Artist: The New Lost City Ramblers

Title: The New Lost City Ramblers
      3-Volume CD Boxed Set (SFW40180)

      Volume I The Early Years, 1958-1962
           (with original trio including Tom Paley)

     Volume II Outstanding in Their Field,
           1963-1973 (with Tracy Schwartz)
           [Compiled and annotated
            by Jon Pankake]

     Volume III Where Do You Come From?
           Where Do You Go?
           50th anniversary celebration

          [Co-produced and compiled by
           Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy
           Schwartz, Annotated by Ray Allen]

Release Date: 2009

Label: Smithsonian Folkways

In Search of The New Lost City Ramblers:

By Ross Altman, Ph.D.

NLCR_Where_Did_You_Come_From.jpg"If you remember the 60s you weren't there," insisted Wavy Gravy, one of its iconic counter-cultural heroes, but as Johnny Cash replied in his early gospel masterpiece, "I was there when it happened, so I guess I ought to know"-the "it" in this case being the folk revival. And all of us who were there know, what was the most reliable source for accurate information about that on-going odyssey through America's bedrock music. That would be The Little Sandy Review, which was edited and published by Paul Nelson and Jon Pankake, in the same state from which came the folk revival's most astonishing artist. That would be Minnesota, home to both Bob Dylan and Jon Pankake-and thereby hangs a tale.

Pankake was generous with the artists he championed from the pages of his and Nelson's journal-often to a fault. When the young, still-unformed, busking would-be troubadour had no place to stay, Jon put him up on his couch. When Bob left Dinkytown, the Minneapolis neighborhood where he spent his one year at the University of Minnesota,, for New York City's Greenwich Village, he went with Jon Pankake's blessing. He also went with some of Jon's most precious records-which he stole right off the shelves and put in his duffel bag.

When Jon discovered the theft of his records he became enraged at this hobo vagabond minstrel and vowed to track him down and recover them. Fast forward six months and Dylan was now sleeping on someone else's couch-the Mayor of Greenwich Village. That would be Dave Van Ronk.

Jon Pankake showed up at his door and when the purpose of his surprise visit became known, all hell broke loose. Pankake broke a bottle off at the neck and started swinging it over his head, aiming at the scruffy ne'er do well who had since become the talk of the town-based on his performances at Izzy Young's Folklore Center and Gerdes Folk City, where he was now opening for the likes of Mississippi John Hurt and the new bluegrass sensation-the Greenbriar Boys.

That didn't mean squat to Jon Pankake-he came to get his records back. It was just at that precipitous moment for modern folk music history, ladies and gentlemen, that Dave Van Ronk showed up, diffused the situation and saved Bob Dylan's life.

Jon got his records back, and a chastened Bob Dylan went on to write Blowing In the Wind and Masters of War, for which I think Van Ronk deserves no small credit.

The records Jon Pankake retrieved from Dylan's duffel bag were the first Folkways recordings of The New Lost City Ramblers, which he rescued and took back to Dinkytown. This was 1961, and thirty years later in 1991 Jon wound up at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, where he compiled and annotated those early LPs into a two-volume CD of 53 studio recordings made between 1958 and 1973. NLCR___Book_w_sigs.jpg

Along with a new Volume III compiled by the Ramblers themselves and annotated by Brooklyn College music professor Ray Allen, this brand new boxed set has just been released on CD by Smithsonian Folkways, bringing the total number of tracks to 81, including six previously unreleased performances. It is a monumental collection, and documents the central role the New Lost City Ramblers played in the folk revival-though far removed from the mainstream media's almost exclusive focus on the topical singer-songwriters who became known as "Woody's Children." It was hard to compete with that, and to their credit the Ramblers didn't try-they had other fish to fry.

Who were they? And to quote one of their favorite songs Cotton-Eyed Joe, which gives this collection its name, where did they come from? And why did Bob Dylan risk his life just to be able to learn what they were doing and hear the music they made?

