THE NEW LOST CITY vol. I Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage | MRC 520 | Washington DC 20560-0520 SFW CD 40036 p © 1991, 2009 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings | www.folkways.si.edu
the early years
LOST CITY vol. I
the early years
1. Colored Aristocracy 2:05 (Sanford Rich) 2. Hopalong Peter 2:04 (Frank Dumont) 3. Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down 2:26 4. When First Unto This Country 2:48 5. Sales Tax on the Women 3:14 (Dorsey Dixon–Wade Mainer/Jaymore Music, BMI) 6. Rabbit Chase 2:30 (Charlie Parker) 7. Leaving Home 3:05 (Charlie Poole–Norman Woodlieff/Charlie Poole Publishing Inc.Original Rambler Music Inc., admin by Bug, BMI)
8. How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? 3:34 (Alfred Reed/Peer International Corp., BMI)
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Back Again 2:19 (Bill Cox) 10. I Truly Understand You Love Another Man 2:29 (George Roark/Peer International Corp., BMI)
11. The Old Fish Song 4:52 (James Howard) 12. The Battleship of Maine 3:05 13. No Depression in Heaven 2:56 (A.P. Carter/Peer International Corp., BMI) 14. Dallas Rag 2:02 15. Bill Morgan and His Gal 2:56 (Halsey Mohr–Will Mahoney) 16. Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss 2:31 17. The Lady of Carlisle 3:32 18. Brown’s Ferry Blues 2:46 (Alton Delmore–Rabon Delmore/Vidor Publications Inc., BMI) 19. My Long Journey Home 2:37 (Charlie Monroe/Berwick Music Corp., BMI) 20. Talking Hard Luck 2:40 21. The Teetotals 1:00 22. Sal Got a Meatskin 3:24 23. Railroad Blues 2:41 (Sam McGee/Morganactive Songs Inc., ASCAP) 24. On Some Foggy Mountain Top 2:25 (A.P. Carter/Peer International Corp., BMI) 25. My Sweet Farm Girl 2:22 (Clarence Ashley) 26. Crow Black Chicken 2:35
When some future scholar compiles the history of folklore, our century will be noted as the point at which the locus of collecting, preserving, and disseminating folklore changed from the printed page to the electronic
the early years
media. In the first half of the 20th century, folklorists began to use disc, tape, wire, and film rather than writing to collect and preserve sung and played folk music, and a parallel documentation was carried out by the fledgling entertainment industry, which inadvertently preserved some dying folkways among its immense production of ephemera such as films and phonograph recordings. In the second half of the century, the recorded legacy of our dwindling oral culture, a legacy that had accumulated largely unnoticed in archives, vaults, and private collections, began to come to light and to generate a cultural phenomenon of its own—young musicians, largely collegeeducated and urban, learning folk music not by hearing and emulating elder musicians within their families or communities in the age-old way, but by hearing and emulating the recorded sounds of musicians often decades and cultures distant from them. The media powering this new transmission of music were the reissue LP (such as the key 1952 Anthology
JON PANK AKE
of American Folk Music on Folkways) and the home tape recorder, via which
dubs of unissued and out-of-print material could circulate. The face-toface “oral tradition” had become the ear-to-speaker “aural tradition” of a new century and a new technologically defined community. The New Lost City Ramblers will leave barely a blip in the history of 3
the entertainment business, as they predicted in their jokes about their
audience—those few who wanted not only to study the music seriously,
“long-playing, short-selling” albums on the Folkways label. But they have
but who also wanted to learn to play the music themselves, actually to be
nevertheless earned the touch of immortality for their central role in our
the heirs of a musically rich American culture which by the 1960s largely
discovery of the folkloristic riches preserved electronically in the early
existed only in the scratchy echoes found on primitive recordings, and in
years of our century. As individual performers, Mike Seeger, Tom Paley,
the memories of an ever-fewer number of elders.
and John Cohen had during the 1950s become interested in performance
Within a couple of years of touring college campuses and coffeehouses,
style in American folk music, exactly that dimension of the music which
the Ramblers—to their great surprise—began to meet dozens, and
recordings uniquely capture. In 1958 they formed The New Lost City
eventually hundreds, of young urban musicians who had become inspired
Ramblers with the explicit intention of performing American folk music
by the Ramblers’ example to begin to play old-time country music learned
as it had sounded before the inroads of radio, movies, and television had
in the “aural tradition,” either from the Ramblers’ own performances, from
begun to homogenize our diverse regional folkways.
the archival recordings to which the Ramblers had directed them, or even
They studied and learned from commercial 78 rpm discs of “hillbilly”
directly from musicians the Ramblers had introduced to urban folk festivals.
musicians recorded in what has come to be called the Golden Age (1923–
The history of this movement is as yet unwritten, but some of its raw
1940), from blues and “race” records of the same era, from the bluegrass
material can be found in a remarkable document titled “The Young Fogies
recordings of the post-war period, from the field recordings on deposit
Gazette,” a newsprint pamphlet included in the 1985 LP The Young Fogies
in the Library of Congress. In turn, they began their own field trips to
(Heritage 056). The “Gazette” contains autobiographical sketches of over
seek out and record and learn the music of older rural musicians who still
a hundred influential amateur and professional musicians, mostly urban
played and sang in the old way. Over the next twenty years, the Ramblers
and East or West Coast dwellers, who currently play some form of music
poured forth a steady stream of their own performances live and recorded,
largely inspired by the example of the Ramblers. These musicians in turn
albums of their field recordings, and festival performances and workshops
have recorded their own albums (The Young Fogies provides an excellent
in which they introduced musicians they had met in the South to urban
sampling of their music), made their own field trips, produced their own
audiences of the folk song revival of the 1960s. Their lasting influence
documentaries, and have kept traditional songs, instrumental styles, and
was greatest upon a relatively small but important part of that urban
vocal techniques alive and evolving. A professor of art carries on the
Kentucky banjo styles of Pete Steele, which he learned from Steele’s
Of all the Ramblers, he seemed most to savor the incongruity of it all:
Library of Congress recordings; a design engineer plays traditional fiddle
a Yale-educated college math teacher playing the generations-old music
styles he learned from rural masters at the Galax Old Fiddlers Convention;
of Southern mill hands and farmers for post-Eisenhower urban college
a woman who works on a word processor experiments with the old-time
audiences. John Cohen was the group’s William Blake, a visionary role
fiddle electronically enhanced with a phase shifter, and the music inspired
befitting his artist’s training and talents. In retrospect, he seemed most
by the Ramblers begins to take on strange and exciting new configurations.
aware of the evolving mission of the Ramblers, most aware that the group
The Ramblers were terrific stage personalities as well as teachers
was about something more than entertaining, was carving out some yet
and disseminators of old-time tunes and performance styles. Like
unknown place in history and inspiring many of its audience to become
all successful professional musical groups, the Ramblers possessed
a new kind of musical community, and he often struggled to articulate
magnetic, individually distinctive personalities that “jelled” in their
this evolving vision both onstage and in the poetic essays he wrote for the
interplay onstage: like their contemporaries The Beatles, The New Lost
City Ramblers were greater than the sum of their individual talents.
In 1962 Tom Paley left the Ramblers to pursue a teaching and
Though the group had no official leader, Mike Seeger often of necessity
eventually a musical career in England, and the phase of the group’s
functioned as the M.C. in their concerts, introducing the group’s numbers
history documented on this disc ended. Within the year, however, the
while Paley and Cohen retuned. Handsome, with a Lincolnesque shock
Ramblers regrouped with Tracy Schwarz joining the band and bringing
of hair and cheekbones, he alone of the three seemed somehow Southern
with him skills in ballad singing, fiddling, and bluegrass and Cajun music
and courtly in the gentlemanly manner of older musicians such as Dock
that would enlarge and enrich the band’s repertoire through their 20th
Boggs. The group’s most versatile musician, he was also their educator,
anniversary in 1978 and beyond.
concerned always to provide the insight that would link their music with
Hearing the Ramblers’ earliest recordings now, listeners are less
the culture and the musicians from which it came. In contrast, Tom
likely to make a mistake common in 1959 when their first album appeared:
Paley was the group’s Puck, quintessentially witty, thoroughly urban and
that they were scholarly imitators in the manner of the academic,
intellectual, given to outrageous puns and wordplay, a master teller of
amateur Dixieland bands of two generations ago, who would get together
jokes, and a breathtaking showman on finger-picked guitar and banjo.
to memorize and play by rote classic early jazz tunes they laboriously
transcribed from beloved old 78 rpm recordings. Those who in the last thirty years have sought out the original recordings from which the Ramblers gathered their repertoire can best appreciate the astonishing creativity which Seeger, Cohen, and Paley brought to their music. Far from imitating, they managed the feat of learning the musical syntax of old-time song—the instrumental attacks and licks, the vocal shadings, the interplay of ensemble lead and support—and then used their mastery of this syntax to re-create in their own voices new performances which boasted all the spirit and sweetness and bite that the old masters such as Sara Carter and Charlie Poole bequeathed to history in their recordings. The first recordings of The New Lost City Ramblers are now themselves historical documents: older, in fact, than were most of the 78 rpm discs the Ramblers resurrected at that time. Logically, as time goes on, the distance between the Ramblers and their sources will diminish in significance, until discographers of the future will simply regard them as just another old-time country string band who learned tunes from the recordings of other musicians (as did, in actuality, several 1930s old-time
bands such as The Blue Sky Boys and Mainer’s Mountaineers). Since we are told that history repeats itself, perhaps it is time for The New Lost City Ramblers themselves to be discovered by a new audience exploring their cultural past through the laser-powered electronic medium of the compact disc. The irony will be most appreciated, of course, by those earlier cultural explorers, The New Lost City Ramblers themselves. 8
1. COLORED ARISTOCRACY
song becomes nearly surrealistic in its pictorial precision, something of the effect one notes in the early Disney Silly Symphonies animated cartoons. Mike takes advantage of Tom’s banjo breaks to change instruments from the fiddle to the mandolin and back again.
Mike Seeger, fiddle; Tom Paley, banjo; John Cohen, guitar / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: Sanford and Harry Rich on fiddles, Rensel Rich on guitar, Elmer Rich on mandolin, Arthurdale, West Virginia, 1936. Library of Congress 3306 B2.
Illustrative of the “lost” material the Ramblers introduced to urban audiences, this unusual fiddle tune contains remnants of ragtime from early in the 20th century. Although the Riches were white musicians, the tune’s title may indicate an origin in African-American musical tradition, possibly as a cakewalk. Tom invented the banjo break out of sheer wizardry, and the Ramblers have added the C chord, changes which perfectly complement the original tune and make the performance the Ramblers’ own, a re-creation rather than an imitation. In the generation since the Ramblers recorded it, the tune has become a standard in East Coast contra dances.
3. DON’T LET YOUR DEAL GO DOWN John Cohen, lead vocals and banjo; Tom Paley, tenor vocal and guitar; Mike Seeger, fiddle / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers Columbia 15038
The song’s title refers to its origins as a blues about gambling, and a contemporary of Charlie Poole’s reported hearing the song before 1911. Poole’s string band arrangement, featuring the GEAD ragtime progression and the banjo chorded up the neck, was innovative to country music in the 1920s, and the great popularity of Poole’s 1925 recording made the song a standard that survived into the bluegrass era.
2. HOPALONG PETER Mike Seeger, lead vocals, fiddle, and mandolin; Tom Paley, vocal and banjo; John Cohen, bass vocal
4. WHEN FIRST UNTO THIS COUNTRY
and guitar / From Old Timey Songs for Children
Mike Seeger, vocal and autoharp; Tom Paley, banjo /
Folkways FC 7064 / Source: Fisher Hendley and His
From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Two
Aristocratic Pigs Vocalion 04780
Folkways FA 2397 / Source: Maggie and Foy Gant with guitar, Austin, Texas, 1935. Library of Congress 65 A2.
The delightful imagery of this nonsense 10
Mike has sung this lovely, sad American ballad for about fifty years, first hearing it as a child when his mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, transcribed the Library of Congress field recording for publication in John and Alan Lomax’s Our Singing Country (1941). The voices on the battered aluminum disc of the Gants’ performance are difficult to make out. I think I hear the last line of the fourth stanza as “’Til I stole a fine gray horse from Captain William White,” which reading would explain the pursuit in the fifth stanza. Mike and Tom have created a beautiful and original accompaniment for this ballad, with the banjo gently peppering the sweet lushness of the autoharp.
used in at least one earlier country song of humorous protest, Ernest Thompson’s peculiar “Don’t Put a Tax on the Beautiful Girls” (Columbia 168).
6. RABBIT CHASE John Cohen, vocal and banjo / From Old Timey Songs for Children Folkways FC 7064 / Source: Charlie Parker Columbia 15154
The unique charm of Charlie Parker’s banjo fable lies in its scaling down the traditional hunting epic and the imitation of the fox chase to the intimate level of a child’s excitement over the prospect of catching a rabbit. In an amazing example of the urban folk revival feeding material back into tradition, John reported, “I have performed it for mountain people in Kentucky, and they were so amused that they took out a tape recorder and recorded me doing it.”
5. SALES TAX ON THE WOMEN Tom Paley, lead vocals and Hawaiian guitar; Mike Seeger, tenor vocal and guitar / From Songs From the Depression Folkways FH 5264 / Source: The Dixon Brothers Bluebird 6327
7. LEAVING HOME
The discography of millworker-musicians Dorsey and Howard Dixon contains an unusually high proportion of original songs, among them “Wreck on the Highway.” “Sales Tax on the Women” was very likely composed by Dorsey, though the conceit of taxing women was
Tom Paley, vocal and guitar; Mike Seeger, fiddle; John Cohen, banjo / From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Two Folkways FA 2397 / Source: Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers Columbia 15116
In many ways, “Leaving Home” is the definitive “old-timey” song, combining elements of many of the popular and 11
folk traditions that found a place in “oldtime” music. Charlie Poole has taken the Leighton-Shields Tin Pan Alley version of the 19th-century “Frankie and Johnny” ballad familiar to both white and black musicians, set it to a 20th-century string band ragtime accompaniment, emphasized the witty vaudevillian-style patter chorus, and retold the story with knowing editorial comment (“These love affairs/Are hard to bear”). Poole worked similar magic on older material in many of his recordings, notably “The Highwayman” and “He Rambled.” The NCLR early on mastered Poole’s style of counterpointing banjo and guitar in a pianistic manner against a syncopated fiddle lead, and popularized this infectious string-band style among a generation of city players.
moral conservatism. Hard-times songs and complaints about merchants and doctors are endemic in the music of poor rural people, but Reed’s compositions stand out within this tradition for the mournful loveliness of their tunes and terseness of their diction: “We can hardly get our breath, taxed and schooled and preached to death….”
9. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT’S BACK AGAIN John Cohen, lead vocals and guitar; Tom Paley, vocal and
8. HOW CAN A POOR MAN STAND SUCH
TIMES AND LIVE?
from which the narrator reiterates Jonah’s lesson for both his interior (the “buddy” in his lap) and exterior (the person hearing the song) audiences, a technique of storytelling Melville employs in Father Mapple’s Jonah sermon in Moby Dick.
12. THE BATTLESHIP OF MAINE Tom Paley, lead vocals and banjo; John Cohen, vocal and guitar; Mike Seeger, fiddle / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: Red
lead guitar / From Songs From the Depression Folkways
11. THE OLD FISH SONG
Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers Victor 20936
FH 5264 / Source: Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs OKeh 05896
Mike Seeger, vocal and fiddle / From The New Lost
The original Cox and Hobbs disc was recorded in 1936, about a week after Roosevelt’s re-election, and demonstrates how early country recordings could function somewhat as broadsides, commenting on and conveying popular attitudes about newsworthy events. The Ramblers have substituted Tom’s hot picking for Bill Cox’s harmonica accompaniment.
City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: Blind James
Songs about the Spanish-American War lingered on among rural musicians for a generation, gradually losing their topical relevance until they became, like this one, generally applicable to any war. This comic depiction of a confused country boy dragooned into fighting an absurd foreign war came to have startlingly new relevance for Ramblers’ audiences of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Mike Seeger, vocal and fiddle; John Cohen, guitar; Tom Paley, banjo / From Songs From the Depression Folkways FH 5264 / Source: Blind Alfred Reed Victor 40236
10. I TRULY UNDERSTAND YOU LOVE
The composer-fiddler Blind Alfred Reed was one of the eccentric geniuses captured on early commercial country music recordings, a folk poet whose every song bears the signature of his indignant
ANOTHER MAN Tom Paley, lead vocals and banjo; Mike Seeger, vocal; John Cohen, bass vocal / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: Shortbuckle Roark and Family Victor 40023 12
Although the stanzas of this song are “floaters” which appear and reappear among many lyric country songs, they are here consolidated by the touching chorus into a coherent love lament unique in the Ramblers’ repertoire. The vocal harmony is perhaps the most complex ensemble singing the Ramblers recorded, and doesn’t attempt to reproduce the Roark Family blend of children’s and adult voices.
Howard with fiddle, Harlan, Kentucky, 1933. Library of Congress 74 A.
This performance is one of the most remarkable in the history of the folk song revival. In it Mike introduced to urban audiences the archaic art of ballad singing to one’s own fiddle accompaniment, and a song as utterly charming as it is rare. The conceit of retelling Bible stories in latter-day vernacular appears commonly in African-American tradition, but surprises us in the repertoire of the AngloAmerican Kentucky fiddler James Howard. “The Old Fish Song” displays unexpected structural sophistication by setting its ancient story within a frame
13. NO DEPRESSION Mike Seeger, lead vocals and autoharp; Tom Paley, tenor vocal and guitar / From Songs From the Depression Folkways FH 5264 / Source: The Carter Family Decca 5242
Songs of the Carter Family, with their 13
instantly recognizable guitar and autoharp accompaniment, were from the beginning a mainstay of Ramblers performances and were in turn adopted widely among city musicians following the Ramblers’ inspiration. This A.P. Carter composition is among the Carter Family’s most poignant songs in its portrayal of the journalistic reality of the Depression against the visionary prophecy of a looming apocalypse.
styles they learned from African Americans, whether from recordings such as The Dallas String Band’s or directly from musicians such as Elizabeth Cotten or Mississippi John Hurt.
15. BILL MORGAN AND HIS GAL John Cohen, lead vocals and guitar; Tom Paley, banjo and tenor vocal; Mike Seeger, fiddle / From The New Lost
American musicians as long ago as the late 18th century. Tom and Mike revived this old American sound for their audiences, and Ramblers concerts usually contained a banjo-fiddle duet such as this one. Though they list the Samantha Bumgarner recording as a source, Tom’s and Mike’s performance reflects the influence of many versions of this popular breakdown.
Although the Delmore Brothers’ recording career spanned the Golden Age to rock ’n’ roll, from 1931 until 1956, their unique combination of boogie, blues, hot guitar licks, and close harmony was generally unknown to city audiences until the Ramblers introduced this “white blues” on their debut album in 1959. Tom has considerably elaborated on Alton Delmore’s original lead picking.
17. THE LADY OF CARLISLE
19. MY LONG JOURNEY HOME
City Ramblers Volume Five Folkways FA 2395 / Source: Buster Carter and Preston Young Columbia 15758
This jolly sendup of early credit card materialism is in the “parlor style” of string-band music associated with the Virginia-North Carolina border, with very precisely syncopated fiddling backed by finger-picked banjo and guitar counterpointed somewhat as the right and left hands of a simple piano accompaniment.
14. DALLAS RAG Mike Seeger, mandolin; Tom Paley, banjo; John Cohen, guitar / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2396 / Source: The Dallas String Band Columbia 14290
The Dallas String Band recorded this masterpiece of early country jazz for Columbia’s “race” series in 1927. The Ramblers discovered the strong African-American element in old-time string-band music well before scholars such as Tony Russell began formal study of the influence of black musicians on white, and one of the great strengths of the NCLR as teachers of a generation of urban musicians was to make clear and accessible the previously overlooked multiracial heritage of string-band music. Ramblers concerts invariably included songs and musical
16. FLY AROUND MY PRETTY LITTLE MISS Tom Paley, lead vocals and banjo; Mike Seeger, tenor vocal and fiddle / From The New Lost City Ramblers
Mike Seeger, vocal and guitar / From The New Lost
Tom Paley, lead vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, tenor
City Ramblers Volume Three Folkways FA 2398 /
vocal and mandolin / From The New Lost City
Source: Basil May, with guitar, Salyersville, Kentucky,
Ramblers Volume Three Folkways FA 2398 / Source:
1937. Library of Congress 1587.
The Monroe Brothers Bluebird 6422
The Seeger family introduced this magnificent ballad to urban audiences. Charles and Ruth Seeger obtained the Library of Congress recording of Basil May in the early 1940s, and sang the song with their children. Mike and Peggy Seeger in turn introduced it to folk song revival audiences in America and England in the late 1950s.
Another of the Ramblers’ interests lay in discovering and demonstrating the origins of bluegrass within the older country music recorded before World War II. Here, Mike re-created the innovative pre-bluegrass mandolin picking of Bill Monroe: hotly paced, fluidly picked, and melodically varied in each instrumental break. By comparing this performance to the lead picking in “The Dallas Rag,” one can appreciate Mike’s mastery of completely different country mandolin styles.
Volume Three Folkways FA 2398 / Source: Samantha Bumgarner Columbia 146
The guitar became common in Southern string bands only in the 20th century, while the combination of banjo and fiddle may have originated among African14
18. BROWN’S FERRY BLUES John Cohen, vocal and guitar; Tom Paley, vocal and lead guitar / From Tom Paley, Mike Seeger, John Cohen Sing Songs of the New Lost City Ramblers Folkways FA 2494 / Source: The Delmore Brothers Bluebird 5403 15
20. TALKING HARD LUCK
or pronounce the virtue of those “taking the pledge” of abstinence. The best of these songs survived among rural people long enough to be recorded by both amateur and professional country musicians during this century’s Prohibition years of 1917–1932. The Crockett Wards of Galax recorded for John A. Lomax many songs they learned before the turn of the century. “Teetotalers” has the militant air of songs associated with activities of the Prohibition Party or the AntiSaloon League or the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union during their years of influence.
John Cohen, vocal and guitar / From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Three Folkways FA 2398 / Source: Lonnie Glosson Conqueror 8732
The narrator of this talking blues exemplifies the American eiron, a character who pretends to be a hick but who is far cleverer and more sophisticated than he lets us know—the mask worn so successfully by Will Rogers. This mask may be inherent in the form of the talking blues with its laconic stanzas setting up their one-line snappers, a technique used to great effect by Woody Guthrie in his topical talking blues. Here, behind his head-scratching rhetoric, the speaker conceals a cruel misogyny, a knowing sexuality, a cynic’s view of government, and a poet’s way with words.
22. SAL GOT A MEATSKIN Tom Paley, lead vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, tenor vocal and (capoed) guitar on first and third breaks / From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Three
21. THE TEETOTALS
Folkways FA 2398 / Source: Cliff and Bill Carlisle
23. RAILROAD BLUES
both sources, leaning heavily toward the jazzier Monroe version. Again, Tom’s guitar break is original with him, and a beautiful example of the way the Ramblers learned to augment creatively the music they heard on old recordings.
Tom Paley, vocal and guitar / From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Three Folkways FA 2398 / Source: Sam McGee Decca 5348
Sam McGee “from sunny Tennessee” was the most interesting white guitarist to record on old-time records. His music combines concepts and picking techniques from both black and white guitar traditions, from the blues and ragtime of street singers to “parlor” styles popular in the 19th century among genteel young middle-class women. While Tom seldom imitated the licks of musicians he studied on old recordings, here he recreates very closely the string-popping syncopation of McGee’s playing. His revival of McGee’s guitar performances popularized masterpieces such as “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and “Railroad Blues” among revival guitarists.
25. MY SWEET FARM GIRL John Cohen, lead vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, tenor vocal and banjo; Tom Paley, autoharp / From Earth Is Earth Folkways FF 869 / Source: Clarence Ashley and Gwynn Foster Vocalion 02780
While many old-time musicians knew folk material of hair-curling obscenity, such material didn’t find its way into their public performances, live or recorded, for obvious reasons. An exception is the occasional double-entendre bawdy song such as Clarence Ashley’s “My Sweet Farm Girl,” which displaces its sexual references onto an elaborately innocent but equally transparent parallel narrative. The Ramblers recorded four bawdy country songs on an EP titled Earth Is Earth, the unsigned, hilarious liner notes for which betray the unmistakable wit of Tom Paley.
Mike Seeger, Tom Paley, John Cohen, vocals / From
The sung tenderness of this love song (for lack of a better descriptor) contrasts oddly with its bawdy subtext. When the Ramblers interviewed Cliff Carlisle, he confirmed that in Kentucky vernacular “meatskin” is a euphemism for a maidenhead.
American Moonshine and Prohibition Folkways FH 5263 / Source: “Teetotalers,” Mr. and Mrs. Crockett Ward, Galax, Virginia, 1937. Library of Congress 1360 B2.
The temperance movement of the mid19th century generated songs ranging from weepy and moralistic ballads to militant marching anthems, all composed to denounce the evils of drink, extol the fate that would befall drinkers, 16
24. THE FOGGY MOUNTAIN TOP Mike Seeger, lead vocals and mandolin; Tom Paley, lead guitar and tenor vocal; John Cohen, guitar and bass vocal / From The New Lost City Ramblers Folkways EPC 602 / Source: The Monroe Brothers Bluebird 6607
The Ramblers had studied both the 1936 Monroe Brothers and the 1929 Carter Family recordings of this song, and their performance contains elements of 17
26. CROW BLACK CHICKEN Tom Paley, lead vocals and guitar; John Cohen, vocal refrain and banjo; Mike Seeger, falsetto vocal and fiddle / From The New Lost City Ramblers Volume Four Folkways FA 2399 / Source: The Leake County Revelers Columbia 15318
The Ramblers customarily ended their shows by busting the place up with a full string-band number that allowed them to display all the energy, exuberance, wit, and roaring tunefulness of old-time music at its roistering best. The Leake County Revelers were actually one of the more sedate string bands to record in the Golden Age, so the gusto poured into “Crow Black Chicken” here derives not from the old recording but from Paley, Seeger, and Cohen at the top of their form.
About Smithsonian Folkways Additional Smithsonian Folkways staff: Richard James Burgess, director of marketing and sales; Betty Derbyshire, financial operations manager; Laura Dion, sales; Toby Dodds, technology manager; Spencer Ford, customer service; Henri Goodson, financial assistant; Mark Gustafson, marketing; Helen Lindsay, customer service; Keisha Martin, manufacturing coordinator; Margot Nassau, licensing and royalties; Jeff Place, archivist; Pete Reiniger, sound engineer; Ronnie Simpkins, audio specialist; John Smith, sales and marketing; Stephanie Smith, archivist.
