On a recent spring morning I found myself driving a road out of Lexington, Virginia, until halfway up a mountain I turned into the private drive that led to Mike Seeger's home. As I waited for him to finish work I reflected on the purpose of my visit. Soon enough John Cohen would arrive from New York, and Tracy Schwarz from West Virginia. Over the weekend I would tape and (with the assistance of Tom Davenport) film hours of interviews with the New Lost City Ramblers, the premier revival group who for over 40 years have promulgated the music to which the Old-Time Herald is dedicated. They never had gathered for such a lengthy, retrospective discussion of their careers.
When I was asked by the group to write a piece about them for the OTH, I realized that their sheer longevity, as well as their significance, demanded an in-depth study. Toward this end I not only had Seeger, Cohen, and Schwarz's good will and candor but as well, access to a large portion of their paper archive: personal letters, business correspondence and contracts with festivals, clubs, agents, and recording companies, posters, flyers, and programs from scores of their appearances, and articles and reviews written about them. In addition, I was in contact by email with Tom Paley, one of the original members of the NLCR, who now lives in London and was equally cooperative. My visit, and my subsequent work with their materials, was a historian's (and old-time musician's) dream. From their emergence in New York City in the late 1950s; through the Newport and other national festivals of the 1960s when they shared the stage not only with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez but with Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane; into the 1970s and '80s when they slowed their own touring to build individual careers; and finally into the '90s, when they continued to bring their infectious performances to old fans and new: through all these years and now at the millennium, the NLCR have remained at the vital center of old-time music.
I do not intend this as a biographical study of the individual members of the band nor as a definitive chronology of it. Rather, I evaluate the NLCR's place in the folk revival and assess their continuing influence on those who play or listen to string-band music. In this first installment, I concentrate on their formative years, when they first showcased what they called "old-time country music" and greatly contributed, through their music, writing, and professional example, to the national debate about the "Revival," particularly the place in it of urban folk musicians like themselves. In the next issue, I will focus on the shape of their careers over the decades and examine the ways in which the NLCR influenced musicians who followed in their footsteps. Participating in the revival of old-time music for over five decades, they remain its elder statesmen and still among its best ambassadors.
Modern interest in old-time music began as part of the folk revival, a complex, multi-layered culture that nurtured the individual talents who first played in 1958 as the New Lost City Ramblers. From the 1930s, the study and performance of American folk song had been associated with politics, for many of its proponents, across the political spectrum, believed that the music contained enduring but forgotten values that still spoke to contemporary social problems. Inspired and encouraged by such pioneering scholars as John and Alan Lomax, Charles Seeger, and others, urban performers like the Almanac Singers and the Weavers joined Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and other traditional musicians, in the late 1940s and early 1950s to awaken audiences to their commonality with the "folk." With the House Un-American Activities Committee's increasing intimidation of the Left, however, politically inspired folksong was forced underground, the people's songs now appropriated by such popular musicians as Harry Belafonte, the Highwaymen, and the Kingston Trio.
Those who read each issue of Sing Out! as if it were scripture held their noses at such rank commercialism and sought new venues for their music, one of which was provided by Beat culture. Centered in New York City's Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach, but with outposts in many other cities and university communities, the Beatsthe best-known of whom were writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, but whose influence was widespread in American art and music as wellsaw through the thin veneer of consumer culture to the emptiness within. Disappointed in the showing of socialist candidate Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential election, they refused complicity with a politics marked more by jingoistic pride in nuclear weapons than attention to the nation's social ills, the chief of which concerned labor and race, and thus withdrew from active political involvement. The Beats spoke to many folksingers' own disenchantment with the American way and, recognizing sympathetic and creative minds when they met them, welcomed partisans of folksong into their coffee-houses and lofts. By the late 1950s, interest in folk music, as much as in jazz, marked one's sympathy for, if not necessarily membership in, the counterculture.
