Sam Shepard & the Holy Modal Rounders

By Daniel Margrain

On July 27, 2017, the world lost a prestigious talent. The US actor, playwright and musician. Sam Shepard, had written at least 55 plays, acted in more than 50 films and had more than a dozen roles on television. His play Buried Child, won him the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1979.

As a key figure in helping to rejuvenate American theatre in the 1960s, Shepard is perhaps best known for Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) where he received a best supporting actor nomination, and Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978).

What first drew my attention to Shepard was not so much his acting, as great as that was, but his writing, particularly the screenplay he had part-penned for the Wim Wender’s film Paris Texas (1984), a fascinating metaphysical study of self-discovery and disillusionment.

Ry Cooder’s haunting score and the superlative performances from a terrific ensemble cast, provided the space for Shepard’s hallucinatory words to breath. In my view the interplay between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski in the following scene is one of cinemas finest moments.

The above scene has Shepard’s underlying naturalistic and suspended sense of trauma, mystery and grief written all over it. These ghostly and introspective themes, reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, haunt Shepard’s work.

Probably less well known was that Shepard collaborated with John Cale and Bob Dylan, notably his part-penning of “Brownsville Girl,” from the latter’s 1986 album “Knocked Out Loaded”. But arguably his most creatively fertile inroad into music was as a drummer with The Holy Modal Rounders, one of the most obscure and underrated groups of the 1960s.

The band also comprised Peter Stampfel on vocals and electric fiddle, Steve Weber on guitar and vocals and Lee Crabtree on piano and organ. Probably best known for their beautiful expression of freedom, “If you want to be a bird” that was included in the Easy Rider (1969) road movie soundtrack, the band were one of the most distinctive and original sounding artists of the time.

Their inventive deconstruction of US country-folk traditions and blithe send-up of musical Americana, was even more eccentric and anarchic in terms of its execution in their masterpiece, Indian War Whoop (1967).

While mining the Americana tradition, the group introduced wild and zany virtuoso turns on acoustic guitar, banjo and violin. “If you want to be a bird” was one of their later relatively conventional sounding records highlighting the vocal dexterity of Stampfel and Weber in addition to the haunting piano of Crabtree.

Dissonant and chaotic, with a cutting political edge that underscored a deliberate lack of respect for the vocal harmony tradition, the groups Fug’s style acid-folk had a devoted live following across the United States.

“Soldiers Joy” from Indian War Whoop is a masterpiece of irreverent and maniacal abandon. Stampfel’s electric fiddle is a political weapon in his hands. Country-folk traditions are fused with epileptic-sounding psychedelic marching band music with Shepard’s brilliant, frenetic drumming driving the madness along nicely.

Hardly any of the mainstream obituaries mentioned Shepard’s contribution to one of America’s greatest bands, and the few that did only mentioned it in passing.

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11 thoughts on “Sam Shepard & the Holy Modal Rounders

  1. thanks! but crabtree was just a side musician on the indian war whoop record, that was the only time we played together. weber: give me some “suddenly” music, and lee hit a dramatic soap opers chord. the rounder keyboard guy was richard tyler, who i started playing with in 1967. and or course, weber and i were the fug’s original backup band. pick dem nits! but thanks! tis sweet to be remembered. email me and i’ll send some more recent stuff. the last album by the jeffrey lewis & peter stampfel band made about a half-dozen best indie lists in 2013.

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    1. Whoop(s) sorry about the Crabtree error. I find your music to be extremely beautiful and emotionally powerful. Thanks for responding, Peter. It means a lot me. Daniel.

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    2. Peter … I am such a fan ever since meeting you in , I think ,’62 when I was the door guy at the Cafe Wha . Later , in ’72 I was , along with my sister Anne Gerety and her husband Tom Hill ( parents of Nicholas Hill and Tim Hill) , trying mightily to create anti-war theater at the Storefront in Portland Oregon …. across the street from the White Eagle … where the Rounders played for years ( you included briefly I think … and Sam VERY briefly in , maybe ’75 ?…. anyway , this was all prompted by seeing Richard Tyler’s name pop up . Many the night I sat and listened to that piano playing genius ( in my mind) and a few times even when I joined in with the washtub … heaven memories .” Right String Baby” – “Boobs a lot ” the Fugs .. Jeffrey…. the best .

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    3. Peter, I love your music; you and Jim have made me smile for decades. Sorry that I never got a chance to meet you…think that I missed when you were at Newport Folk Festival (if you were). I got to most of them. Hope tthat you are still doin’ that thing!

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  2. I am really glad to see someone to justice to Sam’s time with the Rounders, Crabtree error or not! Thanks. A nice piece of writing.

    What song did Shepard write with Cale? I will have Googled it presently but that was my “hell i didnt know that” moment above. “Brownsville Girl”is great.

    Googlers note that I have a large Stampfel interview on my blog, Alienated in Vancouver, where we talk a bit about Sam’s more recent occasional involvement in the Velocity Rounders, with Peter, if i am recalling.

    There is also a Rowan and Martin Laugh In video clip out there with Sam on drums as the Rounders do “You’ve Got the Right String Baby but the Wrong Yo Yo.” Somewhere else online he – Sam Shepard – comments something like, “we were on laugh in? What drugs wad I on?”

    Peter, if youre still following this, why did Sam go from drums on IWW to tambourine on Moray Eels? Is he not also the drummer on Moray Eels? (I saw a credit somewhere where he is just listed as tambourine but I dunno if that was right?

    Oh, and at least one Sam Shepard play actually involved the Rounders onstage, right? Operation Rattlesnake? Any memories or deets of that would be very welcome.

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    1. Thanks Allan. Don’t know what Shepard’s involvement was with Cale other than he apparently collaborated with him. I read it here:

      http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/sam-shepard-helped-bob-dylan-write-one-of-his-best-songs/

      I should have cited the article. I will correct that now with a link. I also, without success, have tried to ascertain what the collaboration entailed. If anybody out their can help Allan and I, we would be grateful.

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  3. Sam also played drums with a group called “Lothar and the Hand People.” This wasn’t the actual group recorded by Capitol Records, but was a trio billed by that name when they played during the intermission of two one-act plays written by Sam and produced by Albert Poland. theater was the Astor Place Theater in NYC, early 1970. The trio was Sam on drums, Rusty Ford on bass out of the real Hand People and guitarist-vocalist, Paul Conly, synthesizer and guitar player from Lothar and the Hand People. I am that very same Paul Conly, BTW. Sam got the producer to hire me to do music for the premiere of “The Unseen Hand.” This was the chance to introduce New York to the ARP Music Synthesizer which was played during the production, rather like an organist accompanying a silent movie in the 1920’s. I had met Peter Stampfel and Sam Shepard in 1966 in Greenwich Village and we used to jam together. Once or twice I played gigs with the Holy Modal Rounders, although after Steve Webber was Peter’s cohort. Peter taught me how to keep your fingers from blistering away so that we could have marathon jam sessions. As he told me, “things get really interesting after the first couple of days.”

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    1. Hi, Didn’t your producer play for a duo called Tonto’s Expanding Head Band? Anyway, if I’m not mistaken, with their record Zero Time TEHB were the first to create an album played entirely by synthesizer. I discovered your band back in the 1980s during the new wave era. Devo have got a lot to be thankful for. Machines, in particular, is way ahead of its time – a great record, as are both your albums, Presenting and Space Hymn. Thanks for your very interesting comment. I learn something new every day. Daniel.

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