They were Mike Seeger, son of folklorist Charles and folk song collector and classical composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, brother of Peggy Seeger anad half-brother of Pete Seeger; Tom Paley a Connecticut Yankee and Yale math student, banjo and guitar player and photographer; and John Cohen, a devoted folklorist who began to document and record the blind street singer Reverend Gary Davis at home in his Harlem apartment as early as 1952.

When banjo and guitar player Tom Paley left the group in 1962, to move to London and become an independent photographer and solo old-time musician, Tracy Schwartz replaced him and brought his own unique gifts to the Rambler's expanding repertoire, including Cajun fiddling and the "high lonesome sound" learned from ballad singer Roscoe Holcomb.

All four of them came from New York City-which may have helped inspire John Cohen to come up with their wonderful name, along with two other plausible sources: Charlie Poole's North Carolina Ramblers, and a song by J.E. Mainer-New Lost Train Blues.

These three CDs are a treasury of American folk music unto themselves, representing as they do both the Ramblers faithful and yet original adaptations from many of the classic old-time string bands of the 1920s and 30s, and in the third volume, a wonderful sampling from some of their primary sources-including Charles Seeger's 1936 Library of Congress recording of the Rich family performing Colored Aristocracy on double fiddles, which Mike Seeger described as one of his favorite recordings, and which he practically wore out by listening to on the original tapes while he was growing up. Indeed Volume I begins with Mike playing it on fiddle with Tom Paley on banjo and John Cohen on guitar.

Thus the listener is able to hear the source material for the Ramblers own versions and to trace their remarkable journey of discovery for him or herself. Another amazing performance by one of their inspirations is I Belong to the Band by Reverend Gary Davis, which John Cohen recorded in Davis' Harlem apartment. Very few artists are able to make such an indelible mark in just one performance, but I Belong to the Band truly has it all-the gospel fervor and blues power of his vocal and a virtuoso guitar part that will make you resolve not to quit your day job. Listen to this track and you will either get religion or start practicing eight hours a day-or both.

And the New Lost City Ramblers themselves will make you sit back in reverie that one group could have mastered so much American old-time music from so many places and in so many distinctive styles, and kept it true to form throughout their fifty years of recording and performing. To take but one that literally left me breathless: Little Satchel, with Tracy Schwartz playing three-finger style banjo and singing in that aforementioned high lonesome sound (which fellow Rambler John Cohen made up to describe the ballad singing of Roscoe Holcomb-also represented in Volume III's tribute to their sources), John Cohen playing the same tune in clawhammer-style, and Mike Seeger playing guitar. It is an eye-popping and show-stopping performance, inspired by Fred Cockerham's original banjo-accompanied solo performance and the double-banjo style of early bluegrass musicians Happy Smith and Larry Richardson.

But there are many quiet pleasures here as well; they have documented Mike Seeger's historic recording, in her own living room with her four grandchildren at her knee, of Elizabeth Cotton singing her classic song Freight Train, which has started many a young-guitar player, this one included, on a life-long love affair with the instrument. As I retell in my FolkWorks tribute to Mike Seeger, he and Peggy discovered Elizabeth Cotton in their own home, where she worked as a housekeeper for Charles and Ruth. Unbeknownst to them all, she was an accomplished guitar player and songwriter, until one day when she thought no one was looking, she took down one of their guitars from the wall and started playing-to herself she thought. But Mike was listening, and his teenage eyes and ears opened in amazement at this remarkable musician who had stumbled into his life. Mike wound up recording her for Folkways original recordings, and this classic performance of a modern folk song is preserved in this set.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of this extensive collection is in reminding us that what made The New Lost City Ramblers-every one of them-so special is their dedication to the artists they learned from, and in their on-going commitment to making sure that this music from "the true vine," as Mike Seeger so memorably phrased it, continued to be heard. They were never in it just for themselves, but for the tradition they inherited. Even more than the example of their own musical mastery, the example they set as protectors, preservers and celebrators of the people they learned from is one we may most benefit from. When so many stories of the exploitation of old-time musicians for their material have become all-too familiar in the profit margins of some well-known bands-it is salient to point out that the New Lost City Ramblers set a standard for how young musicians should treat their elders. The Ramblers greatest thrill was in introducing a new generation to the same musicians who had inspired them.