Originally recorded for Folkways Records by Moses Asch, Peter Bartok, and Mike Seeger Compiled and annotated in 1991 by Jon Pankake for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Anthology production supervised by Anthony Seeger and Matt Walters (1991) Remastered by Malcolm Addey, Mike Seeger, and Matt Walters (1991) Cover design by Carol Hardy (1991) Cover photo by Robert Frank Booklet redesign and layout by Visual Dialogue (2009)
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. Our mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways tradition by supporting the work of traditional artists and expressing a commitment to cultural diversity, education, and increased understanding. Smithsonian Folkways recordings are available at record stores. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Folkways, Collector, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, and Paredon recordings are all available through: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Mail Order Washington, DC 20560-0520 Phone: (800) 410-9815 or 888-FOLKWAYS (orders only) Fax: (800) 853-9511 (orders only)
Special thanks to Mike Seeger
Executive producers: Daniel E. Sheehy and D. A. Sonneborn (2009)
To purchase online, or for further information about Smithsonian Folkways Recordings go to: www.folkways.si.edu. Please send comments, questions, and catalogue requests to [email protected]
Production managed by Mary Monseur Production assistance by Eileen Dorfman Editorial assistance by Carla Borden
S F W C D 4 0 0 3 6 p © 1 9 9 1 , 2 0 0 9 S M I T H S ON I A N F OL K WAY S R E C OR DI NG S 20
THE NEW LOST CITY vol. II Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage | MRC 520 | Washington DC 20560-0520 SFW CD 40040 p © 1993, 2009 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings | www.folkways.si.edu
out standing in their field
LOST CITY Vol. II
out standing in their field
1. John Brown’s Dream 1:32 (arr. Tommy Jarrell–Fred Cockerham/Wynwood Music Co. Inc., BMI) 2. Riding on That Train 45 2:19 3. The Titanic 2:59 4. Don’t Get Trouble in Your Mind 2:15 (Frank Blevins) 5. Cowboy Waltz 1:49 (Woody Guthrie/TRO-Ludlow Music Inc., BMI) 6. Shut Up in the Mines of Coal Creek 2:49 7. Private John Q 2:03 (Roger Miller/Sony ATV Tree Publishing Co. Inc., BMI) 8. Old Johnny Bucker Wouldn’t Do 3:01 9. I’ve Always Been a Rambler 3:16 (G.B. Grayson/Peer International Corp., BMI) 10. Automobile Trip through Alabama 3:15 11. Who Killed Poor Robin? 3:52 12. My Wife Died on Saturday Night 2:18 13. Little Satchel 2:47 (Fred Cockerham) 14. Black Bottom Strut 2:09 15. The Cat’s Got the Measles, the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough 2:55 16. Dear Okie 2:14 (Doyle O’Dell–Roby Sooter/Sunshine Music Co., BMI) 17. Smoketown Strut 2:16 (Sylvester Weaver) 18. The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake 2:31 (Albert Price/Tannen Music, BMI) 19. Fishing Creek Blues 2:01 (Tracy Schwarz/Stormking Music Inc., BMI) 20. ’31 Depression Blues 3:31 (Ed Sturgill/Lonesome Ace Publishing, BMI) 21. Black Jack Daisy 2:31 22. Victory Rag 2:05 23. The Little Carpenter 2:50 (James Howard) 24. On Our Turpentine Farm 2:51 (Wesley Wilson–Harry McDaniels) 25. Parlez-nous à Boire 3:35 (Dewey Balfa/Flat Town Music Company, BMI) 26. Valse du Bambocheur 2:59 (Dewey Balfa/Flat Town Music Company, BMI) 27. Old Joe Bone 1:59
the new lost city ramblers: carrying on an american “folk” tradition JON PANK AKE
January 1993, Minneapolis, Minnesota
In the study of old-time songs, one occasionally encounters an example which opens great vistas of cultural history. One such example is “Rhinordine,” a ballad recorded in 1934 by the Gant Family of Austin, Texas, for John and Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress. The ballad describes a mountaintop encounter between a young woman and a mysterious armed man. Fearing the wrath of her parents for her forbidden wandering, she collapses into his arms as he promises to protect her. She asks his name; he tells her, “Rhinordine,” as the song ends. The Gants’ performance offers a much-changed American version of a British ballad more than two hundred years old, called in English texts “Reynardine.” In these ancient versions, Reynardine appears to be a Green Man or Iron Hans, who has magical powers of seduction and who, from his castle in the deep woods, responds to the call of his name. By the time he has arrived in Texas, however, Rhinordine has become more prosaic, pleading, “I said, kind Miss, I am a bum although I’m not to blame.” We would like to know exactly how Rhinordine traveled from Sussex to Austin, at what times in his history the details of his story were changed, and who reduced him from a Green Man to a Texas bum. Such knowledge would be the stuff of a most interesting folklore study. But the details of this story are lost forever. The only thing we can be sure of is that Rhinordine’s long journey from England to Texas was not conducted orally, handed down from one singer to another across generations in the way of folk ballads in cultures less literate than America’s. 3
In 1836, a book called The American Songster printed “Rhinordine”
an American tradition of “domestic” performance by amateur musi-
in a text so close to that sung by the Gant Family a hundred years
cians coexisting with “public” performance by professional musicians
later that we can be sure it is directly or indirectly the source of the
who have access to the media, with many songs moving back and forth
Gants’ version. What is most astonishing about the Songster is that it
between these two arenas of performance during their histories. Thus,
presents “Rhinordine” not as the ancient ballad it already was, but as
“Rhinordine” appears publicly in print on 18th-century broadsides, per-
a “modern and popular song.” The Songster names thirty informants
haps based on earlier oral versions; it is then learned and sung by sing-
from whom its songs were collected, and all of those further identified
ers who cause it to be printed again in the 19th-century Songster, from
were popular performers in the New York theater. Many songs in the
which it is learned by the Gants or their sources; and it is returned by
book carry headnotes stating, “As sung with the greatest applause by
the Gants to public access once again via the 20th century aluminum
Miss Clara Fisher in the musical farce of The Invincibles at the Park
recording disc of the Lomaxes. The same song has been both “folk” and
Theatre,” or “As sung by Mr. Sloman, at the Baltimore Theatre, with
“popular” at different times in its history, perhaps changed as much by
professional musicians for purposes of public performance as by oral
As mind-boggling as it is, the prospect of “Rhinordine” being sung
circulation among domestic musicians.
from the stage in Poe’s New York may be more characteristic of many
As public performers of domestic songs with histories similar to
American folk song histories than one of uninterrupted generations of
that of “Rhinordine,” The New Lost City Ramblers thus belong to a very
oral transmission. American folklorists have learned to be skeptical of
old American tradition. They are the modern counterparts of those
the concept of “pure” folk songs uncontaminated by exposure to popular
long-ago New York theater singers, performers who have taken old
cultures; indeed, the classification of texts as either meritorious, orally
songs sung by amateur musicians in domestic settings and performed
transmitted “pure” folk songs or unworthy “popular” songs which have
them “with unbounded applause” from the public stages of their own
appeared in print or on recordings often proves an unproductive one.
era, and in doing so have made the songs available to the media of their
Perhaps a more valuable conception of the American “folk process”
time. In addition to print, however, the Ramblers have had access to
is one suggested by Norm Cohen in the notes for Minstrels & Tunesmiths
phonograph records, videotapes, films, television and radio broadcasts,
(John Edwards Memorial Foundation LP-109, 1981). Cohen describes
cassettes, and CDs. Many of the songs performed on this album—“Black
Jack Daisy,” for example—have experienced just such a process of trans-
range within which the Ramblers could work both forward into the
mission as has “Rhinordine,” with the Ramblers’ performance provid-
modern country music of the bluegrass era, and backward into the most
ing only the most recent means of returning the song from a domestic
archaic forms of folk song documented on folk song recordings.
to a public setting. From the Ramblers’ performances, the songs have
The music heard on this collection samples the best of the record-
taken on a new life among the amateur musicians inspired by their ex-
ings made by the Ramblers from 1963 through 1973. Most striking are
ample to sing and play old songs.
those performances which convey their mastery of very specific regional musical styles, such as the manic double-fiddle Mississippi dance
The New Lost City Ramblers: 1963–1973
music of “Old Joe Bone” or the precise Virginia-North Carolina “parlor”
The story of the relationship between The New Lost City Rambers and
fiddling of “Old Johnny Bucker Wouldn’t Do.” No less impressive is the
their audience among the folk song revival of the late 1950s and early
sense of constant innovation displayed during those ten years, manifest
1960s has been told in a previous collection, The New Lost City Ramblers,
in the Ramblers’ command of Cajun music, their original instrumental
The Early Years 1958-1962 (Smithsonian Folkways 40036, 1991).
settings for unaccompanied songs such as “Black Jack Daisy” and “Who
Upon Tom Paley’s departure from the Ramblers in 1962, his place was taken in the group by Tracy Schwarz. Born in New York City but
Killed Poor Robin?” and their continuing exploration of the AfricanAmerican influences upon traditional Anglo-American string music.
raised in New Jersey and Vermont, Tracy first heard country music on
Many of these performances were directly inspired by the Ram-
the radio at about the age of eight, and began to play the guitar at ten.
blers’ association with traditional musicians they invited to share their
During his college years in the late 1950s, he took up the fiddle in the ac-
stages during the later 1960s and the 1970s—Dock Boggs, Clarence
tive bluegrass scene in Washington, D.C., and continued playing during
Ashley, Elizabeth Cotten, Maybelle Carter, Cousin Emmy, Dewey Balfa,
his nearly two-year military service tour in Germany. By 1962, when he
Roscoe Holcomb, the McGee Brothers, and many more. When the final
joined the Ramblers, Tracy brought to the group a mastery of smooth,
history of the Ramblers is written, their role as interpretive interme-
early bluegrass-styled fiddling and an agile tenor voice which could han-
diaries between the folk music revival and traditional musicians who
dle both bluegrass harmonies and the Primitive Baptist solo style which
would otherwise have never been known to contemporary urban audi-
he used in his unaccompanied ballads. His skills extended the temporal
ences may well overshadow their importance as performers.
By the 1970s, the restless individual creativities of Mike Seeger,
as a soloist throughout the years with the Ramblers, but beginning in
John Cohen, and Tracy Schwarz had become impossible to accommo-
the 1970s he also recorded and toured Asia with Alice, taught folk mu-
date within the structure of a touring band, and family obligations of all
sic in college, produced a dazzling library of documentary recordings
three increasingly made a collective practice, travel, performance, and
of old-time musicians, formed an old-time band called the Bent Moun-
recording schedule untenable. John had established a second career as
tain Boys with Andy Cahan and Paul Brown, produced videotapes of
a distinguished filmmaker, work which took him not only to Kentucky
old-time musicians and dancers, and represented America at a world
and North Carolina but also several times to Peru, and he was working
congress of jew’s harp players in Russia.
toward tenure as a professor of art as well. For a time in the early 1970s
Since their 20th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1978, the
he performed with Lynn and Jay Unger and Abby Newton as the Putnam
Ramblers have performed together only occasionally, while continuing
String County Band, playing old-time and more contemporary music.
individually to carry on their calling of exploring, interpreting, and doc-
Tracy began farming near York, Pennsylvania, and toured and
umenting in image, print, and performance the domestic arts of rural
recorded with his wife Eloise and son Peter as Tracy’s Family Band,
people who would otherwise have been denied access to the 20th-century’s
playing a mix of old-time, bluegrass, Cajun, and Tracy’s original songs.
public—that is to say, global—media. A reunion tour in the summer of
Increasingly involved with playing and writing about Cajun music, Tracy
1993 marked The New Lost City Ramblers’ 35th anniversary.
traveled to Louisiana to learn the Cajun accordion and to produce in
With the centuries of American music at their command, they
1975 the first albums of instruction on the Cajun fiddle. In 1984 Peter
continue to surprise and astound us, performing “with unbounded
received an apprenticeship grant from the National Endowment for the
applause” old-time music, learned from domestic musicians, for the
Arts to study Cajun fiddle with the late Dewey Balfa, and for a time
public of the 21st century and beyond.
Peter, Tracy, Dewey, and Dewey’s nephew Tony Balfa performed as the Four Bachelors. In the early 1970s, Mike and Tracy had begun performing more modern country music as the Strange Creek Singers, with Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, and Lamar Grier. Mike had continued his work 8
1. JOHN BROWN’S DREAM
3. THE TITANIC
Mike Seeger, dulcimer; Tracy Schwarz, fiddle; John Cohen,
Mike Seeger, lead vocals and autoharp; Tracy Schwarz,
banjo / From On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 /
tenor vocals and second guitar; John Cohen, bass vocals
Source: Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham County 713
and lead guitar / From Remembrance of Things to Come
While Tracy plays here in classical tuning, Tommy Jarrell played “John Brown’s Dream” with his fiddle tuned to an open chord of octave pairs (AEAE), allowing him to play the melody in turn on the upper and on the lower pair of strings, and to sound prominent drone notes throughout. In their unique arrangement, the Ramblers have added Mike’s dulcimer with its twin drone strings to re-create the intensity of Jarrell’s performance of one of his signature tunes.
Folkways 31035 / Source: The Carter Family Acme 1000
In one of their more obscure performances, the Carter Family recorded this ballad for the small Acme label after the departure of Maybelle Carter for an independent career with her daughters, and her replacement in the original group by A.P.’s and Sara’s guitar-picking children, Joe and Janette. Mike has created an autoharp lead such as Maybelle might well have played. The last two lines are stunning in their juxtaposition of emotional naivete and technological prescience.
2. RIDING ON THAT TRAIN 45 Tracy Schwarz, vocal and fiddle; Mike Seeger, banjo;
4. DON’T GET TROUBLE IN YOUR MIND
John Cohen, guitar / From Gone to the Country Folk-
John Cohen, vocal and banjo; Tracy Schwarz, guitar;
ways 2491 / Source: Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris
Mike Seeger, fiddle / From Radio Special #1 Folkways
603 / Source: Frank Blevins and His Tar Heel Rattlers
Tracy’s driving bowing and bluesy singing rather hauntingly resemble those of Steve Ledford, the great fiddler and singer on the original Mainer-Morris recording. That version of “Train 45” was among the first hillbilly recordings reissued for an urban audience, as part of John A. Lomax’s set Smoky Mountain Ballads in 1941.
Frank Blevins’s string-band masterpiece rather improbably joins desolate “white blues” stanzas to a sprightly dance tune, one that takes wings from its abrupt first-line shift to the subdominant. John has interpolated some stanzas from a field recording of the Kentucky banjo master, Rufus Crisp. 11
5. COWBOY WALTZ
mine. Mrs. Brown learned the song from a 1929 commercial recording by Kentuckian Green Bailey (as Dick Bell) on Challenge 425. Tracy’s performance returns the song to commercial recordings and to an audience far removed from but still touched by a long-ago tragedy.
John Cohen, mandolin; Mike Seeger, fiddle; Tracy Schwarz, guitar / From String Band Instrumentals Folkways 2492 / Source: Woody Guthrie Folkways FP 10
Among the most ubiquitous of country recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s, the instrumental waltz and the religious song have largely been passed over by folk revival musicians. The Ramblers themselves included in their recorded repertoire only one example of each. Woody Guthrie may have put this lovely waltz together himself from memories of the Oklahoma dances he played. It borrows melodic elements of the “Tulsa Waltz,” recorded in 1929 by Guthrie’s fellow Oklahoman, Jack Cawley.
7. PRIVATE JOHN Q Mike Seeger, lead vocals, lead guitar, and mouth harp; Tracy Schwarz, tenor vocals and banjo; John Cohen, guitar / From Modern Times Folkways 31027 / Source: Roger Miller Smash MGS 27049
Miller’s original recording was released only about three years earlier than the Ramblers’ 1968 performance, making “Private John Q” by far the newest country disc they ever worked from. Led by Mike’s bluesy mouth harp, the Ramblers have imagined an instrumental setting which reveals the old-timey song hidden within Miller’s modern Nashville hit, and which establishes Miller’s beleaguered private as a brother in arms to the befuddled G.I. in earlier hillbilly songs such as “That Crazy War” and “The Battleship of Maine.”
SHUT UP IN THE MINES OF COAL CREEK
Tracy Schwarz, vocals / From Modern Times Folkways 31027; Source: Mrs. Elsie Lee Ward Brown, collection of Ed Kahn
Tracy’s unaccompanied ballad singing style owes much to country church singing, especially in the delicate “feathering” of the notes at the ends of lines. The song has been traced to a 1902 explosion at the Fraterville Mine in Tennessee, in which nearly two hundred miners died, and its text allegedly derives from letters and verse recovered from the
One Folkways 2496 / Source: G. B. Grayson and Henry
8. OLD JOHNNY BUCKER WOULDN’T DO
Whitter Victor 40324
John Cohen, vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, fiddle;
The blind fiddler Gillam Bannom Grayson was one of the most melancholy and moving singers of the Golden Age of country recordings. Tracy here captures much of Grayson’s lonesome magic in a song whose protagonist’s depth of feeling is matched only by the Tennessee limits of his horizons (“Went on to Johnson City / Going to see this wide world o’er”).