Before folk music moved to the clubs, though, it had flourished in the open air, nowhere more so than in Washington Square, near New York University and the Village. Since 1940, this had been the city's meeting place for folksingers, among whom were Pete Seeger, Roger Sprung, Harry West, and Tom Paley (b. 1928). An admired virtuoso on guitar and banjo, Paley had been raised in New York, studied at City College from 194550, and went on to do graduate work in mathematics at Yale, where in 1952 he again crossed paths with John Cohen (b. 1932), a freshman Fine Arts major whom he previously had met in the city. Raised by politically progressive parents in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, Cohen (along with Paley) organized hootenannies in New Haven in the early 1950s. When they could, both Cohen and Paley still attended the Sunday afternoon sings in Washington Square, where the latter was one of the few, one contemporary recalled, who "could really play instruments." By the early 1950s, Paley and Harry West (a Southerner, and thus unusual in that scene) began to steer an important segment of these urban musicians away from the "English ballads and political songs" that people most commonly sang, and toward country music. The shift was crucial, distinguishing Paley and Cohen from exponents of folk song "art" such as Richard Dyer-Bennett and John Jacob Niles on the one hand and activist singers like Pete Seeger and the Weavers on the other.
A few hundred miles south in Baltimore, Mike Seeger (b. 1933, also in New York City) a conscientious objector during the Korean War, was fulfilling his alternative national service as a dishwasher in a tuberculosis hospital. He was the son of musicologist Charles Seeger, and the modernist composer, educator, and transcriber and arranger of folk songs, Ruth Crawford Seeger. With his many siblings, including his half-brother Pete, and sisters Peggy, an important folk musician in her own right, and Penny, who would marry Cohen, Seeger grew up on politics and folk music, and started playing guitar at 18. In the mid-1950s he had no trouble finding music in the Washington/Baltimore area, with its many clubs and country music parksparticularly the New River Ranch near Rising Sun, Marylandwhere transplanted Southerners who had come to the city for work congregated on weekends. In addition, with folk music's growing appeal to disaffected youth, there was an increasing number of college folk festivals, including one at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, which he attended with his sister Peggy, an undergraduate at Radcliffe. There he was introduced to a Swarthmore student, Ralph Rinzler, as much taken with bluegrass and folk music as with her, and who soon enough would team with John Herald and Bob Yellin to form a bluegrass band, the Greenbriar Boys.
In April 1958, Cohen, who had met Mike Seeger at Pete Seeger's home in Beacon, New York, a few years earlier, traveled to Baltimore to visit Paley (who was teaching at the University of Maryland) to tape his collection of old 78 rpm records. When John Dildine, Paley's friend and host of a folk music program on FM radio, heard that Cohen was visiting Paley, he invited them to perform live on his show. Dildine knew that Seeger also was in the area and thought that he might be interested in joining the two, particularly since he and Paley also had played together, at hoots at Cabin John Park in Maryland. The three got together, and the show went well; after Cohen returned to New York, Izzy Young, owner since 1957 of the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, agreed to let the group perform in his Folklore Concert Series. Moe Asch, who owned Folkways records and already had issued three albums of Mike's field recordings, welcomed the suggestion that the NLCR cut a record. The group performed at Carnegie Recital Hall in September 1958, and made the record (Folkways FA 2396) the next day. During a break, Asch asked what they wanted to call themselves, and after discussion among the four of them, they agreed on the New Lost City Ramblers: an amalgam of a favorite tune, J. E. Mainer's "New Lost Train Blues"; a favorite group, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers; and a reference to the urban settings in which they played "old-timey" music, as they called it on another early album (Old-Timey Songs for Children FC 7064) or "old-time country music," as Mike fondly terms it.
Over the next three years, the NLCR became one of the best known groups in the folk revival, in large part because of their repertoire, primarily of songs and tunes "recorded by commercial companies and the Library of Congress in the Southeastern mountains between 19251935." Seeger had grown up listening to such music, and like Paley and Cohen, he welcomed reissues of such material on LPs that began to appear in the 1940s and 1950s, most famously on Harry Smith's six-record Anthology of American Folk Music (1952). But the original 78 rpms were crucial to the NLCR's early developmentso much so that when Rinzler heard that the New York Public Library had acquired much of Smith's collection of early recordings, he volunteered to catalogue them gratis to get quicker access. Occasionally, Rinzler recalled, he and Seeger spirited out material to tape and returned it to the shelves the next morning before the attendants discovered them missing, not a practice Seeger now condones!