And yet, to that third generation, the New Lost City Ramblers themselves often played the same role, as they became the elder statesmen to younger musicians who were just as enthralled by listening to them as they had been in listening to the great old-time musicians of the 1920s and 30s. Thus in Volume III this boxed set has one more surprise up its sleeve-a wonderful recording of Tracy Schwartz's tune Fishing Creek Blues that fellow Rambler John Cohen made up in Berkeley with Sue Draheim, Jody Stecher and Eric Thompson and others who have succeeded in carrying on this style of music into the 21st century. While you're listening to them take a close look at the cover photo on Volume III. Who are those longhaired hippies? Could it be? That's right-the 1960s finally caught up with the Ramblers-in 1973.

If you can only afford one special folk music boxed set this holiday season, this is the one to wrap up and take home. Its eighty-one performances will take you on a cross-country road trip: from Newport, Rhode Island (home of the Newport Folk Festival) where, in a small cottage nearby, Mike Seeger recorded legendary old-time fiddler Eck Robertson, one of this album’s most riveting and illuminating tracks -- down to Southern Louisiana, where Tracy Schwartz recorded Cajun master fiddler Dewey Balfa -- all the way out west to LA and Ed Pearl's legendary folk club, The Ash Grove. Ed brought the Ramblers out for a four-week artist-in-residency. During that stay in 1961 they got a tip that one of their original inspirations and recording mentors Cynthia May "Cousin Emmy" Carver was now playing at, of all places, Disneyland.

No snobs when it came to pursuing their musical vision, the Ramblers all trooped down to Disneyland to hear the great entertainer and old-time banjo player, with the same fervor that this college English major once hitchhiked all the way to Washington University in St. Louis to sit in on the classes of his favorite literary critic Kenneth Burke-whose work I had been introduced to in high school by Mr. Fred Holtby. Once they found her they wouldn't let her get away, and convinced her to share the stage at Ed Pearl's counter-cultural landmark at 8161 Melrose Ave. in Hollywood.

It was at the Ash Grove (documented here) that Cousin Emmy managed to pay them the ultimate compliment-totally improvised, unscripted and unsought-of referring to them not as "The New Lost City Ramblers," but rather, "The Lost City Ramblers," as though they were not simply folk revivalists from New York City, but in fact their antecedents from which they derived-the original "Lost City Ramblers," from the same mountains she and Charlie Poole, Eck Robertson, Roscoe Holcomb, Kilby Snow and Wade Ward (recorded here by John Lomax in Galax, Virginia in 1937) came from-who created this music.

Except for one thing: There never was an old-time string band called, "The Lost City Ramblers." The New Lost City Ramblers was sui generis-for those who have forgotten their high school Latin, one of a kind.

But not to Cousin Emmy, and not to Eck Robertson, who made the very same quite understandable mistake-also captured for immortality on this indelible recording. To these originators of old-time music they were looking at their absolute peers, not some would-be students; thus they were The Lost City Ramblers, who had earned their way into the same tradition they had been at such pains to revive.

Ever in search of sources, they became a source.

Welcome back, then, to the original Lost City Ramblers, and thank you to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings for making this small miracle happen. And a special thanks to former Little Sandy Review co-founder Jon Pankake and Brooklyn College Department of American Studies Director Ray Allen for their Grammy-worthy essays and liner notes.

Moses Asch-the founder of Folkways Records-would have been proud. For just as The New Lost City Ramblers blazed a musical trail that we are now able to rediscover from beginning to end, so did Moe Asch blaze a recording trail that Smithsonian Folkways Recordings has been dedicated in following-where just as much attention is paid to the scholarly background of the music as to the glorious sound. This is truly a feast for the mind as well as the ear.

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Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.