The Holy Modal Rounders

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The Holy Modal Rounders
OriginLower East Side, New York, NY, USA
GenresOld-time, Psychedelic folk,[1] Folk rock
Years active1963–2003
LabelsPrestige, Transatlantic, Rounder, ESP-Disk, Elektra, Metromedia, Adelphi, DBK Works, Water, Big Beat, Don Giovanni
  • The Moray Eels
  • The Unholy Modal Rounders
  • Clamtones
Past members

Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders

The Holy Modal Rounders was an American folk music group, originally the duo of Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, who formed in 1963 on the Lower East Side of New York City. Although the band was not initially successful, they quickly earned a dedicated cult following and have been retrospectively praised for their pioneering innovation in several genres related to folk music. They also proved to be influential, both during their initial run and to a new generation of musicians like Yo La Tengo and Espers.[2]

As the Holy Modal Rounders, Stampfel and Weber began playing in Greenwich Village, at the heart of the ongoing American folk music revival. Their sense of humor, irreverent attitude, and novel update of old-time music brought support from fellow musicians but also caused controversy amongst folk purists in the scene. In 1964, the Rounders made history with their self-titled debut, which included the first use of "psychedelic" in popular music. After their first two studio albums, the duo briefly joined the newly formed underground rock band the Fugs in 1965 and helped record the band's influential debut album.

Following their exit from the Fugs, the duo released two albums that experimented with psychedelic folk before they expanded their lineup to a full rock band by the end of 1968. The Holy Modal Rounders' expanded lineup notably included famed playwright Sam Shepard as a drummer and later guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter (amongst others) before stabilizing in 1971, with a band that would later back Jeffrey Frederick as the Clamtones. In 1972, Weber relocated the band to Portland, Oregon, while Stampfel stayed behind in New York. Although Stampfel would describe Weber as his "long lost brother,"[3] they often had a hostile relationship[4][2] and the two would only reunite sporadically following the band's Portland move. After Weber returned to the East Coast in 1995, the duo began a series of concert reunions starting in 1996 before breaking up for the last time in 2003.

Origin of the name[edit]

Stampfel explained the origin of the name in the webzine Perfect Sound Forever:

[Weber and I] kept changing the name. First it was the Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers. Then the Temporal Worth High Steppers. Then The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers. That was just a joke name. He was Rinky-Dink Steve the Tin Horn and I was Fast Lightning Cumquat. He was Teddy Boy Forever and I was Wild Blue Yonder. It kept changing names. Then it was the Total Modal Rounders. Then when we were stoned on pot and someone else, Steve Close maybe, said Holy Modal Rounders by mistake. We kept putting out different names and wait until someone starts calling us that then. When we got to Holy Modal Rounders, everyone decided by accumulation [sic] that we were the Holy Modal Rounders. That's the practical way to get named.[3]


Original incarnation[edit]

Fiddle and banjo player Peter Stampfel and country-blues guitarist Steve Weber[2] were introduced to each other in May 1963 by Stampfel's girlfriend Antonia Duren (or Antonia Stampfel), who was mononymously known as Antonia.[5][6] Peter and Antonia continued to date into the late 1970s and she received many co-writing credits to the band's songs.[7][6][4] According to Stampfel, he and Weber began performing together in New York City not long after being introduced.[6]

Although taking inspiration from classic jug bands[8] and Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music,[9] the duo quickly showed an inclination to "update old-time folk music with a contemporary spirit."[1] Music critic Richie Unterberger noted that they "twisted weathered folk standards with wobbly vocals, exuberantly strange arrangements, and interpretations that were liberal, to say the least."[10] Stampfel himself described his approach to music at the time: "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? And then they were exposed to contemporary rock 'n' roll. What did they do? And that sounded way, way, way more interesting than" faithfully imitating the original arrangements.[2] During this time, Stampfel also began to change the words and add new verses to the traditional songs they played, noting "I made up new words to it because it was easier than listening to the tape and writing words down."[1]

From the beginning, the duo's unorthodox approach to covering old-time music was negatively received by some folk purists. Ariel Swartley of The New York Times retrospectively remarked that they stood out in the New York folk scene, in which performers were usually reverential to the material they covered, for "shoe-horning one old-time melody into the middle of another, slipping updated references into archaic laments, making scatological asides or a casual segue to an unrelated fiddle tune and throwing in enough grunts, woofs, whistles and squeals to put both an aging steam engine and a seventh-grade classroom to shame. In short, they offered something to offend everyone."[11] Despite their seemingly irreverent approach, however, Swartley noted the duo "pursued traditional American music with an archival passion to rival that of the New Lost City Ramblers (a trio of scholarly re-creationists led by Pete Seeger's brother Mike)."[11] Rolling Stone echoed this sentiment in 1979 in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, hyperbolically stating that "Stampfel... has a working knowledge of almost every song ever written."[12]

