In the early spring of 1999 I drove out of Lexington, Virginia, and halfway up a mountain turned onto the private drive that led to Mike Seeger's home. Soon enough John Cohen arrived from New York and Tracy Schwarz from West Virginia. Over a weekend I taped hours of interviews with the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the premier folk revival groups. The incubator for both bluegrass and country music as we now know it, the Ramblers were the first to take their inspiration and repertoire from the "hillbilly" or old-time music that had been commercially recorded in the South from the late 1920s through the 1930s. I also had access to a significant part of their paper archive, including personal letters and business contracts, and was in contact by email with Tom Paley one of the Ramblers' original members who now lives in London. What follows is the complex story of a group of northern, urban musicians who made it their life's work to bring rural, southern music onto the national stage and in the process significantly contributed to what became a world-wide movement in "roots" music.
Modern interest in rural music played by white southerners -- what we now call "old-time music" -- began as part of the Folk revival, a complex, multi-layered cultural movement that nurtured the individual talents who first performed as the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR) in 1958. Beginning in the 1930s, the study and performance of American folksong had been associated with politics. Many of its proponents across the political spectrum believed that the music contained enduring but forgotten values that could still speak 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 in the late 1940s and early 1950s joined Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and other traditional musicians 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 appropriated by such popular musicians as Harry Belafonte, the Highwaymen, and the Kingston Trio.
Those who religiously read each issue of Sing Out!, a journal devoted to the notion that folksong could promote social change, held their noses at such rank commercialism and sought new venues for their music. One of these venues was Beat culture, whose influence was widespread in American art and music as well as in literature. 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 Beats saw through the thin veneer of consumer culture to the emptiness within and shunned a political system that, from their point of view, ignored the nation's social ills. The Beats spoke to many folksingers' own disenchantment with the American way and welcomed them into their coffee-houses and lofts. By the late 1950s, interest in folk music, as much as in jazz, was a trademark of the counterculture.
Before moving to clubs folk music flourished in the open air, nowhere more so than in Washington Square, near New York University and Greenwich Village. Since 1940 this had been the city's meeting place for folksingers, including NLCR'S Tom Paley, an admired virtuoso on guitar and banjo. Raised in Queens by politically progressive parents, Paley studied at City College before entering graduate school in mathematics at Yale, where he crossed paths with John Cohen, a freshman fine arts major whom he had previously met in the city. In the early 1950s, Cohen and Paley organized hootenannies in New Haven, while still frequenting the Sunday afternoon sings in Washington Square. By the early 1950s, Paley and a few others began to steer an important segment of these urban musicians away from the then popular English ballads and political songs toward country music. …