MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Next week, Smithsonian Folkways is releasing a tribute to one of the most influential groups in American folk music, the New Lost City Ramblers.

The release is a bittersweet event. It follows the death earlier this month of one of the group's founders, Mike Seeger. Keith Brand talked to Seeger just before he died and has this story on the Ramblers' legacy.

KEITH BRAND: If you listened to the radio in 1958, you very likely heard this song.

(Soundbite of song, "Tom Dooley")

THE KINGSTON TRIO (Musical Group): (Singing) Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry.

BRAND: "Tom Dooley" was a breakout hit for the Kingston Trio, and they quickly became the face of the folk music revival. But at the same time, John Cohen, Tom Paley and Mike Seeger developed a different sound.

(Soundbite of music)

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS (Musical Group): (Singing) Rock the cradle, Lucy, rock the cradle long. Rock the cradle, Lucy, and keep the baby warm.

BRAND: Mike Seeger grew up in one of the first families of folk music. His parents were well-known collectors and his half-brother, Pete Seeger, was already famous as a member of the Weavers. But Mike's musical path stood in opposition to the commercial folk music of the era.

Mr. MIKE SEEGER (Musician): I played, briefly, bluegrass music with friends. But then I realized old-time Southern music really is what I wanted to play because it had so much history. It went back into the old, old, old songs.

(Soundbite of song, "No Depression in Heaven")

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS: (Singing) In that bright land, there'll be no hunger, no orphaned children crying for bread. No weeping widows, toil or struggle, no shrouds, no coffins and no dead.

BRAND: John Cohen recognized early on that the songs and even the instruments they played were attracting many younger people to old-time music.

Mr. JOHN COHEN (Musician): When the Ramblers started in the urban movement, there was no fiddle players, no mandolin players, no autoharps. All that was introduced with the New Lost City Ramblers.

BRAND: One of those young Ramblers fans was a guitar player from Santa Monica named Ry Cooder. He went to see the Ramblers play in Los Angeles and heard something different in their music.

Mr. RY COODER (Musician): They seemed to have brought it forward from a point of antiquity and obscurity, to something a little more in the present and therefore, a little more comprehensible. And I was trying to learn to play guitar and I thought, okay, here's a way these guys did. So let me see if I can draft in behind them a little bit.

(Soundbite of song, "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?")

Mr. COODER: (Singing) When we get our grocery bill, we just feel like making our will. Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live.

BRAND: Ry Cooder began to learn the old songs and country blues the Ramblers found on early commercial records and field recordings. But the New Lost City Ramblers went beyond just imitating those records to find the sources of the music, says Ray Allen, a professor of music at Brooklyn College.

Professor RAY ALLEN (Music, Brooklyn College): They studied: How was the banjo tuned? How was it picked? How was the fiddle tuned? How was it bowed? And they tried to pick up all those subtle nuances of the instrumental tunings, the instrumental styles. So style became the essential hallmark of what the Ramblers did.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Mike Seeger visited with many of the musicians they heard on the early records. He remembers hearing Sara Carter, of the Carter Family, sing a song that later became a staple in the Ramblers' repertoire.

Mr. SEEGER: When we visited Sara Carter, we'd sing a little bit, and she tolerated that. And then she sang "Railroading on the Great Divide" and right after that, she said: Boys, I'd love it if you all would sing that song. And I thought that was wonderful to have a song pitched to you by Sara Carter.

(Soundbite of song, "Railroading on the Great Divide")

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS: (Singing) Railroading on the Great Divide, nothing around me but Rockies and sky. There, you'll find me as the years roll by, railroading on the Great Divide.

BRAND: It was their love of playing music together and sharing the music that sustained the New Lost City Ramblers throughout a half-century of performing and recording. And as thousands of people across the country gather together to play old-time and bluegrass music at festivals and fiddlers conventions, perhaps that's where the Ramblers have had their greatest impact, says Tracy Schwarz, who replaced Tom Paley in the group in 1962.

Mr. TRACY SCHWARZ (Musician): You could say that when you see, like, a little city full of people playing this music that we were working on digging out and bringing out to the world, really, the objective has been achieved.

Mr. SEEGER: I think the most amazing thing about the New Lost City Ramblers is that we've survived for 50 years as a group with only one change, and that we still have fun playing the music. I'm equally - in fact, I'm more satisfied for all the people who are playing music. That's the real satisfaction.

BRAND: Mike Seeger, along with John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz, showed America that its musical roots were a vital and vibrant part of its culture and history. And along the way, they helped change the sound of folk music.

For NPR News, I'm Keith Brand.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You can get a listen to the New Lost City Ramblers' tribute CD before its official release at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS: (Singing) I've always been a rambler, my fortune's been quite hard. Always loved the women, drink whiskey and played cards. My parents treated me kindly as they had no boy but me. My mind was bent on rambling...

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