While some saw their approach as disrespectful, the band attracted a small and devoted following.[1] Peter Tork of the Monkees was an early fan, saying the duo were "absolutely hilarious" and brought "a whole new level of authenticity" to the scene.[13] John Sebastian was also a fan[14] and his band the Lovin' Spoonful utilized the duo's arrangement of "Blues in the Bottle" for their debut album Do You Believe in Magic.[15] Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground praised the Rounders, saying that "the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, and the Velvet Underground were the only authentic Lower East Side bands. We were real bands playing for real people in a real scene. We helped each other out if we could and generally hung out at the same places."[16]

The duo released their first album The Holy Modal Rounders in 1964. Recorded the day before John F. Kennedy's assassination, the album contained a version of "Hesitation Blues", the lyrics of which included the first use of the term "psychedelic" in popular music.[17][9] Their second album, The Holy Modal Rounders 2, followed in 1965. Although neither received much attention upon release,[18] they have since increased in status, with Michael Simmons of LA Weekly describing the debut as a "classic of demented archaic country with rhythmic hints of rock."[9] In 1999, the two albums were combined and reissued as 1 & 2 to positive reviews.[19][20] Tom Hull, writing in 2004 for the fourth edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide, gave the reissue a four and half star rating, saying "it may have sounded weird way back when, but it sounds fresher than ever today."[21]

In February 1965, the duo joined The Fugs, not long after the group's formation.[22] Before their addition, the Fugs had only a hand drum to back up Tuli Kupferberg's and Ed Sanders's lyrics, so Stampfel and Weber offered to join the backing band.[16] Stampfel and Weber continued to play with the group for several months and they participated in the April sessions that produced the Fugs' debut studio album The Village Fugs,[16] which included Weber's cult classic "Boobs a Lot" (the Rounders would record their own version of the song on Good Taste Is Timeless). In July, Stampfel left the Fugs and quit the Holy Modal Rounders after growing frustrated with working with Weber.[3][12] Weber was fired from the group by the end of 1965 for being unreliable.[23][24]

Lineup expansion[edit]

After leaving the Fugs, Stampfel formed a rock band the Moray Eels,[12] which included his girlfriend Antonia, Sam Shepard on drums, Richard Tyler on piano, and Dave Levi on bass.[25] Shepard by then was already a noted playwright.[25] Although Antonia did not play any instruments,[23] she and Stampfel began a fruitful songwriting partnership during this time.[5]

In June 1967,[12] Stampfel and Weber briefly reunited at the behest of ESP-Disk founder Bernard Stollman to record another Holy Modal Rounders album. Released in 1967, Indian War Whoop also included contributions from Shepard and keyboardist (and ex-member of the Fugs) Lee Crabtree.[12][26] A departure from the old-time music Stampfel and Weber had previously played, Mark Deming of AllMusic later noted the album is "a thoroughly bizarre listening experience" with "neo-psychedelic fiddle-and-guitar freakouts and free-form (and often radically altered) interpretations of traditional folk tunes."[27]

Because Weber had refused to rehearse before recording Indian War Whoop (which led to an uneven and unfocused project in the eyes of Stampfel),[10] Stampfel did not intend to reunite with him.[25] However, the Moray Eels signed to Elektra Records under the condition that Weber would join the recordings.[25] Thus, Weber came with the Moray Eels, who by this time had replaced Levi with bassist John Annis, as they briefly moved to California in March 1968 to record an album.[23][16] During the band's time there, Antonia stopped performing with the group.[23] The Moray Eels Eat The Holy Modal Rounders was released in 1968 as the Rounders' fourth studio album[10] and featured a similar combination of traditional music and psychedelia to Indian War Whoop.[28] Richie Unterberger retrospectively reflected that "no acid folk album mixed inspiration and lunacy in as downright deranged a fashion as The Moray Eels."[10] The album opens with "Bird Song," which was notably included in Dennis Hopper's 1969 counterculture film Easy Rider and its soundtrack.[26] Stampfel later expressed dissatisfaction with The Moray Eels citing the fact that he, the rest of the band, and the producer used amphetamines excessively during recording and Weber again refused to rehearse any songs before entering the studio.[23][10] When the album was completed, Weber joined the Moray Eels and they began performing as the Holy Modal Rounders.[25]

Following the recording of The Moray Eels, the band played a number of notable shows, playing a set on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In,[29] opening for Pink Floyd and Ike & Tina Turner in California in late 1968, and opening for the Velvet Underground in Boston in early 1969.[25] Not long after the band returned to New York City in early 1969, Shepard left the group to focus on a movie meant to star the Rolling Stones.[25] Michael McCarty replaced Shepard on drums.

