Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Holy Modal Rounders - The Holy Modal Rounders

In my opinion, the word "folk" is egregiously overused.  From Mumford and Sons to America to Iron and Wine, the genre "folk music" is broadly applied to groups that emphasize acoustic instrumentation, don't have a heavy rock sound, and rarely have anything to do with the folk tradition. That is, the playing of actual folk music; traditional songs that have been passed down for generations and continually altered by performers insofar as the music becomes a living tradition that's continually changing and evolving.  While I agree that there can be a difficulty in accurately describing the type of music that the aforementioned artists make, it's really not folk in any technical sense, and so describing it only dilutes the potency and clarity of a great word and concept--"folk" can be used to describe all manner of participation in the folk tradition from the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams' and Béla Bartók's collection and assimilation of folk melodies into their classical works, to Harry Smith's anthology of various real people playing their renditions of American folk songs, to Bob Dylan's wholesale "theft" (a cornerstone of the folk tradition) and reassembly of everything from folk melodies, folk lyrics, literary and historical figures, and pop culture, which just might stand as the single greatest modern expression of the living folk idiom seen in the 20th century.  Anyway, the totality of the folk tradition is both messy and diffuse and I have no intention to stridently decide who is and isn't a folk artist (part of the allure is folk's all-encompassing, diverse nature), but one of the groups and albums that most immediately comes to mind when I think of the precise definition of "folk" is The Holy Modal Rounders and their 1964 debut.

Though it later swelled in its later-60's incarnations, the Rounders started as a duo--Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel (with whom I'm proud to say I'm facebook friends), who were highly active in the NYC folk revival of the early 60's and were also involved in The Fugs.  That association alone might give you a pretty good clue as to the Rounders' approach to folk music--irreverance abounds as Weber (guitar) and Stampfel (fiddle, banjo) trade vocals in ridiculous voices (Weber's got the sort of wheezy one and Stampfel's the nasaly one) across a selection of Rounders-arranged traditional folk tunes like the classic "The Cuckoo," "Same Old Man," "Give the Fiddler A Dram" and "Bound to Lose."  As folk musicians are wont to do, the pair not only arrange the songs with a number of comic flourishes, they also mess around with some of the lines to make the songs their own.  Although the arrangements are simple, they're subtle--Weber's guitar forms the framework for many of the songs, like "Blues in the Bottle," where he lays down the guitar foundation and Stampfel's fiddle periodically appears to lend its scratchy warmth to the melodic refrain--much more effective than if it were played for the song's entirety. 

What really sets this album above the standard folk fare (especially the kind of contrived anachronistic old-timey stuff that a lot of today's folk revivalists are into) are the excellent handful of original songs peppered throughout the collection--the fantastic "Hesitation Blues," which just might feature the first recorded use of the word "psych-o-delic" (as the band says it) and some subtle harmony vocals.  And then there's the hilarious nonsense and onomatopoeia of "Mr. Spaceman," and the druggy glory of "Euphoria" [Update 2/20/12: I'm told "Hesitation Blues" actually isn't an original tune but an update of a song recorded earlier by Crying Sam Collins, thanks Mel!]  The duo manage to adapt their original tunes to their folk style with traditional-sounding melodies and the most important ingredient of folk music--collective fun.  If only they'd broken beyond cult status, perhaps more of today's folkies would be playing their own versions of Rounders' originals.  As it stands, this album is a great time and a shot in the arm for what's sometimes a pretty musty genre.

You can get it on CD here, along with their enjoyable but not quite as sparkling second album.

1 comment:

Lex said...

Another nice review of another great album. I love their irreverence.