DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The folk musician Peter Stampfel recently completed a project he'd been working on for two decades. The idea was for him to record a favorite song for each year of the 20th century, not necessarily a hit but a song that spoke to him emotionally and as a representative of its time. The project, titled "Peter Stampfel's 20th Century," is being released next month. Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's a wonderful survey of popular music, as well as a lot of fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU TRULY")
PETER STAMPFEL: (Singing) I love you truly, truly, dear. Life with its sorrows, life with its tear fades into dreams when I feel you are near for I love you truly, truly, dear.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Peter Stampfel's distinctively expressive, quavering croon commences this massive project with "I Love You Truly," a hit in 1901 and a song the 82-year-old Stampfel remembers singing in his elementary school classroom in the late 1940s. One hundred songs later, he'll conclude with a cover of the Coldplay hit "Yellow" from 2000. In between, Stampfel will have sung pop, folk, blues, country, rock and rap songs, also novelty songs such as "Put Your Arms Around Me Honey (Hold Me Tight)" from 1911, an excellent example of the way Stampfel throws himself into a song, relating to the lyrics as though they were written just yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUT YOUR ARMS AROUND ME HONEY (HOLD ME TIGHT)")
STAMPFEL: (Singing) Put your arms around me, honey, hold me tight. Huddle up and cuddle up with all your might. Oh, oh, won't you roll those eyes, eyes that I just idolize? When you look at me, my heart begins to float. And it starts a rockin' like a motor boat. Oh, oh, I never knew any girl like you. Put your arms around me, honey...
TUCKER: If you're familiar with Peter Stampfel, it's probably because of his involvement with the Holy Modal Rounders, the unique folk rock outfit he was part of starting in the 1960s. Their semi-hit was "If You Want To Be A Bird" from the soundtrack to the 1969 movie "Easy Rider."
While he's written a wide variety of his own songs - I would recommend his 1976 album "Have Moicy!" to hear those - another chunk of his career has been spent interpreting - his favorite term for this is deconstructing - various American standards and pop hits.
Listen to the way he grabs hold of "Along Comes Mary," the 1966 hit by The Association. In his liner notes, Stampfel writes, every time I hear this song, I feel blessed. I have a similar blessed feeling about the way Stampfel manages to wring some sense from its deeply impenetrable lyric.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALONG COMES MARY")
STAMPFEL: (Singing) Every time I think that I'm the only one that's lonely, someone calls on me. And every time I think that I'm home free and out of trouble, something falls on me. Then along comes Mary. Does she want to be my chick and give me steady kicks and pick at wicked memories? Or would she rather not be bothered by the part of me that no one ever sees? When we met, I was sure out to lunch. Now my empty cup is as sweet as the punch.
TUCKER: One reason why it's taken a long time to get these songs recorded is that for a number of years, Stampfel couldn't sing them. Diagnosed with dysphonia, a general strain and overuse of his vocal chords, Stampfel's voice, at best a barbaric yawp, was stilled for a while. But this guy, he's a survivor.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")
STAMPFEL: (Singing) Should have changed that stupid lock and made you leave the key if I'd have known for just one second you'd be back to bother me. Go on. Now, go, go. Get out the door. Turn around now. You're not welcome anymore. Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die? No, not I - I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive. I've got all my life to live. I've got all my love to give. I will survive. I will survive.
TUCKER: From Jerome Kern's "Look For The Silver Lining" to the Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy" and beyond, Stampfel's version of the 20th century is remarkably free from nostalgia and mawkishness. Even within his own bohemian/urban/psychedelic/folk circle, he stands out in his genial weirdness and opinionated stubbornness. This gives his choices and his performances, their authority and a special tang.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T DREAM IT'S OVER")
STAMPFEL: (Singing) There is freedom within. There is freedom without. Try to catch a deluge in a paper cup. There's a battle ahead. Many battles are lost. But you'll never see the end of the road traveling with me. Hey, now - hey, now, don't dream it's over. Hey, now - hey, now when the world comes in. They come - they come to build a wall between us. We know they won't win.
TUCKER: There is so much to "Peter Stampfel's 20th Century." In addition to its five CDs of music, his liner notes lay out over more than 80 pages and 40,000 words, an alternative history of popular music that is well worth engaging with, arguing with, surrendering to. At once hugely ambitious and assiduously simple, it summarizes Stampfel's life as much as it does the 20th century.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker reviewed "Peter Stampfel's 20th Century."
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK FOR THE SILVER LINING")
STAMPFEL: (Singing) Look for the silver lining whenever a cloud appears in the blue. Remember, somewhere the sun is shining, and so the right thing to do is make it shine for you. A heart full of joy and gladness will always banish sadness and strife. So always looks for the silver lining, and try to find the sunny side of life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.