This music attracted the NLCR for various reasons, not the least for its beauty and sense of immediacy. But given the political tenor of the folk revival, they also were "very aware," as Cohen puts it, "of the politics" of what they sang, something accentuated when they began work on their Songs of the Depression (Folkways FH 5264). The music's chief appeal to Cohen, for example, had much to do with his being a photographer and artist involved with the Beat movement who felt a nagging dissatisfaction with modern life in general and suburbia in particular. Thus, the music provided a connection, if only vicarious, to a rural ideal. As he wrote in 1962, the music evoked "a definition of the country feeling, the experience of things growing, coming from and dealing with the earth, and of things that grow." On these old 78 rpm records, he later recalled, he heard the "voices of people from the rural tradition" facing the same issues as city people "but singing about them in their own style." For him, it was powerful to "experience something of [this] source from your own voice."
For Seeger, the main attraction was the music itself and its accessibility. Moreover, it was a homemade music, the expression of "working people" who said things "more directly" than many of the urban folksingers who later commercialized the people's songs. Indeed, both Cohen and Seeger, raised in comfortable circumstances, have early memories of time spent among working-class people, formative experiences for their musical taste. Seeger's work in the hospital, for example, had put him in close contact with many working people (in particular Hazel Dickens and her two brothers) through whom he became immersed in the world of bluegrass. When a few years later Seeger sang these people's songs, though, he never pretended to be one of the folk. Rather, as an urban folksinger he selected "the best of rural song" and through it represented what he perceived "as the lasting important things that people say." Similarly, Cohen remembers as a teenager attending summer camp in upstate New York where the songs of the dining-hall workers, many of whom were African Americans from the Carolinas, delighted him. When he began to research music of the Great Depression, he recognized the connection between such music and 78s to which he was listening.
Old-time country music meant much to the NLCR personally, but they had to educate urban audiences to appreciate it. Before the late 1950s, for example, such material was usually heard, as Paley put it, in "the slick, modernized, carefully arranged approach of the Weavers or the Tarriers," and it was his own disgust at the predictability and tedium of these songs that made him appreciate Smith's Anthology. As a group, the NLCR refused any such capitulation to "art" song. Instead, they sought (as Cohen wrote) to work within the "strident harmonies" of the country voice and to cultivate the "skill [of] keeping the melody while elaborating and pushing on it as far as it [could] go, without losing its identity." Bringing to the urban folk stage for the first time the ensemble of banjo, guitar, and fiddle, they played their music "as straight as possible, playing it square without becoming square."
And contrary to what many people have said, they never merely imitated the original recordings. Writing in Down Beat in 1961, Pete Welding accurately described their intentions. The group "does not offer enervated, literal note-for-note recreations of the originals," he wrote, but rather "are true to the spirit of tradition (in which they have steeped themselves) without becoming slaves." Paley aptly termed the result "a music of the borderline," a style that bridged the gap (as did that of one of their favorites, Charlie Poole, who reworked older hoe-downs and ballads through contemporary ragtime, hot jazz, swing, and blues) between the past and present. "Although we learn our songs from old records," Cohen concluded, "we are finding our own voices after all." And in so doing, they gave the traditional material a new lease and presented it to new audiences.
But the NLCR also had to convince listeners of the very legitimacy of their project, for in some quarters there was a backlash against some urban appropriation of rural song. As early as 1959 in an article in Sing Out!, for example, the folklorist Alan Lomax claimed that the "folkniks" didn't work hard enough at their singing style and thus missed the emotional contentand the implicit politicsof the traditional music they presented. Although Lomax was not speaking specifically about the NLCR, in the same issue he was rebutted by Cohen himself, who claimed that, after Lomax's eight-year absence from the United States (he had been working in England), he was out of touch with the American folk scene. The emphasis in folk song, Cohen wrote, "is no longer on social reform" but rather "is focused more on a search for real and human values." "We are looking within ourselves," he noted, and not "for someone to lead us." The NLCR's sincerity was apparent to music critic Nat Hentoff, who welcomed their amalgam of old and new. "As the postgraduate citybillies broaden their search into the past and into their own resources as musicians," he wrote in The Reporter in 1962, "more of them are losing the self-conscious posturing that characterized all too many 'serious' singers." "They retain their respect and affection for the traditions," he continued, "but also are gradually finding ways to express their own particular skills and interests" and so to realize that "they can legitimately bring their own backgrounds and personalities to various styles of folk music." He could end his piece in no better way than he did, by quoting Cohen's observation that "A person sings the songs as they look like him."
