The story of how we got together is a pretty cool story.
I was playing with John Cohen, Jean Scofield and some other people around 2006. I first heard John on the first New Lost City Ramblers album in 1958. We originally met in the ‘70s. When we got together again in the aughties, John was saddened by the loss of several close friends he had been playing with for decades.
I heard that Sam Shepard and family had moved to New York, so I called and asked if he wanted to come over and do some music. He asked, “Can I bring my kid?” and I said, “Sure”. I had read that he had two kids and they had all been living in Minnesota. Walker was the kid he brought, a 17-year old, a few months younger than my daughter Zoë. It turned out Walker had been playing banjo less than a year, and could do some stuff that I couldn’t and I’d been playing for almost sixty. If you’ve heard Patti Smith’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, that’s Walker on banjo.
Here’s where the cool part comes in: Walker had been learning a bunch of Roscoe Holcomb songs, and had an uncannily similar High Lonesome voice (yes, it’s a style) as Roscoe Holcomb. John Cohen was the person who found, filmed and recorded Roscoe Holcomb in Kentucky, in the late ‘50s. When John heard Walker singing Roscoe–– nailing Roscoe, actually––he was deeply moved.
Shortly afterwards, I met Eli Smith, who joined the band that had recently been joined by Walker and Sam. Walker had been playing with a fiddler named Craig Judelman at Bard, where they had been attending school. Eli joined them to form a trio, the Dust Busters, which ended up touring with John Cohen for several years. Both Eli and Walker, along with John, were more deeply into traditional music than I was. In the early ‘60s I became more interested in popular music than traditional, although my love of trad has remained strong, as this album attests.
Eli, Walker and John recorded with me as members of the Ether Frolic Mob, and Eli and Walker were also on Have Moicy! 2: The Hoodoo Bash. We have started work on another project: Let’s Swarm Smith! The Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and Louisville Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm. Regarding Let’s Swarm Smith!––after seeing Jenny Scheinman perform her violin magic with Bill Frisell, I talked to her about that sound that happens when a minimum of three or even more violins play together. “Yes,” she said, “The Swarm. Like bees.” “Yes,” I said. “Perfect! That’s the word I’ve been looking for!”
Hence our albums Holiday for Strings, The Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan Fiddle/Mandolin Swarm and the upcoming Let’s Swarm Smith!, which will mainly be a trad-yet-modern take on the seven fiddle tunes on the Harry Smith Anthology, which to me remains the best collection of fiddle tunes I’ve ever heard. Seven songs were not enough for an album, so we will be rounding out Let’s Swarm Smith! with some cool surprises. This time around Walker could only squeeze in two days to record before he went back to Louisville, so next time we’ll be sure to block out at least a week for a more fine-tuned effort.
Some last thoughts: I really love playing with these guys, and recording with Dok Gregory. Walker and Eli are sort of idealized sons to me in a strange and nifty way and, in the same strange and nifty way, Dok is sort of my brother. And all the bands I/we have going now––the Wildernauts, the Ether Frolic Mob, the Atomic Meta Pagans, the Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel band, as well as the upcoming duo + group with Jane Gilday–– are extended family, multi-generational entities. Originally everyone was in their teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies (Walker to John Cohen), and now they’re in their thirties to eighties, with each decade in between represented. I’ve always liked playing with peeps from all age groups, as the multi-generational prospective does a much better job of, metaphorically speaking, covering the musical/cultural waterfront.
Musically speaking, I’m a serial polygamist. I like people I can play with long-term. The longer people play together, the deeper the intuitive bond becomes. For additional details about my general musical approach, for those who give an actual fuck, go to the Perfect Sound Forever site and read my piece on Freak Folk. Freak Folk is a dumb phrase, like hippy and hipster––ever meet anyone who says, “I’m a hipster?”. Those all generally describe, however vaguely, things that sort of actually exist.
I think it was the summer of 2007. I went to the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A to see Jeffrey Lewis and Peter Stampfel play a show together.
After their set, Jeffrey, a mutual friend, introduced me to Peter, saying, “Peter, this is Eli. He plays the banjo, too.” Peter said, “Great!” and invited me to his house to play some music. I’ve been playing with Peter ever since, enjoying his gravity, curiosity and forceful yet democratic musical presence––to my great benefit. The years of playing together have opened my music in ways that could not have occurred otherwise.
It was probably several months after our first meeting that I attended a music party at Peter and Betsy’s apartment. It was there I met Walker and John Cohen. We went on to form an old-time string band, first called the Dust Busters and then the Down Hill Strugglers. Playing music with Peter and Walker, and playing old-time music with John and Walker have been my two connected pillars of music.
The songs on this album are a variety of things we have played over the years and offer further testament to the depth of Peter’s repertoire. It’s great to hear him sing country! This album also presents songs that Peter re-wrote, or were written by some of the great songwriters that have been around him over the years. I brought in one song, “Picking Dandelions” and an instrumental, “Wildernaut Rag”. We end with a free-form banjo frolic, for good measure.
It was a pleasure to spend time making this album with Peter, Walker and Dok Gregory. In a way, Walker and I grew up playing with Peter. This album is a ragtag Saturnalia, a celebration of years of musical time spent together.