Tracy Schwarz, fiddle / From On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 / Source: Walter Smith (as Jerry Jordan) Supertone 9407
The Virginia singer Walter Smith was one of the most interesting of the “Golden Age” artists whose long-forgotten music the Ramblers resurrected for their audiences. A professional medicine show entertainer who performed as “Old Toby,” a red-winged clown, Smith owned a repertoire of songs which, like “Old Johnny Bucker,” had deep roots in 19th-century popular culture, songs which had been performed from the minstrel and vaudeville stages by both black and white musicians, and taken up in turn by their rural audiences. On his 1929 recording session, Smith was accompanied by a crack fiddle and guitar team, Posey Rorer and Norman Woodlieff, both veterans of Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers. John, Mike, and Tracy have one-upped Rorer’s and Woodlieff’s synchronized fiddle and guitar accompaniment by adding a second fiddle which takes octave flights.
Delivery Number One Folkways 2496 / Source: Red Henderson and Emmett Bankston OKeh 45283
Surely the most bizarre side ever released on old-time recordings, this monologue depicting the comic resurrection of a Ford automobile became a favorite Ramblers performance through John’s mastery of the art of deadpan. Red Henderson was a professional entertainer working out of Atlanta in the 1920s with Earl Johnson’s string bands, but we have no information on what role this recitation may have played in his performances or what part he played in its composition. Whoever first imagined it displayed a thoroughly American love of and skill at
9. I’VE ALWAYS BEEN A RAMBLER Tracy Schwarz, vocals and fiddle; John Cohen, banjo; Mike Seeger, guitar / From Rural Delivery Number 12
AUTOMOBILE TRIP THROUGH ALABAMA
John Cohen, vocals; Mike Seeger, banjo / From Rural
depicting surreal, kinetic action of the kind that also informs the Disney Silly Symphonies cartoons, the Sut Lovingood stories, and the Krazy Kat comic strips.
harmonica was very likely the most widely played musical instrument in America in the first half of the 20th century. Well documented on preWorld War II country recordings, the instrument has fared poorly among “revivalists,” who have preferred the more versatile fiddle, banjo, and guitar. Consequently, early recordings of both Anglo- and African-American masters of the mouth harp remain lesser known and seldom studied. The harmonica-led breakdowns of Dr. Humphrey Bate were featured on the earliest broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, and Bate’s recordings for Brunswick remain among the most exciting performances of the dance music ever recorded. The Ramblers’ tribute to Dr. Bate is an early example of Mike’s continuing interest in and developing skill on the mouth harp.
11. WHO KILLED POOR ROBIN? Mike Seeger, vocals, guitar, and mouth harp; Tracy Schwarz, fiddle; John Cohen, banjo / From On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 / Source: Mrs. Edith Harmon, near Maryville, Tennessee, 1939 Library of Congress AAFS 2907 A2.
In a superb feat of folk revival musicianship, the Ramblers have here created a beautiful, simple, and tasteful stringband setting for Mrs. Harmon’s eerie, minor-key unaccompanied ballad. The aesthetics of this performance are those of the late Norton, Virginia, master banjoist and singer Dock Boggs, whose “graveyard” music not only lives on but continues to blossom and bear anew in the creativity of the musicians who came under his spell.
Tracy Schwarz, vocals and three-finger banjo; John Cohen, clawhammer banjo; Mike Seeger, guitar / From
MY WIFE DIED ON SATURDAY NIGHT
On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 / Source: Fred Cockerham County 713
Mike Seeger, vocal and mouth harp; John Cohen,
Within ten years of The New Lost City Ramblers’ first performances, young musicians and scholars stimulated by their example were seeking out and
banjo; Tracy Schwarz, guitar / From String Band Instrumentals Folkways 2492 / Source: Dr. Humphrey Bate and His Possum Hunters Brunswick 271
Cheap, portable, and easy to learn, the 14
documenting contemporary old-time musicians such as Fred Cockerham, whose banjo-accompanied solo performance of “Little Satchel” is one of the treasures recorded during the folk revival. The song is Fred’s own compilation of and elaboration upon lines and images from the “Silver Dagger” / “Katy Dear” family of ballads. The Ramblers have created an entirely new setting for Tracy’s high lonesome vocal performance, combining clawhammer and finger-picked banjo in the contemporary double-banjo style of early bluegrass musicians Happy Smith and Larry Richardson.
have shared personnel, perhaps even mandolinist Charlie McCoy. John Cohen observes that the original recording of “Black Bottom Strut” “has rhythm guitar plus a second guitar which plays very strange passages and runs. The spoons were Tracy’s addition, and several of the weird guitar parts have drifted over to the mandolin.” Tracy provides an unexpected coda by tossing the spoons onto a triangle they had on hand at the session for the Cajun pieces.
THE CAT’S GOT THE MEASLES, THE DOG’S GOT THE WHOOPING COUGH Mike Seeger, vocals and guitar; Tracy Schwarz, fiddle /
14. BLACK BOTTOM STRUT
From Remembrance of Things to Come Folkways
Mike Seeger, mandolin; John Cohen, guitar; Tracy
31035 / Source: Walter Smith (as Jerry Jordan)
Schwarz, spoons / From Remembrance of Things to
Come Folkways 31035 / Source: Three Stripped Gears
Walter Smith recorded this song at the same 1929 session as “Old Johnny Bucker Wouldn’t Do,” and Rorer and Woodlieff provided the same refined and intricate fiddle and guitar accompaniment, the latter played in F fingering capoed up to G. Tony Russell has pointed out that the title sentence of “the Cat’s Got the Measles…” appears as part of the refrain of a British dance tune, but the text’s reference to the devil and the good gal and the sexual brag of taking women from
John Godrich and Robert Dixon in their authoritative Blues and Gospel Records 1902–1942 list the mysterious Three Stripped Gears as “more than likely” African-American musicians. The group recorded in Atlanta in October–November 1931, at the same time as did the Mississippi Sheiks, who, in 1930, had recorded mandolin rags similar to “Black Bottom Strut.” The two groups may well 15
the monkey men appear in many blues, indicating a mixed Anglo- and AfricanAmerican origin for this song.
techniques, but the unmistakable swing of “Smoketown Strut” can only have come from a mating with ragtime piano in some long-forgotten exchange of musical ideas before World War I. The title refers to the smoke-grimed industrial tenement district in Louisville, Kentucky, where Weaver lived. Mike’s beautiful performance here reflects his longstanding interest in the African-American origins of old-time guitar picking.
16. DEAR OKIE John Cohen, vocals and guitar; Tracy Schwarz, fiddle; Mike Seeger, banjo / From Modern Times Folkways 31027; Source: Doyle O’Dell Exclusive 33X
Doyle O’Dell’s Okie-California composition is the closest the Ramblers came to performing in the Western Swing idiom of country string band music influenced by big-band jazz phrasing and rhythm. The lyrics depict the post-Depression Oleanna of Southern California with a sly mixture of humor and irony worthy of Woody Guthrie at his wittiest.
THE LITTLE GIRL AND THE DREADFUL SNAKE
Mike Seeger, lead vocals and mandolin; Tracy Schwarz, tenor vocals and fiddle; John Cohen, guitar / From Radio Special #1 Folkways 603 / Source: Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys Decca 28878
The sentimentality and the symbolism of this song will be equally risible to urban, Freudian-educated audiences, but the dying child has a long and honorable lineage in popular and folk song, and to Southern rural audiences this song describes an all-too-real danger. Mike sings Jimmy Martin’s lead and Tracy sings Bill Monroe’s tenor harmony in one of the Ramblers’ earliest excursions into “pure” bluegrass, lacking only the banjo and string bass of Monroe’s classic band.
Mike Seeger, guitar / From String Band Instrumentals Folkways 2492 / Source: Sylvester Weaver OKeh 8152
The origins of American finger-picked folk guitar are aurally untraceable, since the earliest recordings we have of folk guitarists capture masters such as the African-American Sylvester Weaver already performing in full-blown and sophisticated styles. We can conjecture that the right hand owes a debt to 19th-century parlor guitar and banjo picking
FISHING CREEK BLUES
While most folk revival musicians have limited their excursions into old-time music to dance tunes and instrumentals, the Ramblers have shown an unusual interest in the often bitter “hard-times” songs of coal miners and other rural industrial workers. The long shadow of former miner Dock Boggs inspires the performance of this song, which Mike learned from a recording by its composer, Ed Sturgill of Appalachia, Virginia. Sturgill, who knew Dock and was influenced by his music, issued his performance on his own record label. The tune resembles that of one of Dock’s laments, “The Bright Sunny South.”
Tracy Schwarz, fiddle; John Cohen, guitar; Mike Seeger, banjo / From Rural Delivery Number One Folkways 2496
Tracy composed this lovely and unusual fiddle tune in 1964. He recalls, “Right after viewing the opening of the World’s Fair on TV, I turned the set off and took out my fiddle. Nothing I already knew matched my mood, so I started noodling around with the exact sounds I was after, and lo and behold, out came a tune.” Tracy’s friends vetoed his original title, “World’s Fair,” and so the final title honors Fishing Creek in York County, Pennsylvania. Tracy detects in his composition the influences of tunes such as “Cripple Creek,” Bill Monroe’s “Brown County Breakdown,” and the Stanley Brothers’ “Suwannee River Hoedown,” but the tune is true to so many fiddle tunes that it can sound “Ozark” on one hearing and “Texas” on another. In recent years, other fiddlers have taken up the tune and, in the ways of tradition, it is now played by musicians who have no idea of its recent origin or of the identity of its author.
21. BLACK JACK DAISY John Cohen, vocals and banjo / From Remembrance of Things to Come Folkways 31035 / Source: Dillard Chandler: Old Love Songs and Ballads Folkways 2309
John enjoyed a remarkable three-way creative relationship with Dillard Chandler of Sodom, North Carolina. As a folklorist, John recorded Chandler’s songs and issued them on the album Old Love Songs and Ballads; as a filmmaker, he documented Chandler’s life and place in his community in his film The End of an Old Song (1967); as a musician, he created this banjo setting for Chandler’s
’31 DEPRESSION BLUES
Mike Seeger, vocals and banjo, Tracy Schwarz, guitar / From Modern Times Folkways 31027 / Source: Ed Sturgill and His Banjo Big Pine Records 677M-7157
unaccompanied version of the British “Gypsie Laddie” ballad. The banjo is in a modal tuning, FCFBbC.
receives an exceptionally tender treatment in this rare item from the song-bag of Blind James Howard. Some years ago, we stumped a well-known folklorist with this song: he had never encountered anything like it and could give us no leads on sources or printed versions. The diction and the mysterious rituals of handkerchiefs and finger rings would seem to point to an Old World origin for the song. John has added a banjo accompaniment to Mike’s fiddling, in the spirit of Howard’s fellow Kentuckians, Dick Burnett and Leonard Rutherford.
22. VICTORY RAG John Cohen, guitar; Mike Seeger, autoharp / From String Band Instrumentals Folkways 2492 /Source: Maybelle Carter
John learned this pretty rag from Maybelle Carter when the Ramblers played the Ash Grove with her in 1963, and Mike created an autoharp accompaniment and lead with which to complement the guitar. Maybelle Carter recalled learning “Victory Rag” from a guitar player at the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950s. She subsequently recorded it on her album Pickin’ and Singin’ (Smash 27041). The Ramblers’ recording of this tune has popularized it over the years as a standard display piece for city guitar and autoharp pickers.
ON OUR TURPENTINE FARM
what John calls “the cruel realities of country living.” In the spirit of hokum, John has added the last stanza as a comment on certain artists he has known.
given to The New Lost City Ramblers; they introduced Cajun songs and performing style not only to Keillor but to all of us who discovered the “soul music” of the folk song revival through the Ramblers’ own performances and those of Cajun musicians such as Dewey Balfa, with whom they shared their stages.
25. PARLEZ-NOUS A BOIRE Mike Seeger, vocals and lead fiddle; Tracy Schwarz, second fiddle; John Cohen, triangle / From Remembrance of Things to Come Folkways 31035; Source: Dewey Balfa, Basile, Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana
“Parlez-nous à Boire” was the first recording of a Cajun song by folk revival musicians. The Ramblers continued to perform Cajun music in their appearances throughout the 1970s, and Tracy began to play Cajun accordion as well as the fiddle.
John Cohen, vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, fiddle, Tracy Schwarz, fiddle / From Rural Delivery Number One Folkways 2496 / Source: Carter Brothers and Son OKeh 45289
The Ramblers reserved their place in Old-time Music Heaven with their re-creation of the music of this wild, obscure Mississippi band. The Carters play irresistible, driving dance music on twin fiddles tuned and played in octaves and accompanied by a guitarist who shouts out stanzas and rhythmic nonsense syllables. The sung syllables may possibly be intended as a supplementary rhythm instrument, in the manner of Scots mouth music, or “diddling the chorus.” The Ramblers customarily closed their sets with a rousing performance of a Carter Brothers and Son tune, occasions which became, says John, “an exercise in improvisation within the limits of great consistency and madness.”
John Cohen, lead vocals and guitar; Mike Seeger, tenor vocals and mandolin; Tracy Schwarz, vocal interjections and guitar / From On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 /Source: Pigmeat Pete and Catjuice Charlie Columbia 14485
This performance marks the Ramblers’ sole excursion into the African-American genre of “hokum blues.” Popular during the 1920s, hokum set its typically rowdy or ribald stanzas within a hot, jazzy accompaniment, revealing the humorous, “good-time” shadow side of the country blues. “Pete” and “Charlie” were pseudonyms for Wesley Wilson and Harry McDaniel, whose stanzas here display
23. THE LITTLE CARPENTER Mike Seeger, vocals and fiddle; John Cohen, banjo / From Gone to the Country Folkways 2491 / Source: Blind James Howard, Harlan, Kentucky. Library of Congress AAFS 1376 B2.
The familiar ballad theme of the triumph of love over wealth and position 18
OLD JOE BONE
26. VALSE DU BAMBOCHEUR Tracy Schwarz, vocals and lead fiddle; Mike Seeger, second fiddle; John Cohen, guitar / From On the Great Divide Folkways 31041 / Source: Dewey Balfa The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music Swallow 6011
In 1987 Michael Doucet of the band BeauSoleil presented Garrison Keillor with an award on behalf of the Cajun people of Louisiana in appreciation of Keillor’s role in popularizing Cajun music to a national audience on his radio program A Prairie Home Companion. In retrospect, the award could have been 19
About Smithsonian Folkways Additional Smithsonian Folkways staff: Richard James Burgess, director of marketing and sales; Betty Derbyshire, financial operations manager; Laura Dion, sales; Toby Dodds, technology director; Spencer Ford, fulfillment; León García, web program specialist; Henri Goodson, financial assistant; Mark Gustafson, marketing; David Horgan, e-marketing specialist; Helen Lindsay, customer service; Keisha Martin, manufacturing coordinator; Margot Nassau, licensing and royalties; Jeff Place, archivist; Pete Reiniger, sound engineer; Ronnie Simpkins, audio specialist; John Smith, sales and marketing; Stephanie Smith, archivist.
