New Lost City Ramblers Look Back At 50 Years Few groups get to achieve a 50th anniversary, but the pioneering American folk trio the got to do just that this year. The release of a three-disc commemorative set by the New Lost City Ramblers was darkened, though, but the death of co-founder Mike Seeger.
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New Lost City Ramblers Look Back At 50 Years

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New Lost City Ramblers Look Back At 50 Years

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New Lost City Ramblers Look Back At 50 Years

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Few groups get to achieve a 50th anniversary, but the pioneering American folk trio - the New Lost City Ramblers got to do just that this year. The release of a three-disc commemorative set by Smithsonian Folkways Records, though, was darkened by the death on the evening of August 7th, of co-founder Mike Seeger, one of America's greatest folklorists. Our rock historian Ed Ward, one of many who was profoundly influenced by the Ramblers, has this tribute to Seeger and the band.

(Soundbite of music)

ED WARD: Mike Seeger was born in 1933, the son of folklorist Charles Seeger and his composer wife Ruth Crawford Seeger, who had transcribed field recordings her husband made, like this one, of The Rich Family, into standard notation. Mike, like his sister Peggy and older step-brother Pete, grew up imbued with this stuff. And before long, he was playing it and exploring the techniques these traditional musicians used.

(Soundbite of music)

WARD: While doing this, he met others who had the same interests, including John Cohen, a photographer and film student who had been introduced to folk music by his family; and Tom Paley, a Yale-trained mathematician and banjo wizard. After some informal playing and swapping of repertoire, they burst onto the New York folk scene with an album for Folkways Records in 1959, bearing only the name of their group, The New Lost City Ramblers. The album was an immediate sensation, selling hundreds of copies, which was a sensation for this sort of thing back then. Many folk fans were astonished to hear rare old records come to life, both on vinyl and in the concerts The Ramblers started playing.

Others were more discerning, realizing that while the Ramblers were guided by the old music's template, they were actually adding their own ideas to performances. Others, like me, had just never heard anything like it and got hooked.

(Soundbite of song, "Battleship of Maine")

Mr. TOM PALEY (Singer): (Singing) McKinley called for volunteers. I went and got my gun. First Spaniard I saw coming. I dropped my gun and run. It was all about that Battleship of Maine. At war with that great nation Spain. When I get back from Spain I want to honor my name. It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

(Soundbite of music)

Why are you running? Are you afraid to die? The reason that I'm running is because I cannot fly. It was all about that Battleship of Maine. The blood was a-running...

WARD: "Battleship of Maine," sung here by Tom Paley, shows one of the Ramblers' virtues. They weren't entirely dependent on traditional material. The original of this had been recorded by someone called Red Patterson's Piedmont Log Rollers and it was obviously a showbiz tune, albeit Southern showbiz. Rik Elswit, a budding L.A. guitarist who'd been thinking of joining a Kingston Trio like folk band, saw them at that city's Ash Grove folk club and said they were so faithful to the old 78s they learned from, you could almost hear the scratches. But they never lost sight of the reason the music existed in the first place - fun. I envy Rik because I never got to see The Ramblers.

They weren't making a lot of money. And Seeger had a job with the Smithsonian, Cohen made industrial films, and in 1962, right when I was getting interested, Tom Paley got an offer he couldn't refuse from Cambridge University in England and moved there to continue his research. Eventually, though, another multi-instrumentalist named Tracy Schwarz joined Seeger and Cohen. And The Ramblers' focus changed slightly. Schwarz had grown up partially in rural Pennsylvania and knew his way around country music, including a genre regarded with some suspicion by folkies, called bluegrass. Bluegrass, many purists thought, was commercial, which was ironic. In 1963, great bluegrass musicians like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers were all but starving.

To The Ramblers, the continuity between the old-style stuff they'd been playing and bluegrass was obvious. And without abandoning the older stuff, they now had a rich new seam to explore.

(Soundbite of song "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake")

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS (Folk Group): (Singing) Our darling wandered far away while she was out at play. Lost in the woods she couldn't hear a sound. She was our darling girl the sweetest thing in all the world. We searched for her but she couldn't be found. I heard the screams of a little girl far away. Hurry Daddy there's and awful dreadful snake. I ran as fast as I could through the dark and dreary woods. But I reached our darling girl too late.

WARD: The band toured whenever they could and recorded prolifically for Folkways. I've never heard a bad album from them. Their shows are legendary for their onstage banter.

Unidentified Man #1: This was recorded back in the late 20s, while it wasn't recorded actually. The guys who were going to record it lost their way on the way to the recording studio.

Unidentified Man #2: Actually it wasn't a studio and maybe that was the problem.

Unidentified Man #1: That's right. They couldn't find the studio because there wasn't one. But this was the song that we've recorded that they've gotten there...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: ...they say was the studio. But we've found the old ledger sheets, that's (unintelligible) discographic research and found ledger sheets and found that they were blank for that day. But there were little marking. So we rubbed graphite into this little indentations and found out what would have been on that sheet if the pencil hadn't broken. And from that we've put together a clear picture of what their intentions were. So, we've transcribed those intentions and this is the song. What key is it in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

WARD: Eventually, The New Lost City Ramblers' message got out. American traditional music wasn't a monolith. Some of it was as old as humanity and some wasn't even as old as your dad. And it was for entertaining, not just for studying. In the 1980s, a new generation of folkies picked up the message and ran with it, which was good because the three Ramblers by then had substantial careers and families, and one hears, weren't getting along too well. But they did realize one thing. Their final album recorded during a 1997 reunion was called "There Ain't No Way Out." Once a Rambler, always a Rambler. One of Mike Seeger's last albums, though, typified the larger effect the three individuals had.

It's called "Southern Banjo Sounds: An Anthology of Style and Technique." And its back cover notes that it's a survey of techniques, styles, instrumentals and songs played on 23 mostly vintage banjos. There are 24 pages of notes, some technical, and photographs of each of the banjos used. I play it now and again. It's fun.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. The Ramblers' three-disk set is on Smithsonian Folkways Records.

I'm Terry Gross.

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