Mike Seeger - guitar, banjo, autoharp, fiddle; John Cohen - guitar, mandolin; Tracy Schwarz - guitar, banjo, fiddle
Formed in 1958 by the trio of John Cohen, Mike Seeger and Tom Paley, The New Lost City Ramblers played a vital role during the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Primarily responsible for popularizing the traditional southern string band music of the 1920s and 1930s, the New Lost City Ramblers were far more than imitators and were not content merely recycling the vintage recordings that inspired them. Unlike other far more popular folk groups of the era like The Weavers and The Kingston Trio (and later Peter, Paul & Mary) that attempted to commercialize, and in the process sanitize, rural southern music, The Ramblers brought a fresh, aggressive authenticity to the songs they played. At a time when folk music was generally relegated to bland renditions of "Waltzing Matilda" and the like, The Ramblers introduced an entire generation to a wide variety of high spirited instrumental techniques and master picking that few had bothered to investigate. In the process, they had a profound influence on countless musicians to follow, including a young Bob Dylan, who in the first installment of his "Chronicles" autobiography stated, "All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. At the time, I didn't know that they were replicating everything they did off old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn't have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn't listen to them enough."
Just as important as their raising awareness of music from a long forgotten era, The Ramblers made it possible for young city musicians to become successful by veering away from the demands of the music industry. In retrospect, this may be The Ramblers greatest contribution as they were on a conscious mission to seek out and replicate the genuine energy, spirit and humor of a music that existed outside the commercial music industry. It was this mindset, as well as their musicianship, that gave them validity and paved the way for a wide variety of young musicians interested in traditional country, blues, bluegrass and even rock 'n' roll, to follow. The Ramblers were also largely responsible for introducing many of the original performers to urban audiences. Indeed, it was their crusading of these long forgotten and often obscure artists that would become the basic ingredient for the folk festivals of the 1960s and beyond.
The genesis of the New Lost City Ramblers began in the 1950s at Yale University when fellow students John Cohen, who played a variety of stringed instruments, and Tom Paley, who played banjo and guitar, teamed up to play so-called hillbilly music. In 1958, while Cohen was visiting Paley, who at the time was teaching in Maryland, the duo was invited by John Dildine to perform live on his FM radio folk music program. Another multi-instrumentalist, Mike Seeger (half-brother of Pete Seeger) heard the duo and the three musicians got together to play for the first time. Excited about what had just transpired, John Cohen got in touch with Moe Asch of Folkways Records and Israel Young to arrange a concert performance in New York City. They originally planned for the concert to be held at the modest sized Carnegie Chapter Hall, but when tickets sold out in advance, they presented two concerts at the larger Carnegie Recital Hall in September of 1959. The trio's debut album for Folkways was recorded in a single session the following day. Over the course of the next several years, the Ramblers would hold down other jobs while performing part-time at colleges, clubs and festivals. They would record several more volumes of traditional southern string band music for Folkways and although still financially challenged, become increasingly popular in the process. Although Cohen and Seeger wished to pursue playing music full time, Paley, who held a teaching job at Rutgers, was not convinced. The economic and personal differences led to Paley leaving the group for Europe at the tail end of 1962, following the recording of The New Lost City Ramblers Volume 5, released on Folkways in early 1963.
Cohen and Seeger continued playing music full-time while they sought out a replacement for Paley. After pursuing traditional musician Dic Watson, who respectfully declined their invitation, Seeger turned to his friend Tracy Schwarz, a gifted bluegrass musician who was an avid fan of the group. Schwarz was primarily a fiddle player, but was also an accomplished guitarist, bassist and five-string banjo picker who could sing lead and tenor vocals. This personnel change served to broaden the group's sound and repertoire, adding unaccompanied ballads and modern bluegrass to the mix and began a deeper immersion into country music.
Another gem from the private collection of Ash Grove owner, Ed Pearl, this recording of The New Lost City Ramblers captures this transitional moment in the group's history, having been recorded in April of 1963, shortly after Schwarz replaced Paley. Not surprisingly, the bulk of this final set of the evening features material recorded for both of their 1963 album releases, The New Lost City Ramblers Volume 5, which was the last LP by the original trio, and Gone To Country, the first Ramblers album with Tracy Schwarz on board. The Ramblers kick off their set with a number that fits neither description, the "Crawdad Song," a variation of an even older piece named "Sweet Thing." With Cohen on guitar, Seeger on banjo and Schwarz on fiddle, this southern folksong is an example of the Ramblers beginning to expand their musical boundaries, with its overt country flavor and harder instrumental edge. The Carter Family classic, "Ramblin' Boy," a highlight of the Ramblers' Volume 5 album follows, featuring guitar, mandolin and autoharp accompaniment. Next up, John Cohen gets a guitar-fingerpicking showcase performing Elizabeth Cotton's "Freight Train," which at this point was still 15 years away from being recorded by The Ramblers (it would finally surface on a 1978 recording). It's an impressive performance that interjects a unique ragtime flavoring, yet maintains the authenticity of the original.
The next two numbers would both surface on Gone To Country, the first Ramblers album to include Schwarz, later that year. Not surprisingly, these two performances are quite similar to those recordings, with the Ramblers' reading of Doc Boggs' "Down South Blues" clearly heading into the high lonesome sound of bluegrass territory and their take on The Dixon Brothers' "She Tickles Me" providing humor to the proceedings. Both are more engaging than the Ramblers' 1963 album recordings, with "She Tickles Me" including several moments of spontaneous hilarity, including an intentionally off-kilter instrumental break that is delightfully demented. Following this, a three-way discussion begins featuring ridiculously funny song titles that are almost worth the price of admission alone! Keeping with the humorous mood, the Ramblers again mine the Volume 5 album for "Bill Morgan And His Girl," returning to guitar, banjo, and fiddle format.
As they begin winding up the set, they dig even deeper into bluegrass territory with the traditional Appalachian folk song and murder ballad, "Pretty Polly, featuring plenty of hot banjo, mandolin and guitar picking. The Ramblers turn the Ash Grove into a barn dance by closing the evening with the up-tempo fiddling showcase, "Old Molly Hare," an old traditional number featured on their current Volume 5 album.
Although still at the stage of getting comfortable with the new lineup and breaking in their new repertoire, this recording is a fascinating glimpse into this transitional era of the New Lost City Ramblers. The Ramblers' sense of humor combined with their obvious reverence for this music would have a profound influence on generations of string band musicians to come. Amazingly this lineup would achieve even greater career longevity than many of them, as Seeger, Cohen and Schwarz would continue recording and performing together through the millennium, a testament to both their commitment and popularity.
Written by Alan Bershaw