Originally recorded for Moses Asch and Folkways Records by Peter Bartok and Chris Strachwitz Compiled and annotated by Jon Pankake in 1991 Anthology production supervised by Anthony Seeger and Matt Walters (1991) Remastered by Henk Kooistra at Soundmirror Cover photo by Robert Frank Cover design and layout by Visual Dialogue, Boston, MA Editorial assistance by Ed O’Reilly and Carla Borden Executive producers in 2009: Daniel E. Sheehy and D. A. Sonneborn
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. Our mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways tradition by supporting the work of traditional artists and expressing a commitment to cultural diversity, education, and increased understanding. Smithsonian Folkways recordings are available at record stores. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Folkways, Collector, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, and Paredon recordings are all available through: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Mail Order Washington, DC 20560-0520 Phone: (800) 410-9815 or 888-FOLKWAYS (orders only) Fax: (800) 853-9511 (orders only) To purchase online, or for further information about Smithsonian Folkways Recordings go to: www.folkways.si.edu. Please send comments, questions, and catalogue requests to [email protected]
Production manager: Mary Monseur
S F W C D 4 0 0 4 0 p © 1 9 9 3 , 2 0 0 9 S M I T H S ON I A N F OL K WAY S R E C OR DI NG S 20
THE NEW LOST CITY vol. III Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage | MRC 520 | Washington DC 20560-0520 SFW CD 40187 p © 2009 Smithsonian Folkways Recordings | www.folkways.si.edu
where do you come from? where do you go?
LOST CITY Vol. III
where do you come from? where do you go?
1. Colored Aristocracy* The Rich Family 1:37 (Sanford Rich) 2. Cluck Old Hen Wade, Crockett, and Fields Ward 1:31 3. Young Emily Dellie Norton 2:03 4. Going Down the River New Lost City Ramblers 2:40 5. Billy Grimes the Rover New Lost City Ramblers 2:26 (Richard Coe–William H. Oakley) 6. Pretty Little Miss New Lost City Ramblers 3:20 7. Dark and Stormy Weather New Lost City Ramblers 2:24 (A.P. Carter/Peer International Corp., BMI) 8. Sioux Indians New Lost City Ramblers 3:01 9. Moonshiner New Lost City Ramblers 3:07 10. Long Lonesome Road New Lost City Ramblers 2:56 11. Cotton Eyed Joe New Lost City Ramblers 3:14 12. New White House Blues New Lost City Ramblers 2:41 13. Milwaukee Blues New Lost City Ramblers 2:31 (Charlie Poole–Norman Woodlieff/Charlie Poole Publishing Inc.-Original Rambler Music Inc., admin by Bug, BMI)
14. Poor Old Dirt Farmer New Lost City Ramblers 3:40 (Tracy Schwarz/Tradition Music Co. admin by Bug, BMI)
15. Cady Hill* Arthur Smith & Sam and Kirk McGee 1:22 16. I Belong to the Band Rev. Gary Davis 3:56 (Gary Davis/Chandos Music, BMI) 17. Freight Train Elizabeth Cotten 2:38 (Elizabeth Cotten/Sanga Music Inc., BMI) 18. I’m Leaving You Sara Carter Bayes and Maybelle Carter 2:35 (Alton Delmore–Rabon Delmore/ Vidor Publications Inc., BMI)
19. Walking Boss* Clarence Tom Ashley 2:28 (arr. Clarence Ashley/Stormking Music Inc., BMI) 20. Mother’s Advice* Dock Boggs 2:48 21. Hills of Mexico Roscoe Holcomb 2:29 22. Galax Rag* Kilby Snow 2:49 (Kilby Snow) 23. Say Old Man, Can You Play a Fiddle?* Eck Robertson, Tracy Schwarz, & Mike Seeger 2:50 24. Awake, Awake Dillard Chandler 4:12 25. Bowling Green* Cynthia May “Cousin Emmy” Carver with the New Lost City Ramblers 3:49 (Cynthia May Carver)
26. Madeleine Dewey & Rodney Balfa, Allie Young, & Weston Bergeau 2:54 (Adam Hebert/Flat Town Music Company, BMI)
27. Fishing Creek Blues Sue Draheim, Mack Benford, Eric Thompson, Jody Stecher, Hank Bradley, Will Spires, Kenny Hall, Holly Tannen, & Larry Hanks 2:39 (Tracy Schwarz/Stormking Music Inc., BMI)
28. Sally in the Garden New Tranquility String Band & friends 2:21 * indicates previously unreleased tracks
where do you come from? where do you go?
On a warm March evening in 1963, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz pulled into Amarillo, Texas, in search of an old-time fiddler named Eck Robertson. John and Tracy, along with fellow musician Mike Seeger, had just completed a week’s stint at Dallas’ PM Coffee House and a concert at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. The trio, known collectively as The New Lost City Ramblers, was scheduled for a six-week tour of California, prompting Mike to head due west out of Dallas with his young family in tow. John and Tracy decided to take advantage of the lull in their schedule to make the 350-mile detour northwest to Amarillo to follow up on rumors of Robertson’s whereabouts. They were eager to locate the legendary fiddler, whose 1922 Victor recording of “Sallie Gooden” was considered a classic by collectors of vintage country records. His rendition of “Brilliancy Medley,” reissued on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, was well known by urban connoisseurs of folk fiddling. When John and Tracy stopped at a motel to inquire about Robertson, they were delighted to discover that he ran a used instrument shop right across the street. Tracy recalls their initial meeting with seventy-fiveyear-old Robertson the next day: He was loquacious, talked for about an hour, about his career and all. And
the new lost city ramblers at 50
then he picked up the fiddle and started playing “Leather Britches,” in the place where people usually play it, in first position. And then he switches
R AY ALLEN
up to second position, up the neck with no open strings. And he lifts his 3
eyes up at us with this little sly grin like saying —don’t you know this is a
at previous festivals and workshops. While the 1965 Newport festival is
good fiddler here, I’m one of the best!
best remembered for Bob Dylan’s high-amp rock performance, the untold story is the event’s burgeoning commitment to traditional music thanks
John and Tracy recorded Robertson’s stories and tunes, and later that
to the efforts of the Ramblers and festival advisers Ralph Rinzler, Alan
summer Mike returned to make further recordings that would subse-
Lomax, and Pete and Toshi Seeger. Folk aficionados flocked to the main
quently be issued on County Records. The Ramblers brought Robert-
stage to hear superstars Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, but they also
son out of retirement, arranging for him to perform and serving as his
swayed and occasionally stomped to the sounds of old-time string-band
accompanists at the 1964 UCLA Folk Festival and at the 1965 Newport
music, bluegrass, country blues, and Southern spiritual singing performed
by traditional musicians hailing from small rural communities.
By 1965 the Newport Folk Festival had become the nation’s premiere
The Ramblers’ appearance at the 1965 Newport festival occurred
showcase for folk artists ranging from chart-busting pop crooners to back-
during the height of their popularity and influence on the folk revival.
woods balladeers. Indeed Eck Robertson was not the only traditional mu-
In addition to a busy coast-to-coast touring schedule, they had just re-
sician to appear at Newport in 1965 at the behest of the Ramblers. Roscoe
turned from a sojourn to Australia and were planning their first trip to
Holcomb, whose modal banjo tunes and archaic vocal style offered a window
England. Their Folkways albums of mountain string-band and early blue-
into 19th-century Appalachia, had been located by John on a trip to east
grass music had reached thousands of urban folk enthusiasts and college
Kentucky in 1959. Cousin Emmy, another Kentucky banjoist and songster,
students. LP albums produced from their field recordings of Holcomb,
met the Ramblers in California in 1961. Mother Maybelle Carter, the iconic
the McGee Brothers, Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten, and a host of other
country music guitarist and singer from Scott County, Virginia, started to
Southern folk musicians had brought the sounds of the music’s originators
connect with urban audiences at festivals and coffee houses at the prompt-
to the ears of eager city listeners. And at venues like Newport and the
ing of Mike and John. The old-time string band of Sam and Kirk McGee
University of Chicago Folk Festival the Ramblers presented traditional
with Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, favorites of Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, had
artists on stage and in workshop settings where traditional and “reviv-
been recorded by Mike in 1957. And bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and
al” musicians could meet and mingle. As performers, documenters, and
Appalachian balladeer Horton Baker had appeared with the Ramblers
presenters of Southern folk music, the Ramblers had successfully injected
a shot of folk authenticity into the post-war urban folk revival that had
in rural Vermont. Though city born and suburban bred, the Ramblers im-
been dominated by commercial singers and topical singer/songwriters.
mersed themselves in the sounds of traditional Southern mountain music,
initially through recordings and later through visits to meet, record, and commune with rural artists.
The four men who performed as The New Lost City Ramblers were born
Following their first public appearance at the Carnegie Recital Hall
in New York City and as youngsters had no direct personal contact with
in September of 1958, the Ramblers were thrust to the forefront of what
the rural Southern communities whose music would captivate them as
came to be known as the “traditionalist” or “purist” wing of the folk music
adults. Yet each experienced the sounds of Southern country music at an
revival. In their first four years, Mike, John, and Tom turned out nine
early age. Mike Seeger, the son of the erudite musicologist Charles Seeger
Folkways LPs and two EPs, and played over a hundred and fifty engage-
and ultra-modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, was reared on folk
ments at folk festivals, urban clubs, and college campuses. On disc and on
music field recordings that his mother transcribed and his family sang in
stage their ability to emulate with remarkable accuracy the instrumenta-
their home in suburban Washington, D.C. John Cohen, a native of Queens
tion, styles, and repertories of Southern mountain string-band and early
and suburban Long Island, grew up hearing folk music at leftist Catskill
bluegrass groups made them unique among city players. They careful-
summer camps, listened to traditional country records as a high school
ly listened to commercial country music records made in the 1920s and
student, and helped organize hoots at Yale, where he received his BFA and
1930s and to early Library of Congress field recordings like the one that
MFA degrees in art and photography. Bronx-born Tom Paley (an original
opens this disc. “Colored Aristocracy,” performed by the Rich Family, was
Rambler who was replaced by Tracy Schwarz in 1962) collected old 78
recorded by Mike’s father Charles Seeger at a West Virginia fiddler’s con-
rpm country and blues records and followed Woody Guthrie around before
vention in 1936. Comparing the original Rich Family recording of the piece
entering graduate school at Yale to study mathematics. Tracy Schwarz,
to the Ramblers’ rendition that appeared on their first 1958 Folkways
whose father was an investment banker and mother a classically-trained
record demonstrates the Ramblers’ mastery of what critic Jon Pankake
pianist, was mesmerized by the snatches of country radio that infiltrat-
called the “musical syntax” of traditional mountain vocal and instrumen-
ed the airways of his suburban New Jersey home and fascinated by the
tal styles. But equally important, the comparison reveals how the Ram-
neighboring farmers who befriended him during his childhood summers
blers skillfully re-created the spirit of those old sounds with their own
fresh arrangement while maintaining a vital stylistic link to the original.
pieces of Cotten’s lilting blues, ragtime, and church songs. He would later
When Tom Paley left the Ramblers in the summer of 1962, the group
re-record Cotten and produce an album of her music for Folkways Re-
lost a superb guitarist and banjoist whose sardonic wit had become a hall-
cords titled Negro Folk Songs and Tunes (FG 3526, 1958).
mark of the Ramblers’ stage shows. But Tracy Schwarz was an outstand-
Sometime in 1955 Mike purchased his own forty-pound portable Mag-
ing fiddler and vocalist whose presence freed Mike from his fiddling duties
necord recorder and began recording bluegrass musicians at country mu-
to spend more time on the banjo and mandolin. Tracy enabled the trio to
sic parks in Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. In 1956 he recorded a
expand its repertoire to include more bluegrass and 1940s country songs
number of Southern-bred bluegrass players in the Baltimore/Washington
as well as the older ballads he sang in a plaintive, unaccompanied moun-
area and made a quick swing to the Carolinas to record banjoists Snuffy
tain style. The Ramblers would go on to produce another seven Folkways
Jenkins and Junie Scruggs. The following year he issued his first Folkways
LPs and play hundreds of live shows with Tracy until they curtailed their
record under the title American Banjo: Tunes and Songs in Scruggs Style
full-time touring activities in the early 1970s.
(FA 2314), an LP credited with introducing many urban folk musicians to
The Ramblers’ musical achievements alone were sufficient to earn
bluegrass music. He continued to return south to record more bluegrass
them a significant chapter in the history of the post-war folk revival. But
and mountain music for Folkways. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Er-
that was only part of their story, for unlike most urban folk musicians,
nest Stoneman, autoharp virtuoso Kilby Snow, old-time banjoist and fid-
they were not satisfied to learn tunes and techniques solely from records
dler Wade Ward, and Grand Ole Opry stars Sam and Kirk McGee with
or at song swaps. Rather, they insisted on traveling back to the source.
fiddler Arthur Smith were among the traditional artists Mike document-
They hauled tape recorders and cameras south to document the lives and
ed on his early Southern sojourns. A superb sampling of their music and
music of scores of traditional folk musicians, and then shared that music
Mike’s additional field recordings of fiddle/banjo tunes, blues, and ballads
with Northern audiences through the Folkways recordings they produced.
can be heard on Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collec-
Mike was eighteen when he and his sister Peggy discovered that the
tion, 1952–1967 (Smithsonian Folkways SFW CD 40097, 1997).
Seeger family’s African-American domestic worker, North Carolina-born
In May of 1963 Mike made what proved to be one of his greatest dis-
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, was a superb guitar picker. Using an early reel-
coveries. He had gotten wind that Virginia coal miner and banjoist Dock
to-reel tape recorder and a hand-held microphone, Mike recorded fifteen
Boggs was still alive in eastern Kentucky. The late 1920s recordings of
Boggs’s bluesy banjo pieces were among the most haunting tunes reissued
Workers Union, he traveled by bus to Hazard, Kentucky, where he bought
on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music collection. After
an old car and set about combing the back roads in search of traditional
rumbling across the rutted roads and through the tiny hamlets of east
musicians. For the next five weeks he photographed and recorded the
Kentucky with his family, Mike was directed over the state line to Nor-
traditional banjo styles of Roscoe Holcomb, Lee Sexton, Willie Chapman,
ton, Virginia, where he eventually found Boggs. Two months later Boggs
and Granville Bowlin, as well as local ballad and church singing. Nat Hen-
appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, and later that year at a concert
toff, who reviewed the resulting Folkways LP Mountain Music of Kentucky
sponsored by New York City’s Friends of Old Time Music. Mike would
(Folkways FA 2317, 1960) for the Reporter, commended the music and com-
record and produce Dock Boggs (FW 2351, 1964), Dock Boggs Volume 2 (FW
pared John’s superb portfolio of accompanying photographs to Walker Ev-
2392, 1965), and Dock Boggs Volume 3 (FW 3903, 1970) for Folkways, oc-
ans’s work in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. John would return to eastern
casionally accompanying Boggs on guitar.
