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The Sound of America

Liner notes by Peter Stampfel


As far back as the mid-1700s, the term “ether frolic” was used to describe the recreational use of ether among the well-to-do in the United States and Europe and, slightly later, among medical students. “Ether Frolics” as interactive semi-theatrical entertainments, were popular in America and Europe from about the mid-19th century to the 1920s. A troupe of performers would hire a theatre, bring jars of ether for themselves to sniff, and invite members of the audience to come onstage and join the fun. Sort of an old-timey acid test—although I really didn’t like the label “acid test” when I first heard it in 1965 or so. Sounds like something you could pass or fail, two concepts I thought of as very un-acidy. I would have deeply loved to see stagefuls of 19th century folks wigged on ether. Maybe I will in heaven, if heaven is real.

The Ether Frolic Mob, on the other hand, doesn’t sniff ether. Especially me. At the age of six, in northern Minnesota, I had a tonsillectomy while anesthetized on ether and it was, to this day, the most painful and terrifying experience of my entire life. For what seemed like an eternity, a black and white checkerboard rushed past my field of vision from right to left, sort of like a train passing in front of you on a railroad track. The sound track was a chorus of men and women doing a loud, nonstop whispering chant: GonnaGETcha, gonnaGETcha, gonnaGETcha. The chant, the checkerboard, and the worst pain ever, went on and on with no variation. This happened about a month before the A-bombing of Japan. (By the way, Nagasaki, where the second bomb was dropped, was the secondary target. The original target, Kokura, was obscured by smoke from a previous fire-bombing, and orders were to only drop the bomb where the target was visible. The Japanese sometimes use an expression, “Kokura luck,” to describe lucky avoidance of catastrophe.)

The Ether Frolic Mob is the culmination of over a half-century of thinking about my ideal of a musical group, even though the thinking, itself, will never culminate. It is, and will remain, in flux. Oddly enough, the basic format was figured out in 1960, when Rob Hunter (not the Grateful Dead lyricist), George Dawson, and I formed MacGrundy’s Old-Timey Wool Thumpers (“wool thumping” being a euphemism for fucking). We were arguably the first band on the Lower East Side, the “East Village” label being some years in the future. We changed our name to the Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancy Street, and immediately, we were confronted with the question: Who’s in the band, and who’s not? The solution to the question was obvious. Anyone we played with could be in the band, and anyone they played with was free to consider himself or herself a band member as well. Our name functioned like an unfailingly contagious, though voluntary, virus. There was no practical limit to the number of members. Theoretically, we could have become a plague.

The Ether Frolic Mob formed in about 2004, under the name of Velocity Ramblers. Original members were, besides myself, John Cohen, Jeannie Scofield, Eli Smith, Sam and Walker Shepard, Pat Conte, and Betty Berkin. Sam, Pat, and Betty left; Hubby Jenkins (now mostly playing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops) joined us as did Jane Gilday, Craig Judelman—no longer a member, but on this album nonetheless—and my daughter Zoe. John Kessel is also a member, though he joined after this album was recorded.

At first I was concerned that the number of members would prove unwieldy, but it didn’t feel right to have a cut-off number, and this philosophy has proved handy, since everyone has day jobs and/or other bands. Eli, Walker, and Craig were the Dust Busters, and they’ve recorded two albums with John Cohen. (Craig left and Jackson Lynch joined, and now they’re the Down Hill Strugglers. Jackson has joined the Mob, as well. We’ve had a marriage and a new baby for Jeannie (say hello, Felix—oops, can’t talk yet) and when gigs come up there are sometimes only three or four of us around, which keeps things nicely fluid and interesting, although not much is needed to keep things interesting.

