The New Lost City Ramblers continue to perform on occasion even today — Tracy Schwartz replaced Tom Paley in 1962; since then, their three-man lineup has remained unchanged — but the bulk of their work was done in the late 1950s and the 1960s. Most of their LPs are out of print (though they can be special-ordered from the Smithsonian, where the catalog of their label, Folkways, now resides), but enough is available — notably the two-disc 40 Years Of Concert Recordings on Rounder) — to give the curious listener a reasonable sense of their sound and their engaging stage presentation.
As with Seeger himself, the significance of the Ramblers extends beyond the durability of their music itself. If it is true that, as country music historian Bill C. Malone has written, “more than any single recording, [the Kingston Trio's] ‘Tom Dooley’ set off the urban folk music boom,” it is no less true that, more than any other group, the Ramblers — assembled in the same year “Tom Dooley” exploded onto the charts — connected that boom directly to its roots in the rural southern music of the 1920s and 1930s. In the process, they not only enlightened and entertained thousands of listeners, but educated and inspired a generation of musicians who followed them. (Among them was a young Jay Farrar, who heard the Ramblers’ version of “No Depression In Heaven” and chose to cover the old Carter Family staple as the title track for the 1990 debut of Uncle Tupelo.)
The Ramblers presented a staggering array of songs and sounds that will shock anyone who thinks of old-time music only in terms of fiddle-and-banjo-driven string bands catering to folk dancers. That tradition gave them a considerable part of their repertoire, of course, but there was much more: jug-band numbers, unaccompanied ballads, blues, Cajun waltzes and two-steps, brother duets, and simply uncategorizable entries culled from an immense range of sources. Whether in concert or on record, the New Lost City Ramblers presented a unique kaleidoscope of sounds.
That the group would come to have such an impact was not, of course, evident from the start. “At the very beginning, we just thought we’d do a concert, and then John suggested that we do a record,” Seeger remembers. “He was the most active promoter of the group in those days.
“We didn’t play for very many people at the start. In ’58 we played for the folk music in-group of New York, and 150 or 200 people came out. Of course, there were a lot more people who liked folk music, because Pete had been down around there for 20 years or so, and there were people who knew what the Weavers had done, and the Kingston Trio, and then there were just people beyond that who were kind of independent. But the in-group, that was a lot smaller.
“Then in 1959 the Newport Folk Festival wrote me a letter and said, ‘We’d like you to come play for us.’ We had one other concert before that somewhere, I think, because John would call people up and try to get a gig. And I also sponsored a concert by us and Libba in D.C., and the folk music group of Washington came out, maybe 50 people or so.
“It just expanded gradually. Our record is what really helped, because that’s I guess what did it for the Newport Folk Festival. And then I think it was the following year that Berkeley Folk Festival asked to come out, and we played the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and all because of the record — well, records, really. We came out with a huge number of records at the beginning; in two years, we put out four or five records.
“I think what we came to try to do after a very short while was to try to represent the best of old-time music as we perceived it,” he says carefully. “And to try to play like the old-timers. We didn’t very much at the beginning. Some people like that first record, but it makes me uncomfortable; it was broad, but it wasn’t as deep as I would like, and when I listen back to some of those things, some of it seems kind of sophomoric.
“But we got there within two or three years, by playing a lot together. And by listening, a whole lot. We circulated tapes, mostly. It was all reel-to-reel back then, and you had to be in a stationary place, until I got an inverter and put it in my Studebaker in ’62. It made more noise than the car itself, but then you could listen while you were traveling.”
As the Ramblers settled into its rhythm of listening and playing, they developed into “the premier [folk] revival group,” as Philip Gura put it in an exhaustive two-part appreciation of the Ramblers written for the Old-Time Herald in 1999. They earned that status not only by virtue of considerable talent, but by serving as a musical constant during a period of raging change. As the impact of the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll made itself felt and an independent “youth culture” began to form, folk revival performers moved from exploring and interpreting the American musical past to embracing the future; Dylan’s “going electric” was only the most potent symbolic moment of the change.
The Ramblers, though, remained pretty much the same, even as much of the folk revival audience (especially its younger members) gravitated toward more modern fare. Through their constancy, they continued to retain some measure of admiration and popularity. “We’ve come to stand out on the American folk scene,” Gura quotes Seeger as saying in 1967. “In fact, people consider us to be ‘old-timers’ because everyone else has ‘gone over to rock ‘n’ roll.’” On one occasion (Sausalito, 1968), they appeared at a festival with Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, Santana and other luminaries of the rock scene.
Still, Seeger says, “things began tapering off about ’65 or ’66,” and by the early 1970s, difficulties in finding sufficient work, together with changing family situations and the development of more consuming individual interests and solo careers, led Seeger, Cohen and Schwartz to convert the trio into a part-time, occasional group rather than the putatively full-time ensemble it had been since 1960.
For Seeger, the change was largely welcome. “Working on my own had actually been about 50 percent of my income for a long time,” he notes wryly, “because I had realized that I couldn’t make it just playing music with the New Lost City Ramblers. So it was always a natural thing to do. And I wanted to do what I wanted to do.
“You’re always that way in a group, aren’t you? I knew that if I were playing on my own I wouldn’t have any arguments about what we’re going to do next. And it seemed to me that the field was so rich in sounds and songs that I could never do enough of what I wanted to do within the Ramblers, because there were two other members of the group and we had all these ensemble sounds in addition. So to me they were complementary kinds of things to do. And really, I couldn’t have continued playing music any other way.”