Kentucky in 1962 to shoot black-and-white footage that would eventually
Just as Mike’s first experience documenting traditional music was with
become the acclaimed documentary film The High Lonesome Sound.
a transplanted Southerner—in his case, Libba Cotten—so was John’s. In
In 1963 John traveled to the North Carolina mountain communities
1952 John began photographing South Carolina-born street singer and
around Big Laurel Creek in Madison County. With the help of two trans-
guitar picker Reverend Gary Davis in his home in Harlem. The following
planted Northerners he had met in California, Peter and Polly Gott, John
year John hauled a Pentron reel-to-reel tape recorder to Davis’s apartment
photographed and recorded an extraordinary group of unaccompanied
and began to tape his extraordinary blues-inflected gospel songs accom-
ballad singers. The most impressive, Dillard Chandler, is heard along with
panied by elaborate ragtime-influenced guitar picking. Though it would be
Lee Wallin, Berzilla Wallin, Cas Wallin, and Elisha Shelton on Old Love
fifty years before the recordings would be edited and released on Folkways
Songs & Ballads (Folkways 2309, 1964) and again on Dillard Chandler: The
as If I Had My Way: The Early Home Recordings of Reverend Gary Davis (SFW
End of an Old Song (Folkways FA 2418, 1975). In 1967 John began to film
40123, 2003), John’s career as a documenter of traditional music had begun.
the enigmatic Chandler, chronicling his life and his role as a traditional
In the spring of 1959 John made his first trip south to research and
songster in a rapidly changing North Carolina community. The project
record material for an album of Depression songs the Ramblers had begun
resulted in John’s second important film, The End of an Old Song (1972).
to assemble. Armed with contacts from Jean Ritchie and the United Mine
During the filming John recorded additional ballad singers, including
Chandler’s cousin Dellie Norton, whose highly stylized ballad singing is
The Ramblers’ efforts to locate traditional musicians sometimes took
heard on this disc. On another southern swing to visit the Gotts in 1965,
them to unexpected places. In the summer of 1961, while playing a four-week
John recorded a trove of old-time banjo tunes and ballads from traditional
engagement at Hollywood’s Ash Grove coffee house, Mike and John came
performers Frank Proffitt, Gaither Carlton, Sydna Myers, George Land-
across a surprising scene at Disneyland’s Country and Western Night show.
ers, Wade Ward, Fred Cockerham, E. C. Ball, Dellie Norton, and Lloyd
There, opening for Roger Miller, they heard Kentucky banjoist Cynthia May
and Dillard Chandler. His edited recordings were released a decade later
Carver, better known as Cousin Emmy. Carver’s clear country voice and
on Rounder Records as High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from
energetic frailing banjo style were well known to the Ramblers and afi-
Virginia and North Carolina (recently re-released as Rounder CD 0028).
cionados of Southern traditional music through her 1947 Decca album
In April of 1961 Mike and John traveled south together, stopping to
Kentucky Mountain Ballads, edited by Alan Lomax. She was a veteran of
record Virginia banjoist/fiddler Wade Ward and east Tennessee banjoist
Kentucky country radio and Los Angeles country music clubs, where she
and medicine-show entertainer Clarence “Tom” Ashley. The latter was
performed after she moved to Southern California in the 1950s. Carver
well known to city players for his 1929 recording of “The Coo Coo Bird”
welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with the Ramblers and to play
that appeared on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Re-
for new urban audiences, who would soon hear her at the Ash Grove. The
cently rediscovered by Ralph Rinzler, Ashley had come out of retirement
Ramblers would arrange for her to perform with them at the Newport
to perform the previous month for New York City’s Friends of Old Time
Folk Festival in 1965, tour with them to Europe in 1966, and record The
Music. Next John and Mike visited banjo legend Earl Scruggs in Nashville
New Lost City Ramblers with Cousin Emmy (Folkways FTS 31015) in 1968.
and tagged along with his band on a brief bus tour. Their final destina-
During the Ramblers’ early years neither Tom nor Tracy had the
tion was Union Grove, North Carolina, where they recorded and photo-
time or showed the inclination for Southern fieldwork. From 1958 through
graphed a gathering of fiddlers. The resulting Folkways LP, 37th Old-time
1961 Tom struggled to balance his Ramblers’ touring schedule with a full-
Fiddler’s Convention at Union Grove, North Carolina (Folkways FA 2434,
time college teaching position. Soon after joining the Ramblers, Tracy
1962), captured the lively old-time fiddle and banjo traditions that contin-
moved to rural southeastern Pennsylvania, where he threw himself into a
ued to thrive in the mountain communities of southwest Virginia, eastern
childhood dream of farming. Although he occasionally played music with
Tennessee, and western North Carolina.
local Pennsylvania fiddlers and worked with numerous traditional musi-
cians at folk festival workshops, it wasn’t until later in his career that he
would be many efforts by the Ramblers to share the stage with traditional
became seriously involved in documentary work. At a 1974 University of
performers who, unlike themselves, actually learned their music in the
Chicago Folk Festival Tracy was asked to play second fiddle for the leg-
small Southern communities where they were reared. In December of 1960
endary Balfa Brothers Cajun band. Dewey Balfa, the group’s leader who
the Ramblers and Cotten repeated their show at a Greenwich Village con-
had first met Tracy at the 1964 Newport festival, was so pleased with the
cert produced by folk music impresario Izzy Young. That successful event
performance that he approached Tracy about collaborating on a Cajun
inspired John and Ralph Rinzler to organize New York City’s Friends of
fiddling project. Tracy visited Dewey in Basile, Louisiana, in February of
Old Time Music (FOTM), an association dedicated to bringing traditional
1975 to play and record. Two instructional albums resulted: Traditional
Southern string-band, bluegrass, spiritual, and blues singers to perform
Cajun Fiddle: Instruction by Dewey Balfa & Tracy Schwarz (Folkways FM
for New York audiences. The first FOTM concert held on February 11,
8361, 1976) and Cajun Fiddle Old & New with Dewey Balfa (Folkways FM
1961, featured the Ramblers, Rinzler’s Greenbriar Boys, Jean Ritchie, and,
8362, 1977). In addition to fiddle instruction, the latter included a full side
straight from east Kentucky, Roscoe Holcomb. John introduced Roscoe as
of live Balfa Brothers’ performances recorded by Tracy at Cajun dances
a construction worker from a little town called Daisy: “I met him several
and radio broadcasts. In 1984, following a decade of immersion in Loui-
years ago when I was down there collecting songs and trying to find out
siana music, Tracy recorded
Les Quatre Vieux Garçons (Folkways FW
what the music was about, see where it came from. And now I guess we’re
02626) with Dewey and Tony Balfa and his son Peter Schwarz. One of the
giving you and ourselves a chance to hear what it really sounds like. So
tracks, Tracy’s original composition “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” was inspired
here’s my friend Roscoe Holcomb.” John sat on stage with Holcomb, help-
by his own farming adventures in south-central Pennsylvania.
ing to introduce tunes, explaining the intricacies of banjo tunings, and
In April of 1959, when the Ramblers were still a part-time operation,
occasionally providing second guitar accompaniment.
Mike set up a concert at Washington, D.C.’s Pierce Hall, a small venue
The formula of matching traditional performers with better-known
attached to All Souls Unitarian Church located on 15th and Harvard
city players had proved successful several weeks earlier at the first
Streets, NW. According to a review in the Gardyloo fan magazine, a small
University of Chicago Folk Festival. The Ramblers had brought Holcomb
but enthusiastic crowd was enamored with the Ramblers’ special guest,
and Cotten to join Virginia balladeer Horton Baker, North Carolina ban-
guitar picker and singer Libba Cotten. The event marked the first of what
joist Frank Proffitt, and bluegrass legends the Stanley Brothers, along
with a host of urban performers. One of the latter, Sandy Paton, described
University of Chicago Folk Festival and FOTM were refined in the mid-1960s
at Newport, where Mike and Ralph Rinzler were members of the festival’s Board of Directors and the latter served as a full-time fieldworker. Their
The audience was alternately enchanted and electrified by each of these
early attempts to re-create informal folk performance in formal stage set-
great artists. The producers of the festival must have known moments of
tings served as models for Rinzler when he organized the first Smithsonian
trepidation prior to the first program, for people who were active in the
Festival of American Folklife in 1967. That event would be a culmination
field had long assumed that, in order to get urban audiences to listen to
of the vision Rinzler and the Ramblers had been working toward during
folk music, one had to “interpret” them—that is to say, translate them into
the early 1960s folk festivals and FOTM concerts: the dignified presen-
a more familiar vocal style, namely that of “art” or “pop” music. That first
tation of traditional artists located through field research in an arena
evening in Chicago proved, without a doubt, that this was no longer true,
that mixed education, entertainment, and the politics of cultural equity.
if, indeed, it had ever been true at all. Urban audiences not only could but
Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Ralph Rinzler were unsurpassed in
most certainly would appreciate the opportunity to hear genuine folk art-
their respective efforts to perform, document, and present American folk
ists in live performances.
Sandy Paton. 1967. “Folk and the Folk Arrival,” in Dimensions
music to urban audiences during the post-war revival. But neither they
of the Folk Song Revival, eds. David De Turk and A. Poulin. New York: Dell Publishing pp. 41-42.
nor anyone else could match the Ramblers’ versatility in all three domains. The Ramblers were consummate musicians, meticulous documen-
On stage the Ramblers played the role of educators and cultural facilitators.
tarians, and innovative presenters of traditional music and the musicians
When appropriate they would fill in the background on the artists and
who created that music. They carried out their mission with impeccable
their music so that unfamiliar urban and college listeners could make
skill, a steadfast respect for the originators of the music, and an unwaver-
sense of the songs and tunes they might be hearing for the first time. In
ing commitment to foreground the accomplishments of their traditional
more informal workshops the Ramblers dug deeper, helping artists to dem-
mentors over their own.
onstrate traditional singing styles and instrumental playing techniques, and encouraging participants to learn to play the music for themselves. The Ramblers’ efforts to stage traditional music for audiences at the 16
The occasion of the Ramblers’ 50th anniversary is an apt time to pause and reflect on the traditional lines “Where do you come from? Where do you go?”—queries posed to the elusive trickster figure Cotton Eyed Joe in 17
the old song that bears his name. By now the answer to the first question
creativity and joy in the true maturation of rural folk music played by
should be clear. It was the bygone sounds of mountain singers and pickers,
(mostly) city folk.” Mike and John were so impressed with the quality of
captured on hissing Library of Congress field recordings and scratchy old
the playing that in 1970 they began recording various configurations of the
78 rpm records, that first inspired the Ramblers. Their subsequent dis-
best Bay Area players. Two years later Mike produced the Folkways LP
covery of living practitioners of Southern folk music allowed them to delve
Berkeley Farms: Oldtime and Country Style Music of Berkeley (FA 2436), and
deeper into the musical styles and traditional culture that had become
John’s recordings were recently issued on a Field Recorder’s Collective CD
so central to their own lives. And the promotion of those traditional art-
Berkeley in the 1960s (FRC 609, 2008). The seeds of old-time music sown by
ists to audiences outside the South afforded them the opportunity to fur-
the Ramblers for more than a decade were coming to fruition through a
ther connect with urban listeners who, like themselves, were in search
new generation of urban musicians.
of authentic experience that the world of commercial music had failed
Some forty years later the old-time music movement continues un-
to deliver. In turn, some of their fans would take up the music for them-
abated. The flourishing of this music in our modern world can no longer be
selves—which leads to the second question.
understood as simply the revival of an esoteric and vanishing folk music
Where do you go? The Ramblers’ impact on reviving and popularizing
style by urban romantics. Today string-band and early bluegrass music
old-time mountain music has been immense. Of course it is impossible
have become indelibly woven into the rich tapestry of American roots
to accurately calculate how many city and college folks they inspired to
music. We can hear the venerable sounds of old-time music on National
pick up fiddles and banjos. But by the mid-1960s, Mike, John, and Tracy
Public Radio, numerous public TV stations, and even YouTube; download
were noticing pockets of new old-time musicians popping up across the
the songs from iTunes or Rhapsody; read about the artists in The Old-
country in and around college towns and urban clubs. One particularly
Time Herald magazine; and, most importantly, experience the music live at
rich scene, documented on the final cuts of this disc, was developing in the
countless concerts, contests, festivals, and house parties north and south.
San Francisco Bay Area, centered around the Freight and Salvage Coffee
“I think we’ve been part of the process of seeing the music continue as a
House on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. This was, Mike wrote in 1972, “a
valuable daily part of people’s lives,” Mike ruminated in a recent e-mail.
time of great musical ferment,” when the Ramblers first met and jammed
“And our old-time music continues along under the rumble of all the other
with these kindred spirits who, like them, had become obsessed with “the
changeable, churning racket.”
1958–1962. In 1996 they re-recorded the tune on There Ain’t No Way Out (Smithsonian Folkways CD 40098), this time more closely emulating the chord structure and swing of the original Rich Family performance.
The Rich Family: Sanford Rich, lead fiddle; Harry Rich, second fiddle; Elmer Rich, mandolin; Rensel Rich, guitar / Source: Library of Congress field recording by Charles Seeger, Arthurdale, West Virginia, June 24, 1936
Mike’s father, Charles Seeger, made this recording during his tenure with the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration of the WPA. One of Charles’s colleagues, Fletcher Collins, had organized a fiddle contest at Arthurdale, an early government-planned community in north-central West Virginia. Following the contest Charles recorded one of the contestants, a highspirited string band fronted by twin fiddlers Sanford and Harry Rich. Mike recalls that the recording eventually found its way into the Seeger home: “As a child this was one of my favorite recordings and one of the ones I played on the fiddle early on. Since I liked it so much and it wasn’t a well-known tune, I played it for John and Tom and they added chords. I don’t think I played them the original recording. Since then, through many playings and recordings the tune has been changed considerably.” The 1958 Ramblers’ recording of the tune that became the source for many city players can be heard on The New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years,
2. CLUCK OLD HEN Crockett Ward, fiddle; Wade Ward, banjo; Fields Ward, vocals / From Music of Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward Folkways FW 2363, 1962 / Source: Library of Congress field recording by John Lomax, Galax, Virginia, 1937
John Lomax’s recording of the Ward Family, made at the 1937 Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax, Virginia, offers a window into the music culture of 19thcentury Appalachia. Before the guitar came on the scene, lively dance music was provided by driving fiddles and banjos like those played here by Crockett and Wade Ward of Independence, Virginia. Note that in the second part of this three-part (ABC) tune, the fiddler picks the strings to imitate the cluck of a chicken. In a dance context this simple modal melody would be played over and over while a caller chants out directions to dancers.
sponse and feeling in the performance. Dellie was a welcoming person with a sly, cynical sense of humor, who spoke with pride of the wild events of her earlier life. All of her many kin sang this ballad, “Young Emily,” and argued about who had it the right way.