One singular feature of the band is the great disparity of ages. Members are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 70s, and 80s. Playing with a wide variety of age groups brings many more angles and attitudes into the mix. Another unusual, even singular, feature is that, although everybody sings, it is impossible to mistake anyone’s voice for anyone else’s. In most groups it is often difficult, maybe impossible, to tell who is singing. (This seems to be truer of California groups, especially ones from Southern California.) One more unusual thing about this album is that it was recorded live, without earphones. John, Eli, Walker, Craig, Jane, Hubby, and I laid down basic tracks. Zoe and Jeannie, who had to work on the two days we did this, added their vocals later. The tracks are all first or second takes, although I think there may have been three takes on a song or two. The recordings were made in the Summer of 2011 at the Jalopy theatre in Red Hook, Brooklyn. (Thanks Lynette and Jeff!)

The odd percussion sound on several tracks is three cuicas played by my daughter Zoe, myself, and Jim Bertini, who engineered one of the two sessions and did the mixing. The cuica is a small drum with a stick attached to the middle of the head. The stick is rubbed with a damp cloth while the head is pressed and generally manipulated with the other hand. Deeply weird shit happens when this is done in multiples. I urge you all to cop some cuicas and get busy. Played together, they seem to invoke some deeply wack spirits, who are fantastic playmates. In Cuba, a very large cuica is in fact played for the sole purpose of calling certain spirits forth. Sometimes the sound resembles a human voice. Supposedly, the original African cuica was used to imitate a lioness and lure male lions. It was brought to Brazil by slaves, and cuica bands are an integral part of carnival. It is sometimes referred to as the laughing gourd.

Perhaps the most critical factor of the Ether Frolic Mob is that this is the very first time in all my history with bands—52 years—that I am in a band with no druggies, alkies, people with major character flaws, ego problems, or douchiness of any variety. Actually, come to think of it, the Rounders without Weber was sorta like that. But today’s group is all people I enjoy hanging out with, who never bore me, and continue to grow as musicians. My musical ideal is to play with people ongoingly, with the intention of doing it for the rest of our lives. More glorious things happen the longer people play together. That good ol’ musical telepathy takes hold. In a way, for me, a group is like a marriage. An ideal marriage that stays together and continues to radiate charm and joy, into the constantly evernew dawn, hand in hand in hand, etcetera, forever and ever. Another wonderful thing about this band is everyone’s willingness to tackle any kind of song, any kind of music. A problem I had with the Rounders in the 70s was how often I would try to introduce a song and be told that doesn’t sound like a Rounder song. But that’s the point, I would try to explain. And so, I wonder: How big can the Mob get? The most recent time we tried to find out was last January (2012), in Portland, Oregon, when we recorded Have Moicy! II, The Hoodoo Bash.

The first Have Moicy! was recorded in the Summer of 1975 and was to bring the extended musical family, east and west coasts, together. Michael Hurley, Robin Remaily, and Steve Weber knew each other since their junior year of high school in 1959—about the same time I got to New York City. Robin, Steve, and I were in the Holy Modal Rounders (I never played with ichael); Robin, Steve, and Michael played together in the early 60s as the Blues Doctors before I’d met any of them. In 1972, I stayed in New York, but the other six Rounders moved to Portland, where they (without Weber) started playing with Jeffrey Feederick and Jill Gross. When they backed the two Js, they wereThe Clamtones. When they played with Weber but not the two Js, they were the Holy Modal Rounders again. They did a two-bands-in-one deal in the 70s:The Clamtones would play a first and last set, and the Rounders would play in the middle. Dave Reisch and Robin were the only west coast Rounders to make it to the Have Moicy! session, but they brought Jeff and Jill. I brought Paul Presti, who was in the Unholy Modal Rounders, which Dave Reisch helped me form when he visited New York in 1974. Michael brought in Wax Iwaskiewicz on drums, who with Dave, was the rhythm section. The album was recorded in three days and, by good fortune, everyone had alpha songs to contribute to it. Bob Christgau chose it as 1976 Record of the Year, and it made the New York Times top twenty. It’s truly a classic, you should try listening to it if you haven’t. It really holds up.

The Sounds of America continued onpage 2