In Nashville, the band recorded their 1971 album Good Taste Is Timeless,[30] which saw the band move away from the psychedelia of their past two albums.[31] Not long before the album's recording, multi-instrumentalist Robin Remaily joined the group while bassist Dave Reisch replaced Annis in February 1971 after the album's recording.[32] Later in the year, the band relocated to Boston, Massachusetts,[33] where they added saxophonist Ted Deane and drummer Roger North (previously of Quill and replacing McCarty).[12] During their time there, they also briefly added Jeff "Skunk" Baxter to their lineup.[34][35] In 1972, Rounder Records, whose name was partially inspired by the group, wanted to record a Stampfel and Weber album. Luke Faust and Remaily participated in the sessions that became the band's sixth album Alleged in Their Own Time but it mostly featured recordings of just Stampfel and Weber.[12][23] The album would not be released until 1975.

Soon after the band's return from a three month tour of Europe in 1972 (which Stampfel did not participate in), Weber and the rest of the group relocated to Portland, Oregon.[36][33] Stampfel stayed behind in New York, effectively leaving the group.[12] In 1975, Jeffrey Frederick also moved to Portland where he utilized the Rounders minus Weber as his backing band the Clamtones.[37] The band continued to play with Weber as the Holy Modal Rounders.[12] A live album Steve Weber and the Holy Modal Rounders, B.C. from a 1976 radio show was released in 2006 by Frederick Productions/Red Newt Records. It is the only commercial album featuring Weber and the Portland band in its heyday.[38]

In 1975, Stampfel (without Weber) formed the short-lived Unholy Modal Rounders.[23] The group joined Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick, and the Clamtones in the studio and recorded the collaborative and critically-acclaimed 1976 album Have Moicy!.[39] In 1977, when the Holy Modal Rounders returned to the East Coast for a funeral, Stampfel reunited with them and recorded Last Round, which was released in 1978.[12] In 1979, Stampfel and Weber also reunited when Weber returned to the East Coast.[23] They recorded Going Nowhere Fast, which was released in 1981.

Later activity and reunions[edit]

During the Rounders' time in Portland, Stampfel continued to stay active musically,[23] most notably forming the Bottlecaps, who released Peter Stampfel and the Bottlecaps (1986), The People's Republic of Rock n' Roll (1989), and The Jig Is Up (2004). He also won a Grammy Award in 1998 for writing part of the liner notes for the CD reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music.[40]

Weber's Portland incarnation of the Rounders broke up in 1978, but they continued to live in the Portland area and reunited annually.[41] In 1995, Weber returned to his native Pennsylvania after years of substance abuse issues.[4][42] With Weber back on the East Coast, Stampfel and Weber reunited in 1996 at the Bottom Line, which began a series of reunions for the duo.[4] They then released Too Much Fun! under the Rounders name in 1999.

In 2003, the duo intended to reunite for a 40th anniversary show but Weber unexpectedly did not show up.[4] This was captured in the 2006 documentary film The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose, which was directed by Paul Lovelace and produced by Sam Douglas.[2] Weber later explained that he did not show up because he felt misrepresented by the filmmakers and was disappointed at the lack of attention directed to the band's days in Portland.[4][33]

Weber died on February 7, 2020, aged 76, in Mount Clare, West Virginia.[4][43] Stampfel noted after Weber's death that he hadn't seen Weber since 2002 and they had last corresponded via email in 2003 when they were arranging the 40th anniversary show.[44]

In popular culture[edit]

While Sam Shepard was still a drummer for the band, the Holy Modal Rounders played a brief set on the sketch comedy television program Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in 1968.[29] Stampfel believes this is the only film of Shepard playing with the band.[25] In 1969, the Holy Modal Rounders' "Bird Song" was included in Dennis Hopper's film Easy Rider and the movie's soundtrack. According to Stampfel, the song caught the attention of co-writer Peter Fonda who thought it would be perfect for the movie.[10] The soundtrack charted in the Billboard Top Ten and went gold.[45] The group also received exposure through Dr. Demento's radio show, which frequently included "Boobs A Lot."[8][41] From 1971 to 2022, Demento played it 167 times.[46]


