My uncle Sascha was a lefty lawyer in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s — he was the lawyer in the field with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and also Huey Newton’s contact with the outside world from prison — but by the time I was old enough to be aware of his activities he had ceased practicing law, and figured in my personal life mostly as a cool uncle who gave me some of the records that have most influenced the course of my life. He had been close to Lenny Bruce, and made sure I knew Lenny’s oeuvre, and he had gone to college or law school with a couple of the top people at Fantasy Records, and one year gave me a promotional sampler of their new series of “two-fer” blues releases, compiled from the old Prestige catalog. He knew I was getting into blues, and that set had two cuts each by some of the greatest: Furry Lewis, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Rev. Gary Davis, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee — but what changed my life was hearing Dave Van Ronk, Tom Rush, and the Holy Modal Rounders. They had two songs each, and I still can play all six. My notion of blues up till then was some Josh White 78s and my half-brother Dave’s records, which were people like Skip James and Booker White — all terrific, but much less accessible for a white kid from Cambridge who had started out with Pete, Woody, and Cisco.
Of all the artists on that set, I’m guessing it was the Rounders who first captured my imagination, because they were just so WEIRD. Especially “Euphoria,” which was unlike anything I’d every heard — it sounded like Charlie Poole on methedrine, except at that point I’d never heard of methedrine, or of Charlie Poole. I was thirteen years old, which is kind of a perfect age to discover the Rounders, and I fell hard, quickly learning this and “Blues In the Bottle.” Then my uncle was kind enough to follow up with the Fantasy double-LP set comprising their two first albums, and I picked up several more songs off that.
I only got to see the Rounders — the original duo, Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber — once, around 2000, and it was one of the most bizarre and fascinating shows I’ve ever attended. They had briefly reformed and were squabbling constantly between songs, but they were playing and singing better than ever, and the (small) audience was riveted through a two hour show.
I wouldn’t bet on any future Rounders gigs, but Peter is busier than ever, playing constantly and releasing new albums at a dazzling rate. If you don’t know his work, I still recommend starting with the Rounders, but for two later masterpieces I’d suggest “Impossible Groove,” a track with the Bottle Caps on which he raps a Robert Service poem, and his immortal version of “Goldfinger” with clawhammer banjo and tuba. And if you can see him live, don’t think twice, just go.