We also have to recall that as "alive, vigorous, and wholly convincing" as the NLCR's music was, at first there were very few venues for it. The group was given a large boost, however, by an invitation to the first Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 1959. In the program notes Billy Faier claimed that the festival would provide "what is probably the very first representative picture of American Folk Music ever held on the concert stage," by which he meant a combination of "the scholars, the city-bred folksingers, and the 'authentic' singers." At that point the NLCR still had not played together very often and were "nervous as could be, always jumping the beat," as Seeger recalls. But by all accounts they were a big hit, appearing on the same bill with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Odetta, Earl Scruggs, and others, and for their unique sound they received a lot of national press attention.
The following year they patched together their first tour, playing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the University of Chicago. They also got a gig at the Gate of Horn, a popular music club, where, the Chicago Sunday Tribune noted, "clad in vests, crumpled shirts, nondescript trousers and unshined shoes, they whomp and fiddle away at songs about the unhappy '30s and the NRA blue eagle." They also got to the West Coast, where they appeared at the University of California Folk Festival at Berkeley, at Stanford, and spent a week teaching at Idyllwild, an early folk music camp in the hills south of Los Angeles. Most important, they also landed a five-week booking at the Ash Grove in Hollywood, a well-known "concert-cabaret house" run by Ed Pearl, who two years earlier had founded the Folk Arts Society in Los Angeles. Newport also had them back, with the program notes characterizing them as "a wildly individualistic group" whose music "has a blend and unity [that] are hard to duplicate." Enough was happening for them (Ewan MacColl, for example, one of the leaders of the folk revival in the British Isles and the husband of Peggy Seeger, thought that he could get them a tour in the United Kingdom) to decide to give up other commitmentsCohen was a free-lance photographer, Paley was teaching math at Rutgers, and Seeger had work in Washington as a recording technicianfor a year and let making music take over.
They soon discovered, however, that commercial booking agencies weren't interested in their kind of act, so they had to either make all their own arrangements or educate others to assume the sponsorship and support of such music. This education happened in one way at the Ash Grove, when after their gig, Pearl began to book fewer innocuous groups like Bud and Travis and the Limelighters, and began to bring in more traditional acts. Soon, other promoters in the area were calling him for advice on whom to book; as he put it, in his sponsorship of such music he felt like he was "nurturing something very fragile and precious." The education occurred differently in Chicago when, a year after the NLCR's visit, enthusiasts started the University of Chicago Folk Festival and sought to invite traditional musicians. But the most important such effort was the founding in 1961 of New York's Friends of Old Time Music by Cohen, Rinzler, Young, singer Jean Ritchie, and square dance advocate Margot Mayo, "to satisfy the need for authentic, traditional folk music in the New York City area."
To understand the significance of FOTM, we have to recall that in addition to playing old-time music, one of the NLCR's most significant innovations was to bring on stage with them living exemplars of the folk tradition. Something like this already was occurring at Newport, but through the NLCR's own fieldwork and connections they greatly enlarged the urban audience's understanding of the people and culture from which the music came. Of the three, Seeger had had the most experience in finding such music on the vine. In the mid-1950s, for example, he had recorded J. C. Sutphin and Louise Foreacre, and combined this with some Stoneman Family material for a recording that Asch issued in 1957 (The Stoneman Family FA 2315). Similarly, his work with Snuffy Jenkins and Smiley Hobbs had appeared on American BanjoScruggs Style (FA 2314). The most extraordinary discovery in this period, however, came in 1960 at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina, which Seeger had urged northern friends to visit. That year, while Seeger was warming up for a contest, Rinzler found Clarence "Tom" Ashley, who had recorded "The Coo Coo Bird" for Victor in 1929, and later was introduced to Ashley's friend, a blind guitarist named Arthel "Doc" Watson. The historic recordings Rinzler subsequently made (with Seeger's help) appeared a few years later as Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's (FA 2355 and 2359); and Ashley, Watson, fiddler Gaither Carlton, and friends Fred Price and Clint Howard soon enough were traveling the highways north and west, sometimes sharing bills with the NLCR. By 1964, urban audiences also could hear Dock Boggs, who had recorded for Brunswick in the 1920s. Mike, acting on the suggestion of his wife, Marj, that he look him up in the Norton, Virginia phone book, had located Boggs a year earlier.