Dellie Norton, vocal / From Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads SFW 40159, 2005 / Source: Field recording by John Cohen, Sodom, North Carolina, 1967
The unaccompanied ballad is one of the oldest forms of Anglo-American folk song found in the upland South. “Young Emily” is most likely derived from a British broadside and has strong currency throughout the southern Appalachians; sometimes it is sung under the name “The Driver Boy” or “Young Edwin in the Lowlands.” John recorded Dellie Norton of Sodom, North Carolina, in November of 1965 while working with her cousin, Dillard Chandler, who is heard later on this disc. John reflects:
GOING DOWN THE RIVER
Schwarz, fiddle and vocal; John Cohen, guitar and vocal / From Rural Delivery No. 1: The New Lost City Ramblers FW 2496, 1964 / Source: Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers Victor 21711, 1928
The Ramblers learned this humorous ditty of escape and adventure on the river from an old 78 rpm record made by a twin-fiddle band from Arkansas with the amusing moniker Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. Smith was not a musician but a surgeon from Izard County who organized fiddle contests in the 1920s to promote Ozark folk culture and tourism. The tune is played in the key of F. Note the tight harmony trio singing and the unusual sonority created by Mike’s harmonica line that doubles Tracy’s lead fiddle melody.
Dellie Norton’s singing style is the most exaggerated of the singers around Sodom, where in 1916 Cecil Sharp collected English folk songs including “Young Emily.” Her songs were known as old love songs, performed unaccompanied for family and friends. Her singing style is distinctive—listen to how she holds certain notes for unusual lengths of time; her different vocal decorations and turns of melody; and her way of throwing her voice into falsetto yips and the end of a line. These colorations follow no logical structure but reveal an intuitive re22
5. BILLY GRIMES THE ROVER
ter Tracy joined the Ramblers in the fall of 1962, the song reflects the group’s increased interest in early bluegrass material and was the first of a number of songs that would feature Mike and Tracy’s tight duet harmonies. When the Ramblers played the piece for the Stanley Brothers in November of 1962 during their visit to New York, Ralph and Carter Stanley were so impressed that they recorded it for King Records the following year, crediting the Ramblers with the arrangement. In 1997 Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss recorded a similar version for Rebel Records on Clinch Mountain Country: Ralph Stanley and Friends.
Tom Paley, guitar and vocal; Mike Seeger, fiddle; John Cohen, banjo / From New Lost City Ramblers, Vol. 4 FW 02399, 1962 / Source: The Shelor Family (J.B. Blackard) Victor 20865, 1927
Recorded shortly before Tom left the Ramblers in the summer of 1962, this superb arrangement of “Billy Grimes” is one of his best vocal efforts. The theme of the rover turned desirable suitor due to his unexpected wealth is common to many British and Anglo-American ballads. But this particular piece was actually copyrighted by Richard Coe and William K. Oakley in 1850. The Ramblers learned it from a string-band version recorded by the Shelor Family for Ralph Peer during his legendary 1927 Bristol Sessions.
DARK AND STORMY WEATHER
Mike Seeger, lead voice and autoharp; Tracy Schwarz,
6. PRETTY LITTLE MISS
tenor voice and second guitar; John Cohen, bass vocal and lead guitar / From Remembrance of Things to Come:
Tracy Schwarz, fiddle and tenor voice; Mike Seeger,
The New Lost City Ramblers FW 31035, 1973; first
mandolin and lead voice; John Cohen, guitar / From The
issued by Verve/Folkways FT/FTS-3018 in 1967 / Source:
New Lost City Ramblers with Tracy Schwarz: Gone
The Carter Family Bluebird 8868, October 14, 1941
to the Country FW 02491, 1963 / Source: Lyrics from Cousin Emmy De 24213; tune from Roscoe Holcomb
This tight harmony trio number demonstrates the Ramblers’ mastery of the Carter Family vocal and instrumental sound, with a few original twists. Tracy and Mike’s tenor and lead vocal parts are filled out by John’s bass, creating an
This bluegrass arrangement of the traditional song “Pretty Little Miss” combines lyrics from a Cousin Emmy recording with a melody learned from Roscoe Holcomb. Recorded not long af23
all-male version of the original Carter sound that featured two female and one male voice. The autoharp lead was Mike’s addition and does not appear on the original Carter Family arrangement. Writing for the liner notes to the original 1967 release, Mike notes, “This is a fairly old song and I have seen the chorus in several folksong collections. I rather suspect the Carters ‘collected’ the chorus and perhaps a verse, and composed the remainder. The tune and harmony lean towards bluegrass, especially in the use of the flatted 7th with a IV chord in the third line.” The lyrical imagery moved John: “I always loved the phrase ‘the cloud hangs over center,’ showing how the weather and the position of a cloud can convey a feeling which is parallel to ‘my love’s gone away on a train.’”
he observed the song to be “a ballad which states simply what the originator felt profoundly. Such songs remain in the oral tradition primarily for their narrative role, and secondarily for their musical aspects, and therefore will often be unaccompanied so as not to distract the attention of the listener from the message.” A similar version of “Sioux Indians” is found in Malcolm Laws’ noted collection Native American Ballads.
John Cohen, guitar and vocal / From American
Moonshine and Prohibition Songs:
to Come: The New Lost City Ramblers FW 31035, 1973; first issued by Verve/Folkways FT/FTS-3018 in 1967 / Source: Library of Congress field recording of Alex Moore of Austin, Texas, by John and Alan Lomax, 1940
This 19th-century Western ballad reveals Tracy’s proficiency at the high, tense, mountain singing style. In the liner notes for the original 1967 release 24 26
that his father had brought home from the Library of Congress. He recalls the song was “a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it, before I was in my teens. I think we even sang it as a family when I was young.”
11. COTTON EYED JOE Mike Seeger, fiddle; Tracy Schwarz, fiddle; John Cohen, guitar and vocal / From The New Lost City Ramblers: On the Great Divide Folkways FW 31041, 1975. Source: The Carter Brothers and Son Okeh, 1928
This 1973 live recording made at the Boarding House in San Francisco by Chris Strachwitz was inspired by the wild double-fiddle sound of the Mississippi Carter Brothers and Son string band. The Ramblers often closed their concerts with a driving Carter Brothers and Son number like “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Referring to the frenzied flow of the nonsense lyrics and the relentless shuffling fiddles, John observes, “It has become an exercise in improvisation within the limits of great consistency and madness.” Regarding the spoken introduction, “It was made up on the spot and never repeated!”
LONG LONESOME ROAD
The New Lost
Mike Seeger, vocal and guitar; John Cohen, fiddle; Tracy
City Ramblers Folkways FW 05263, 1962 / Source:
Schwarz, fiddle; Penny Seeger Cohen, autoharp / From
Library of Congress field recording of Daw Henson of
The New Lost City Ramblers with Tracy Schwarz:
eastern Kentucky by Alan Lomax, October 1937
Gone to the Country FW 2491, 1963 / Source: Library
With little respect for law or authority, the rugged and reclusive moonshiner became an iconic figure in mountain culture and the subject of numerous folk songs. Regarding his arrangement John recalls, “I was always attracted to some of the low-register Appalachian singing and to the irregular sort of a non-symmetrical guitar rhythm that I heard on an old Library of Congress recording by Daw Henson.” About ten years ago, backstage at Madison Square Garden, Bob Dylan told John how much he liked his
Tracy Schwarz, vocal / From Remembrance of Things
recording of “Moonshiner.” John responded, “Do you mean the recording I made of Roscoe Holcomb?” and Dylan answered, “No, I mean your recording of the song.” John had forgotten that he had recorded “Moonshiner” on the Ramblers’ Moonshine and Prohibition album in 1962, around the time Dylan first arrived in New York. Roscoe Holcomb’s version of “Moonshiner” can be heard on The High Lonesome Sound: Roscoe Holcomb (Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40104, 1998).
of Congress field recording by John Lomax, Galax, Virginia, 1937. Uncle Alec Dunford and Crockett Ward, fiddles; Fields Ward, vocal and guitar.
This sad song stitches together floating verses and mournful fiddles. The text is organized in unusual three-line, twelvebar verses in ABB form. The tune is a cousin to “Fall on My Knees” that was popularized by Tommy Jarrrell and Fred Cockerham. This arrangement is one of John’s rare appearances on fiddle. Mike first heard “Long Lonesome Road” from the Dunford/Ward field recording 25 27
NEW WHITE HOUSE BLUES
Mike Seeger, banjo and vocal; Tom Paley, mandolin;
Tom Paley, banjo and lead vocal; Mike Seeger, fiddle;
John Cohen, guitar / From Aravel Record #AB1005,
John Cohen, guitar / From The New Lost City
1961; reissued in 1978 as Tom Paley, John Cohen,
Ramblers Folkways EP (FW EPC602, 1961) / Source:
and Mike Seeger Sing Songs of the New Lost City
Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers
Ramblers Folkways FA 2494, 1978 / Source: Bob Baker
Columbia 15688, 1930
While the Ramblers are best known for their renditions of old-time string-band material, Mike’s interest in bluegrass occasionally resulted in arrangements like this version of “White House Blues.” Mike recalls learning this song from Bob Baker, the leader of the Pike County Boys, a Baltimore-based bluegrass band with whom he occasionally played before he joined the Ramblers. Baker heard the song from his parents, who were natives of Pike County, Kentucky. Played without picks, Mike’s banjo leads combine driving Kentucky clawhammer with some ideas from his bluegrass experience. His high, tense singing reflects the influence of bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. The unique text, set to the tune of “White House Blues,” is a brash blues complaint rarely heard in the mountain or bluegrass tradition—hence the renaming as “New White House Blues.”
In their early years the Ramblers were smitten by the bouncy “mountain parlor-style” string-band sound of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, whose name in part inspired their own. “Milwaukee Blues,” a humorous chronicle of the vicissitudes of hobo life, is one of several Poole favorites that the Ramblers recorded with Tom singing lead. His understated vocal and delicate banjo picking combine with Mike’s jazzy fiddling and John’s flowing guitar runs to evoke the spirit of the original 1930 recording.
in 1965, the same year he had bought a farm in York County, Pennsylvania. That summer the area suffered a severe drought. “So one day I was out there trying to put in a patch of a special grass touted by the Department of Agriculture, but I ended up out there just stirring up the dirt and making things even drier. And that’s what gave me the idea for the song—looking at that ground that was obviously not going to produce anything.” The melody is inspired by the traditional song “Rye Whiskey” and the tune “Nonc Bob” from Dewey Balfa’s father. In 2007 Levon Helm, formerly of the rock group The Band, recorded a version of “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” for Vanguard Records. The CD, Dirt Farmer, won a 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
POOR OLD DIRT FARMER
Tracy Schwarz, vocal and fiddle; Peter Schwarz, bass;
Arthur Smith, fiddle; Sam McGee, guitar; Kirk McGee,
Tony Balfa, guitar / From: Les Quatre Vieux Garçons:
banjo / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger at Kirk
Dewey and Tony Balfa, and Tracy and Peter
McGee’s home near Nashville, Tennessee, November 1957
Schwarz Folkways FW 2626, 1984
Mike first heard the McGee Brothers in 1955 at the New River Ranch near Rising Sun, Maryland, where they played in Grandpa Jones’s band. He was so impressed that he decided to contact them when he made a trip to Nashville
Tracy’s fiddling on this original piece is a mix of Appalachian and Cajun blues styles in the low-D cross-tuning (DDAD). His high, tense singing suggests a strong Cajun influence. Tracy wrote the song
in 1957. “I approached them with the idea of making a Folkways recording. Shortly before going to Nashville, Kirk mentioned that they used to play with Arthur Smith and that he was nearby and could they include him in the session. I’d heard Arthur’s music and was elated—although they had toured extensively as a trio in the 1930s, they had never been recorded commercially.” This particular recording of “Cady Hill” was made as a test for instrument balance at the beginning of the session, explaining in part its loose, off-the-cuff feel as well as its brevity. The trio’s driving sound, led by Smith’s exuberant fiddling, is equally at home at a mountain square dance and on stage at the New River Ranch or the Grand Ole Opry. Most of the remaining material Mike recorded that day in McGee’s home was later released on Look! Who’s Here: Old Timers of the Grand Ole Opry: The McGee Brothers and Arthur Smith (Folkways 2379, 1964).
I BELONG TO THE BAND
Reverend Gary Davis, guitar and vocal / From If I Had My Way: The Early Home Recordings of Reverend Gary Davis SFW 40123, 2003 / Source: Field recording by John Cohen in the home of Reverend Gary Davis in the South Bronx, 1954
John began visiting and recording the blind South Carolina-born street singer Reverend Gary Davis after hearing him at the Lead Belly memorial concert in 1950. “Initially I was blown away by his guitar,” recalls John, “but eventually came to be most moved by his singing, which at times resembled Ray Charles’s great vocal style. In these home recordings Reverend Davis was sometimes joined by his wife Annie, and sometimes by a fellow preacher, McKinley Peebles. At that time Davis and Peebles sang out in the streets of Harlem.” Davis’s version of “I Belong to the Band” loops together floating gospel verses and a hallelujah chorus over a punchy, bluesinflected guitar accompaniment. His original recording of the song was made in 1935 for ARC records before he migrated to New York.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was one of the most influential African-American figures of the folk music revival. A native of Carrboro, North Carolina, she was working as a domestic for the Seeger family when Mike and Peggy realized her extraordinary guitar skills. This recording, made by Mike in late 1957, served as the source for what would become one of the folk revival’s most popular guitar-picking tunes. Cotten’s inspiration for the song was her childhood memories of her and her brothers watching freight trains run by their home in North Carolina. In early 1959 Mike and Libba Cotten were invited to play at Swarthmore College, and later that year she performed with the Ramblers in Washington and New York concerts. Following her appearance with the Ramblers at the 1961 University of Chicago Folk Festival, she went on to enjoy an acclaimed career as a professional folk singer. In 1984 she was awarded a Grammy. Mike recalls recording the piece in Cotten’s bedroom on Capitol Hill in Washington with four of her young great-grandchildren sitting on the floor in front of her.
Elizabeth Cotten, guitar / From Negro Folk Songs and Tunes Folkways FG 3526, 1958; also reissued on Elizabeth Cotten: Freight Train and Other North Carolina
Folkways SFCD 40009, 1989 / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger in the home of Elizabeth Cotten, Washington, D.C., 1957. This track is newly re-mastered.
18. I’M LEAVING YOU
played cards, and recalled their adventures in the 1920s and 1930s. This is one of the few songs that we had full takes of, and you can hear their ad-lib but totally musical togetherness. As I recall, there was no rehearsal or re-takes. Maybelle plays this song with a flat pick, which she did occasionally. I believe she’s playing in F, with a capo. I remember my surprise at her easily playing two different B flat chords on her trusty Gibson L-5 guitar.