Much has been made of the band's legacy as a cult act. Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the Holy Modal Rounders "one of rock's greatest cult bands."[47] The Seattle Times said "in the subculture of obscure music groups, the Rounders may be in a class of their own for deficiency of fame as well as longevity. For more than 40 years, this freakadelic folk-rock band also had lasting influence on fans wild and crazy enough to be in on the acquired-taste secret of their art."[48] Writing for AllMusic, Richie Unterberger called the band "almost the very definition of a cult act... Their audience was small because their music was too strange, idiosyncratic, and at times downright dissonant for mainstream listeners to abide."[1] The band's frequent drug use as well as Stampfel and Weber's creative differences also hindered a breakthrough, with NPR noting that the band exhibited "self-destructive behavior" that made them unable to capitalize on the inclusion of "Bird Song" on Easy Rider's commercially successful soundtrack.[2] Fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk thought similarly: "that was their moment right there. If they had been able to capitalize on [Easy Rider], they would have been two very very wealthy men. But somehow or another it just didn't happen."[49] The band's former road manager Jack Gallagher recalled in the early 2000s that "managing them was like herding snakes" but put the band's lack of success more squarely on Weber, questioning whether Weber would even complete the band's current tour and saying that Weber "never crashes until the money gets real good."[50]

Despite the band's lack of critical and commercial success during their initial run in the 1960s and 1970s, they have since earned significant praise, in particular for their groundbreaking reworking of 1920s and 1930s folk music. While the Rounders famously were the first to use "psychedelic" in popular music, music journalist Greil Marcus also used the Holy Modal Rounders as the earliest example of old American music being reinvented with modern aesthetics, commenting that they were "incapable of taking anything seriously, but nevertheless [got] to the bottom of folk songs other people sang as if they were obvious."[51] The band has frequently been lumped into what Marcus coined as "old weird America,"[41][47][52] which refers to the type of music Bob Dylan recorded for The Basement Tapes. Michael Simmons also noted the band's trail-blazing aesthetics, saying that "the story of the Rounders is one of the grand secret histories of 20th-century American music. If music history is often a game of Who Came First?, then the Rounders can be said to be the first psychedelic hippie freak band and the first aggressively anti-purist folkies, making them a crucial missing link between early- and late-20th-century pop."[9] The band's first two albums have also been called early forerunners of the genre freak folk,[53][54] with music critic Robert Christgau saying "freak folk started here."[19]

Music critic Eric Weisbard, writing for Spin in 1999, commented that after the band helped the folk scene rediscover many great "blues and Appalachian singers" in the 1960s, "it's time the tables were turned--it's time for the rediscovery of the Holy Modal Rounders."[55] Stampfel in particular was singled out for praise, with Weisbard declaring "Stampfel has become to roots music what Jon Langford is to punk: the patron saint of lost causes and good times in spite of them." Robert Christgau had similar high praise, believing that the Holy Modal Rounders, like Bob Dylan, "greatly transcend" the New York folk scene they began in and that "next to Bob Dylan, Stampfel is the closest thing to a genius" to come out of the 1960s folk revival.[13]

Rounder Records, formed in 1970, was named partially as a tribute to the Holy Modal Rounders.[56] The label would release several of the band's studio albums after the fact. In 2008, the Holy Modal Rounders were inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for their long stay in the state and their influence on the Portland music scene.[41]

Band members[edit]

Intervals for Tyler, Remaily, Reisch, North, and Shepard are included in the documentary The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose. The list below is adapted from the list the film provides during the credits.[57]

  • Peter Stampfel – vocals, fiddle, banjo (1963-2003)
  • Steve Weber – vocals, guitar (1963–2003)
  • Lee Crabtree – keyboards (1967)[25]
  • Sam Shepard – drums (1967–1969)
  • Antonia Duren (1968)
  • John Annis – bass (1968-1971)
  • Richard Tyler – piano (1968–1985, died 1985)[36]
  • Michael McCarty – drums (1969 or 1970 to 1971)[58]
  • Robin Remaily – vocals, guitar, mandolin (1970–2003)
  • Dave Reisch – bass (1971–2003)
  • Ted Deane – saxophone (1971–2003)
  • Roger North – drums (1971–2003)
  • Jeff "Skunk" Baxter – guitar (1971)
  • Luke Faust (1972)



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External links[edit]