It’s hard to be a legend, harder to be three (or four) of them, in your own time, especially when those times they are a-changin’. But the New Lost City Ramblers achieved legend status and rode that new river train to renown and a place in the annals of American music while all were still alive. Call it what you will – bluegrass, country, hillbilly, old-time, traditional, old-timey, blues, protest roots – the realm of folk music will forever be changed by the influence of the NLCR: three guys, a well-stocked arsenal of instruments, some wild stompin’ sounds, some raucous backroom yelps, some traditional story songs and some sweet harmonies, much of it having emerged out of the backwoods South. Not only did the NLCR produce music, they promoted it, bringing unknown musicians like Roscoe Holcomb, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and Mother Maybelle Carter out of the hollers and into national prominence. NLCR recorded, wrote about and indeed insisted upon basic traditional musical forms.
…even though they, arguably, were not in or of “the folk” - all were college-educated uptown boys who were trying to go “back to something.” There was Mike Seeger, who passed away in 2009, heir to the musical aristocracy of the Seeger name (he was Pete’s half, Peggy’s full, brother). There is John Cohen, a highly versatile musician and musicologist; Tom Paley (who acrimoniously divorced from the group and moved to Europe after the NLCR had produced only a few LPs); and Tom’s replacement, Tracy Schwartz, an affable, energetic, multi-tasking fiddler/singer. Among the trio at any given time there was banter suited to the intellects of the college crowds to whom they most often played. But whether they were a little bit country or a whole lot city, the material they cared about always bore the impeccable pedigree of the barn dance and the backwoods. Its roots went way back, much of it to the British Isles.
And that was one thorny paradox in the history of the NLCR: their repertoire was drawn largely from the white folk, at a time when issues of Civil Rights were in the foreground and folk royalty like Joan Baez refused to perform in segregated venues. The Ramblers’ evergreen constituency was undeniably the Northern/Midwestern college and club circuit, and their few forays southward caused a rift: Tom Paley insisted that they avoid whites-only stages (and restaurants), while John and Mike were reluctant to put a political stamp on the homegrown music they cherished. Even though many of the songs the Ramblers were to record over the years were obviously at least “small-p” political (“The Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train,” “Weave Room Blues”) Mike and John did not want to connect those dots and separate themselves from
Southern rural musicians. And they didn’t want NLCR to be identified with the singer/songwriter protest movement typified by Baez, Bob Dylan (who greatly admired the NLCR), and even, one could say, Mike’s half-brother Pete.
Another paradox that plagued the trio was that they were not uneducated enough to win the laurels of utter authenticity heaped on truly rural artists (such as the ones they so generously promoted), nor fanciful/exploitative enough to distance themselves from the traditional milieu and make the big bucks.
And though they were performing throughout what is called the “folk revival,” were they part of the resuscitation of a dying culture, or were they responsible for the revelation and preservation of a vital and active one?
Whatever the resolution to these well-worn contentions (and author Ray Allen delineates them in scholarly detail), the principles of the NLCR were always to the fore, always pushing the group to do more to promote and preserve the “high lonesome” sound that lovers of indigenous American music will ever thirst after. Without the NLCR, many original self-styled American musicians would never have been heard. From whatever chair you sit in, whatever side you take re: folk revivalism and country vs. city music, it’s evident that Mike, John, Tracey and Tom played a significant role in the twentieth-century folk music scene, and did it not for earnings or kudos but for the magnetic spirit of the music and the people and the history behind it.
In Allen’s words, the Ramblers “sought to connect worlds that were eagerly waiting to discover each other.” And for that both worlds owe them a debt of gratitude.