But the first traditional musician whom the NLCR introduced to urban audiences was from closer to homeSeeger's own home, to be exact. On December 23, 1960, Izzy Young put on a concert at 13 Astor Place with the remarkable guitarist Elizabeth Cotten, whom Seeger's mother had employed as a domestic. Seeger had recorded her in 1952 and had performed with her at Swarthmore in January of 1960; the success of the subsequent concert initiated the formation of FOTM. With Rinzler and Cohen as prime movers, the group incorporated and soon was bringing a remarkable assortment of traditional talent to the city. FOTM first showcased the Kentucky singer and banjoist Roscoe Holcomb, whom Cohen had discovered in 1959 on his own collecting trip to the South and who would be featured both on Cohen's impressive collection, Mountain Music from Kentucky (FA 2317) and his pioneering documentary film, The High Lonesome Sound.
Wishing to ensure the largest possible turnout for their inaugural concert, FOTM billed this traditional musician with several other actsJean Ritchie, the Greenbriar Boys and the NLCRwho already had strong audiencesand as they had hoped, the concert was a success. Subsequently, FOTM featured a wide rage of artists: ballad singers Horton Barker and Almeda Riddle, Ashley, Watson, and Carlton, the Stanley Brothers, Gus Cannon, and banjoist Hobart Smith, among others. In large measure because of the NLCR's fieldwork and initiative, within a year audiences across the country could hear the kinds of performers whom most people thought had vanished with the 1930s.
Performing with such musicians raised complex musical and moral issues. Writing in The Nation about the first Newport Folk Festival, for example, Robert Shelton identified the "crux of the 'great debate' at the festivalhow do you transplant the 'root' singers and put them on stage side by side with the large-voiced, polished and earnest professionals who are not indigenous folk singers but who have been drawn to the music?" Thinking in particular of Jean Ritchie and the Reverend Gary Davis, whom he found not as effective as they might have been, Shelton urged audiences not to write off such talent because the performers did not fit the venue. Seeger recalls that Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs, and others sometimes were uncomfortable on stage and so evoked the same kind of responses.
The NLCR thought long and hard about these difficulties. Some notes that Cohen made during this period enumerate the "Musical, Moral, and Financial Considerations" of bringing country performers to the city. The pros were obvious: the NLCR liked the music, and it presented an important facet of American culture. Moreover, it exposed audiences to "other" musical experiences, a demand for which had grown, particularly on the college circuit. Perhaps most important, though, it gave a way for the NLCR to return something to the performers, for their own experience had shown that the relationship between urban host and country guest was not as exploitative as many thought. After playing at one festival, for example, Holcomb told Cohen that the people "were as fine as those around my home," something he had not expected. Even more poignantly, Ashley observed that since he had been rediscovered, "My life is like a flower, and is now blooming a second time."
The cons were various. Some had to do with folk music's association not only with academicians and folklorists but "folkniks, beatniks, and Washington Square-niks." Another group of concerns stemmed from the awkwardness that sometimes arose when traditional musicians were presented out of context. Some critics complained, for example, that individual performers did not have a wide enough repertoire and were too unsophisticated on stage, a criticism typified by the following anecdote. In 1961, after Cousin Emmy (Cynthia Mae Carver), the country singer whom the NLCR had discovered playing a concert at Disneyland, appeared in Santa Monica, Ed Kahn (who with Archie Green helped establish the John Edwards Memorial Foundation) wrote Cohen about a negative review of the concert. The music critic had complained that "she didn't have a corn-cob pipe" and "didn't sing what he thought folksongs were," problems that were "his, not ours," Kahn concluded. Cohen spoke for the NLCR on these issues when he observed that "if the city wants and needs folk music in its souls, then its exchange with country musicians must be a two-way affair." Urban audiences, he continued, "must be willing to understand their way of life and to respect them as people who have something to offer in their way." Beginning in 1960, when they began introducing traditional musicians to the urban North and West, the NLCR always treated them with such respect and thus gave their audiences a deeper appreciation of the roots of the music.
The Newport appearance notwithstanding, another turning point in the group's early career came in the summer of 1961, when they were invited to play at the Blue Angel, an upscale New York drinking and music club, and subsequently were reviewed by Shelton in the New York Times. Although the audience reaction was mixed (Paley recalls that some of them thought the NLCR were a comedy act with incidental music!), Shelton's favorable mention garnered them much national attentionthey were subsequently featured in the Saturday Evening Post and on televisionand this is worth quoting at length to understand what prejudices the group encountered.
