you:

Lucky Seven – The Holy Modal Rounders:

Bound to Lose; Euphoria; Hesitation Blues; Mr Spaceman; Low Down Dog; Uncle Joe (from the Live in 1965 record); The Cuckoo (+ Clarence Ashley’s original from the Harry Smith Anthology)

(Still sounds a load more “real” than Dylan to me…)

Your arm was resting on his shoulder… his eyes were filled with victory…

298062585For a while, I’ve been meaning to say something about this Louvin Brothers book I bought in the summer, which I’ve just finished. These days,
the brothers are in danger of being chiefly remembered for the fantastically lurid cover of their 1959 “long-player”, Satan Is Real. It’s actually a terrific record I’d recommend to anyone but mostly you’ll come across its sleeve used as an illustration of old-time fifties hokum. All of which I think is a bit of a shame, their instinctive and intricate harmonies and their ear for a fine old tune deserve more. What would the Everlys have sounded like without Charlie and Ira?

The book’s great, contrasting chief song-writer and mandolin player Ira’s hell-raising, hard-drinking ways with the more pragmatic support of God-fearing younger brother Charlie. It’s a fine, fine read (the pages on the photoshoot for the famous album cover are particularly interesting – the scene was pretty much just what it looks like: two nervous hillbillies in front of a huge pile of burning tyres, watched by a pitchfork-wielding, homespun Lucifer.)

Surprisingly (considering how regularly they played the Grand Ole Opry) there’s not that much actual Louvins footage available. There’s this clip, though, complete with introduction by Ernest Tubb:

Wonderful stuff.

It’s all sent me off on a bit of a Steinbeck / Folkways sort of adventure and I’ve recently downloaded the first volume of Harry Smith’s classic Anthology of American Folk Music. Compelling stuff it is as well, stuffed full of once-real stories and echoes from a simpler, more chilling world. Many of the songs, however, as well as being documents from the past (and in some cases are recordings of songs that were of-another-age even back then in the thirties), still sound remarkably relevant to these musical times. I’m thinking of some of the banjo and fiddle work which manages to sound both folksy and edgy with a pretty modern monotone, repetitive style. Some of the vocal performances are just crazy too, pretty much feral in some places. I’m thinking particularly of the tracks by Clarence Ashley, Buell Azee, William & Versey Smith and the, intriguingly named Carolina Tar Heels (no idea …).

Unbelievably, there’s this clip on YouTube, again from the fifties I think, of an interview and performance by a sixty-year-old Clarence Ashley. He sings “Coo Coo Bird” which I first heard done by the Holy Modal Rounders. It sounded haunting on their first album but, as some wise old stick points out in the comments, actually sounds even more ghostly and affecting than any of the other (many) versions.

This! This is history! (Song starts at 3:30, but do listen to the interview – “Well” I says “Give me that banjer”)