Sara Carter Bayes, lead vocal and second guitar; Maybelle Carter, harmony vocal and lead guitar / From Close to Home: Old Time Music from Mike Seeger’s Collection 1952–1967 SFW 40097, 1997 / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger at the home of Coy and Sara Bayes, Angel’s Camp, California, April 24, 1963
Cousins Maybelle and Sara Carter of Scott County, Virginia, were original members of country music’s most beloved family group. Mike helped arrange for Maybelle to play at Hollywood’s Ash Grove coffee house in 1963, a move that would connect her with a new urban audience who were familiar with the Carter Family’s late 1920s and 1930s recordings. Their distinctive harmony singing and Maybelle’s fancy guitar picking heard on the Delmore Brothers’ love song “I’m Leaving You” are hallmarks of the Carter sound. Mike recalls making the recording in 1963 when the Ramblers were on a West Coast tour:
Clarence “Tom” Ashley, banjo and vocal / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger at Clarence “Tom” Ashley’s home in Shouns, Tennessee, April 13, 1961
Tom Ashley was well known to urban “revivalist” audiences from his 1929 recording of “The Coo Coo Bird,” which appeared on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Ashley was rediscovered by folklorist and bluegrass musician Ralph Rinzler at the 1960 Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention. Rinzler and the Ramblers arranged for Ashley and his band— which included the virtuoso guitarist Doc Watson—to perform at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, the New York City Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM), and the Ash Grove coffee
Folklorist Ed Kahn and I offered to drive Maybelle up to visit her cousin Sara, with whom she had performed for so many years as the Carter Family. We had a two-day visit with these two exceptional women, and we enjoyed the close, warm relationship between them as they talked about their families, made music, 29
house in Hollywood. Shortly after Ashley’s New York City debut at a March 1961 FOTM concert, Mike and John visited him in east Tennessee. John recalls Ashley having been so moved by his FOTM experience that he began remembering more old songs from his younger days, including “Walking Boss,” an African-American track-lining piece that he learned while playing around the West Virginia coal fields. Similar versions of “Walking Boss” were collected in Alabama and Mississippi, suggesting the song’s widespread prevalence in the South. Additional information on this and other Ashley songs is found on Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960–1962 (SFW 40029, 1994), compiled and annotated by Rinzler. John sings an Ashley-inspired rendition of “Walking Boss” on The New Lost City Ramblers: On the Great Divide (Folkways FW 31041, 1975).
that appeared on Harry Smith’s 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music. Regarding this 1963 recording, Mike recalls: “This was recorded during our first meeting as we were just beginning to get acquainted. Since the tapes I made that day were intended for audition purposes only, the recordings were very informal, and Dock started singing before I could start the recorder and gave an unusual, quiet rendition of one of his favorite songs, better known as ‘Hold Fast to the Right.’” Boggs’s bluesy intonations and spare banjo playing produce an unusual accompaniment for a traditional text that relates sage maternal advice about adhering to the strict tenets of the old-time religion. Boggs would eventually enjoy a second career singing for city and college audiences with the help of Mike and the Ramblers.
21. HILLS OF MEXICO Roscoe Holcomb, banjo and vocal / From Music of
University of Chicago Folk Festival and then to the first Friends of Old Time Music concert in New York. During that visit he recorded Holcomb’s extraordinary version of “Hills of Mexico.” John recalls, “Roscoe was the most intense singer I have ever encountered, essentially a home musician who had no aspirations to go on radio or make recordings. He considered himself primarily a working man. His musical style was shaped as much by Old Regular Baptist singing as it was by the blues. Referring to his highpitched singing, he said he had a ‘fine voice.’ I made up the phrase ‘the High Lonesome Sound’ to describe his style.” A similar version of this traditional cowboy song was recorded by Woody Guthrie in 1945 and released under the title “Buffalo Skinners” on a Smithsonian Folkways CD with the same name (SFW CD 40112, 1993). In 2007 Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby recorded Holcomb’s version of “Hills of Mexico” for Sony Legacy Records.
Kilby Snow of Grayson County, Virginia, was probably the most innovative Appalachian autoharp player of his generation, with a repertoire ranging from ancient ballads and fiddle tunes to more recent bluegrass and country songs. Mike first met him on one of his Southern recording trips in 1957. He was particularly impressed with Snow’s “left-handed playing technique which enabled him to play slurs, or, as he called them, ‘drag notes,’ by playing two or three adjacent open strings upward in pitch very accurately with the chord bar released. No one else has been able to match the driving speed, accuracy, and hard touch of his virtuoso style.” “Galax Rag” is one of Snow’s own tunes based on a 1926 recording of “Going Down to Lynchburg Town” by the Blue Ridge Highballers.
23. SAY OLD MAN, CAN YOU PLAY A FIDDLE? Eck Robertson, fiddle; Tracy Schwarz, guitar; Mike Seeger, mandolin / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger in a Newport, Rhode Island cottage, July 1965
Roscoe Holcomb and Wade Ward Folkways FW 02363, 1962 / Source: Field recording by John Cohen in
Dock Boggs, banjo and vocal / Source: Field recording by Mike Seeger at Dock and Sara Boggs’ home in
New York City, February 1961
Norton, Virginia, June 12, 1963
John first met and recorded Roscoe Holcomb on his initial trip to east Kentucky in the summer of 1959. In February of 1961 he brought Holcomb north to the
Kilby Snow, autoharp / Source: Field recording by Mike
Dock Boggs was another Appalachian artist known to many urban folk musicians and fans from early recordings 30
After visiting the legendary country fiddler Eck Robertson in Amarillo, Texas, in 1963, the Ramblers arranged for him to perform at a number of urban venues including the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Mike recalls: “We played several
Seeger made onstage at the Unionville-Chadds Ford Junior Senior High School auditorium, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1966
tunes with him onstage. I especially remember this small, aging man in the backstage performer’s tent surrounded by Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker, Tex Logan, Arthur Smith, and Kirk McGee listening intently to his legendary arrangement of ‘Sallie Gooden.’ On the last afternoon of the festival I arranged for a place to record, borrowed a Nagra recorder and microphone, and we recorded this and five other pieces.” Robertson employs an EDAE fiddle tuning for this unusual multi-part tune. His different melodic variations emphasize the major and minor thirds of the scale, resulting in an intriguing uncertainty as to the tune’s major or minor identity.
Variants of “Awake, Awake” are found in the celebrated ballad collections of Cecil Sharp and Malcolm Laws, attesting to the song’s strong currency in the southern Appalachians. Similar versions of “Awake, Awake” were recorded by a number of early commercial country singers including B. F. Shelton as “O Mollie Dear,” the Oaks Family as “Wake Up, You Drowsy Sleeper,” the Callahan Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys as “Oh Katie Dear,” and the Carter Family as “Who’s That Knocking at My Window?”
old African-American man who worked on her father’s family farm near Lamb, Kentucky. Additional recordings of Cousin Emmy can be heard on The New Lost City Ramblers with Cousin Emmy (Folkways FTS 31015, 1968) and Cousin Emmy and Her Kinfolks 1939–1947 (Bear Family Records CD 16853, 2007).
The Basile Cajun Hour is special in terms of what is to be found nowadays on the AM broadcast band in the USA—it’s live, almost a thing of the past in most areas and it takes place in a bar with a dance floor. Nothing dull about this. The establishment, C.C.’s Lounge, looks quite ordinary from the outside and at 4:45pm is almost empty. However, by 5pm it was jam-packed with happy, noisy listeners and dancers. Most of the selections are intended to be for dancing and the band is set up that way—electric pickups on all instruments and drums for a heavy beat. The tempo is either waltz or twostep, with waltzes favored 2 to 1.
26. MADELEINE Dewey Balfa, fiddle; Rodney Balfa, guitar and vocal; Allie Young, accordion; Weston Bergeaux, drum From Cajun Fiddle, Old and New with Dewey Balfa Folkways FW 8362, 1977 / Source: Field recording by Tracy Schwarz at
25. BOWLING GREEN
C.C.’s Lounge in Basile, Louisiana, February 1975
Cynthia May “Cousin Emmy” Carver, banjo and vocal; John
The popular Cajun two-step “Madeleine” relates the woes of a man whose lover has left him to go out to sleep “dehors dans l’grand brouillard” (literally “outdoors in a big fog”; to “sleep outdoors” is a Cajun euphemism for an extramarital affair). Tracy recorded the Balfa Brothers performing it in February of 1975 during a live radio broadcast of the Basile Cajun Hour from C.C.’s Lounge in Basile, Louisiana. In the liner notes to the original Folkways LP, Tracy described the scene:
Cohen, guitar; Mike Seeger, mandolin; Tracy Schwarz, bass / Source: Field recording made at the Ash Grove,
24. AWAKE, AWAKE
Hollywood, California, April 23, 1967; recordist unknown
Dillard Chandler, vocal / From Old Love Songs
After hearing Cousin Emmy at Disneyland in 1961, John and Mike arranged for her to play at a number of folk music venues including Hollywood’s Ash Grove, where this recording was made. John would later recall that Carver’s Kentucky ballads and flamboyant stage presentation came across as a mix of Hollywood and hillbilly: “Her music was as we knew it, but instead of coming from a farm kitchen, it was coming from a spangled jukebox.” She learned this song from an
& Ballads from the Big Laurel, North Carolina Folkways FW 2309, 1964; and/or Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads SFW 40159, 2005
During a 1963 trip to the mountain communities around Big Laurel Creek in Madison County, North Carolina, John recorded Dillard Chandler singing this sad love song. Chandler’s tense vocal delivery and extended phrasing exemplify traditional a cappella mountain singing style, while his final verse is unique. 32 18
FISHING CREEK BLUES
Sue Draheim, fiddle; Mac Benford, banjo; Eric Thompson, lead guitar; Jody Stecher, guitar; possibly Hank Bradley, Will Spires, Kenny Hall, Holly Tannen, and Larry Hanks / From Berkeley in the 1960s Field Recorder’s Collective FRC 609, 2008 / Source: Recording by John Cohen at Peter Weston’s Pacific High Studios, San Francisco, California, 1970
In the late 1960s John and Mike took notice of the rich old-time music scene that had sprung up in the Bay Area. John recalls that, during the Ramblers’ touring visits, musicians would gather to jam at a large house on Colby Street on the
In 1975 Dewey had two radio shows and a dance Saturday, and by hunting around the dial one could find other shows too. 33 19
Berkeley/Oakland city line. “They were all independent musicians, full time exploring old-time music, busking, and lifestyles, in various configurations. Forty years later, most of them are still performing around the Bay Area.” This particular group, he reminisces, “produced a musical high, a meeting of minds and excellent musicianship which never coalesced into a single band.” The tune “Fishing Creek Blues” was written by Rambler Tracy Schwarz in 1964 and named after a creek that ran behind his house in rural Pennsylvania. Note Eric Thompson’s high register guitar variations on the melody, suggesting the influence of bluegrass and foreshadowing a sound that would soon be popularized by acoustic rocker Jerry Garcia, an old high school friend of Thompson’s.
Mike’s Berkeley Farms Folkways LP was an early effort to document the late 1960s bourgeoning Bay Area old-time music scenes. Banjoist Mac Benford and fiddler Walt Koken (another Colby Street regular not heard on this recording) would go on to form the nucleus of the Highwoods String Band, probably the most popular old-time group of the 1970s. Others remain active in the ongoing folk music scene. Mike suspects that a 1928 recording of a three-tune medley by the Crockett Family Mountaineers was the source for this version of “Sally in the Garden.” The guitar, lap dulcimer, and jew’s harp join in with the main melodic lines of the fiddles and banjo to create an exceptionally rich textural effect.
Ray Allen is Professor of Music and director of the American Studies program at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He and Ellie Hisama recently co-edited Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Worlds: Innovation and Tradition in Twentieth-Century American Music (University of Rochester Press, 2007). He is currently completing a book tentatively titled Gone to the Country: The New Lost City Ramblers and the Urban Folk Music Revival.
28. SALLY IN THE GARDEN New
Draheim, fiddle; Will Spires, fiddle; Larry Hanks, jew’s harp; Eric Thompson, lead guitar; Ron Tinkler, second guitar; Dave Ricker, mandolin; Mac Benford, 5-string banjo; Holly Tannen, lap dulcimer; possibly others / From Berkeley Farms: Oldtime and Country Style Music of Berkeley Folkways FW 2436, 1972 / Source: Recording by Dave Wirt and Reg Paradis at Guerrage Productions, Berkeley, California, February 1970
About Smithsonian Folkways
Co-produced by John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and Tracy Schwarz
audio specialist; John Smith, sales and marketing; Stephanie Smith, archivist.
Essay and annotations by Ray Allen
Thanks to Peter Bartok, Chris Strachwitz, and others for recording the New Lost City Ramblers.
Archival assistance by Jeff Place Photos by Chris Strachwitz
Thanks also to Katharina Budnick, Jesse Hart, Fritz Klaetke, and Jason Roth.
Audio restoration and mastering by Pete Reiniger Executive producers: Daniel E. Sheehy and D. A. Sonneborn
Always Been A Rambler is a new documentary film (2009) about the New Lost City Ramblers. It includes rare archival footage and photos, interviews, and recent performances by the band, some of their early influences, and some of the musicians influenced by NLCR. Directed by Yasha Aginsky and produced by Chris Strachwitz, Suzy Thompson, and Tom Diamant of the Arhoolie Foundation, it’s available as a DVD (with bonus footage) and will show in a limited number of theaters during 2009 and 2010.
Production manager: Mary Monseur Editorial assistance by Carla Borden Art direction, design, and layout by Visual Dialogue Additional Smithsonian Folkways staff: Richard James Burgess, director of marketing and sales; Betty Derbyshire, financial operations manager; Laura Dion, sales; Toby Dodds, technology manager; Spencer Ford, fulfillment; Henri Goodson, financial assistant; Mark Gustafson, marketing; David Horgan, e-marketing; Helen Lindsay, customer service; Keisha Martin, manufacturing coordinator; Margot Nassau, licensing and royalties; Jeff Place, archivist; Ronnie Simpkins,
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States. Our mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document music, spoken word, instruction, and sounds from around the world. The Smithsonian acquired Folkways from the Asch estate in 1987, and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has continued the Folkways tradition by supporting the work of traditional artists and expressing a commitment to cultural diversity, education, and increased understanding. Smithsonian Folkways recordings are available at record stores. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Folkways, Collector, Cook, Dyer-Bennet, Fast Folk, Monitor, and Paredon recordings are all available through: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings Mail Order Washington, DC 20560-0520 Phone: (800) 410-9815 or 888-FOLKWAYS (orders only) Fax: (800) 853-9511 (orders only) To purchase online, or for further information about Smithsonian Folkways Recordings go to: www.folkways.si.edu. Please send comments, questions, and catalogue requests to [email protected]
For more information, go to: www.alwaysbeenarambler.org
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