"The sophisticated confines of the Blue Angel were invaded last week," Shelton began, "by one of the least sophisticated forms of entertainment, old-time country music," as the NLCR "made its debut to an audience that was part quizzical and part enchanted." "Their music has the archaic, quaint but durable quality of an antique," he continued, that "evocatively re-create[s] a far-off time and place." Informing the audience of the origin of the NLCR repertoire, he next weighed in on the controversy over citybillies: "There have been so many ways of changing and sweetening the recipe for serving folk music to night-club patrons that the Ramblers' undiluted blend is as acerbic as hard cider." But Shelton was pleased that the audience finally warmed to the purposely "rough-hewn quality" of the show, tapping their feet and swizzlesticks "as they got into the rural swing of things." "It appears," he concluded, "that the Ramblers hopefully will broaden the beachhead they've established."
Even with such publicity, though, the beachhead was hard to hold, primarily because, despite the fun the NLCR had with their music, there simply was not enough money to be made from it to support three full-time musicians, one of whom already had a family. Tired of "staggering along without an agent," they had signed an exclusive contract with International Talent Associates, a large promotional firm that had been impressed by their reception at Newport. But this move proved a disaster because it prevented them from making their own spur-of-the-moment arrangements with colleges and festivals as they hitherto had done. Not getting any work through the agency, by the fall of 1961 the NLCR simply ran into tough times on the West Coast and had to address the group's future.
They were saved financially by a series of four Seeger Family concerts (which included Peggy as well as them but which were obviously planned to capitalize on Pete's considerable following) that were put on in Madison, Chicago, Boston, and finally at Carnegie Hall, just before Christmas. This did not alleviate the crisis, however, for although Seeger and Cohen still wanted to work at music full-time, Paley (who was on a one-year leave from Rutgers) wanted the group to return to a part-time basis. This problem was not easily resolved, for (as Seeger puts it, painfully acknowledging the difficulties) in addition to the economic considerations there were "personal and musical frictions and differences." Negotiations over the use of the NLCR name continued even after the summer of 1962, when Paley (who in the interim had recorded on Folkways [FA 2475] with the short-lived Old Reliable String Band) decided to travel in Europe for a year. In 1963 he moved to Sweden, and two years later to England, where he has lived ever since.
During that difficult period Seeger and Cohen acted on their wish to continue to play music full-time, and thus sought a replacement for Paley (even as they understood what a fine musician they had lost). They first approached Doc Watson about joining the group. In a letter in the late spring of 1962, however, he graciously declined, because playing regularly with them "would present too many problems unless we lived closer together." They then turned to Tracy Schwarz (b. 1938, New York City), whom Mike had known around Baltimore and who was just getting out of the army. An ardent fan of the NLCR (he had heard them play at the first Newport festival) as well as a fine bluegrass musician, he was delighted to join the group.
Seeger, Cohen, and Paley still had to resolve legal matters over the use of the NLCR name; but Schwarz fit right in and soon began to make his own mark on the band. He had come to the music in a different way, through an early enjoyment of cowboy songs and other country music, and had been playing guitar since he was a boy. When in college in Washington, D C during the late 1950s he had found his way to the same music parks and festivals that Mike frequented and where bluegrass music was the popular sound. Encouraging Seeger and Cohen to perform more such music (in the classic style of the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe), he also brought a strong high tenor voice that allowed the group to present more ballad and a cappella singing. Within a few years, Schwarz also became deeply immersed in Cajun fiddling; although Seeger already had introduced this music in some of the group's performances, with Schwarz aboard it became a staple of their shows. By early 1963, the NLCR were on the road again, with an expanded repertoire and the personnel who would stay through the millennium.
Within a year, of course, the history of music changed forever as the Beatles and rock music swept the world, but even as the Baby Boomers pushed on to Woodstock, the NLCR remained vital to their audiences. "We've come to stand out on the American folk scene," Seeger noted in 1967. "In fact," he continued, "people consider us to be old-timers" because everyone else has "gone over to rock and roll." During these same years, the group began to realize how their pioneering work was bearing new and strange fruit, something that first struck them in Berkeley in the late 1960s when they realized that what they once had done uniquely now was part of a "mass movement." "That was a revelation to me," Seeger recalls of Berkeley's Colby Street area, where for the first time they saw a lot of other people playing their kind of music, and playing it socially. "We had provided a lot of tools," Cohen recalls, and now all sorts of people had taken them up and were using them in new ways.
One letter in Cohen's files, for example, comes from a 16-year-old senior at Passaic (NJ) High School, David Grisman, who was in a bluegrass band which included Rinzler's young cousin. They had been "singing together and spreading the cause of American Folk Music for quite some time," the young fan reported; his band wanted to visit Cohen and hear more about his Kentucky field work. Grisman was only one of many musicians who would take old-time music through rock and beyond. Others were the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, who had gotten excited by old-time music when he heard the NLCR at Stanford in 1961, and Ry Cooder, who had taken guitar lessons from Paley when the band played the Ash Grove. The larger point is that through the 1960s, the NLCR held a unique place in America's popular music scene. In stark contrast to the rainbow hues of the psychedelic bands, they still dressed in white shirts, dark vests and trousers, outfits chosen years earlier to represent the finery in which country musicians appeared when they came to the city to make 78 rpm records. They were at once old-fashioned, yet so much so that to those in the know they were avant-garde.
Consider, for example, the huge rock festival at Sausalito in 1968, at the height of rock's explosion. The large psychedelic poster for the event lists the NLCR along with Jefferson Airplane, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, Chuck Berry, Elvin Bishop, Santana, Poco, Muddy Waters, and many other rock icons, with Doc Watson the only other performer from the NLCR's end of the spectrum. The next year the NLCR played at the Family Dog on the Great Highway, the Bay Area's showcase for psychedelic bands after the Fillmore closed. All three Ramblers remember these as wild times, epitomized by one vignette from the second Sky River Rock Festival, held outside Seattle in 1969. Assigned a 10 a.m. slot after the previous evening's music had gone on almost until morning, they played a song or two to an audience basically still asleep or stoned. Then they lit into a rollicking fiddle tune which soon had everyone up, so much so that people began "all dancing naked right in front of the stage" as several Berkeley-area bands, awakened by the ruckus, also joined the music!
In 1965, the NLCR also made their first overseas tours, in late spring to Australia, where they played in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney; and that fall to England. The following year, with Roscoe Holcomb, the Stanley Brothers, Cousin Emmy and others, they toured in Europe, including Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. But although they played to appreciative audiences who listened to contemporary country music on Armed Forces radio, the NLCR discovered that on both these continents, old-time music lacked the subterranean network of admirers established over the decade in the States. Europeans had listened to American blues and jazz for years but didn't have the right frame for old-time country music. Although the NLCR returned to England in 1967 to play Royal Albert Hall, they never again traveled with so large an entourage as in 1966. As Seeger puts it, such a gig simply "didn't sell well enough to ever do it again."
By the end of the 1960s, though, the Ramblers rode a crest of popularity in America. Moreover, to return to a metaphor Cohen frequently invokes, the seeds that they had planted, Johnny Appleseed-like, were growing. When they stopped in Chapel Hill (NC) in the mid-1960s, for example, they found Alan Jabbour and the Hollow Rock String Band going strong, playing rare tunes Jabbour had collected from the West Virginia fiddler, Henry Reed. A few years later Hollow Rock's successor, the Durham (NC)-based Fuzzy Mountain String Band, issued the first of its two influential albums, also filled with tunes they had collected. Hearing it, Cohen recalls, "I knew for the first time that the old-time music scene was going somewhere that had nothing to do with the Ramblers. It had its own momentum and started to feed me." And on their trips to Berkeley they encountered the Fat City String Band, which soon metamorphosed into the greatly popular Highwoods String Band. "When the Highwoods took off," Cohen remembers, "that carried [the music] a whole other step forward."
For over a decade, the NLCR stood as witnesses, as Cohen puts it, to "the possibility that city people could play traditional music in traditional styles and feel good about it." Writing in 1967 in The Music Maker on the occasion of the NLCR's trip to London, Eric Winter accurately described their "supreme achievement." The NLCR, he wrote, have "carried out a mammoth rescue operation, snatching from the jaws of a jukebox society and a swamp of banality some of the finest music in the U.S. tradition." Never measuring their success in record sales, which only hovered in the hundreds, in the late 1960s they delighted in scores of bands all over the country who played old-time country music. If this had been the NLCR's only contribution, it would have ensured their place in music history. But there would be three more decades of work and influence, the topic of the second part of this essay.
Philip Gura is the co-author (with Jim Bollman) of America's Instrument: The Banjo in the 19th Century, just published by the University of North Carolina Press. He teaches American Studies at the UNC-Chapel Hill.