Mike Seeger's Legacy: To Be Continued


I've been out of town the last few days — at a funeral, coincidentally — so you presumably knew before I did that Mike Seeger has died. 

I don't see a heck of a lot on the web that seems to capture Seeger's significance, and it may take a long time before his true importance is widely and well understood.  Maybe Bill C. Malone's rumored biography will advance that project.

I like quoting what Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, says about Mike — not only to borrow Dylan's clout, but because nobody else has expressed it so vividly, before or since.  Buy Chronicles and read it. 

Only in Dylan's writing about Mike do I really recognize the guy I encountered — maybe only Bob and I saw it, but I bet a lot of people have the same feeling.

Here's a small sample of the thirteen-page ode dramatizing the impact Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.


The main thing I want to add tonight (because it might otherwise go unsaid) is how much I admired Mike's ethics as an intellect. 

He understood that trying to understand and explain things is difficult, and carries an ethical burden.  You OUGHT to be careful and humble in drawing conclusions, and you SHOULD get your facts right.  Be mindful of what you know to be the case, and what you don't. 

When he spoke, and when he wrote his liner notes, you could hear his great care in selecting words that said exactly what he knew, nothing less and nothing more.  I respected that in him.


Here's a round-up of selected previous writings about Mike Seeger.

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Mike Seeger: Articles at The Monochord


Mike Seeger Southern Banjo Sounds

Mike Seeger has entered hospice care and members of his family are gathering at his home in Virginia, according to media reports. 

Over the years, the Celestial Monochord has written about Mike often, sometimes obsessively, because he's a hero of mine.

Below are links to my most substantial essays dealing with Mike Seeger. They're mostly in order of writing quality and/or relevance to Mike.



• How the Folk Revival affected Dock Boggs (indebted to Seeger's liner notes and Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus):

Dock Boggs: Revival  


• On innocence and experience, in the context of Mike Seeger:

The Young Musicologist


• A two-part screed in which I realize that Bob Dylan (and his generation) were not directly influenced by Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as much as they were second-hand, through the New Lost City Ramblers:

Harry Smith, Dylan, and "The Rambler's Step"


• How Mike turned a simple love song into a contemplation about the relationships between art, and death, and love:

Little Birdie


• Thoughts about Hollis Brown, mentioning the version Bob Dylan did with Mike:

Hollis Brown's South Dakota


• Mike's version of a song about Slick Willie:

Late Last Night When My Willie Come Home


• With my facts a little rumpled around the edges, the vast importance and tiny reputation of the New Lost City Ramblers:

Math and Memory in New Lost City


• "Suggested listening" for fans of the Harry Smith Anthology:

Beyond the Anthology


• About my favorite cut on Mike's brilliant collection of field recordings:

A Talk on the World



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Barack Obama: Secret Banjoist? - UPDATE!

NLCR


In late July, I wrote a "fake news" item about Barack Obama trying to appeal to fans of Oldtime music.

Well ... now Barack Obama really is, in fact, trying to appeal to fans of Oldtime music (my consulting fee is in the mail, I'm quite certain).  

To wit, Ralph Stanley  best known as the elderly "Oh Death" guy on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack  has recorded a radio endorsement to run in southwestern Virginia.

The area is hotly contested in the presidential race, and was also the home of many pioneers of the style today called "Oldtime" Tommy Jarrell, Henry Whitter, The Carter Family, The Stonemans, and many, many, more.

I wrote that dorky fake news item because I kept doing double-takes at photos of Obama at a meeting of NCLR, which looks a hell of a lot like NLCR, which to Oldtime fans is as immediately recognizable as NASA or FBI. After a little slap-dash Photoshop work (above), I was in business.

Several years ago, I drove to Moorehead, Minnesota, and stayed at a Red Roof Inn just to see my first concert by Mike Seeger, cofounder of the NLCR.  At the end of the concert, Mike said he was going to go sit at the CD table and press the flesh. 

He'd just been touring with Ralph Stanley, you see, who stays at the CD table until the last dog dies and Seeger saw that Stanley sells a lot of CDs that way.  After about 50 years in show business, Mike was apparently still learning from old Ralph Stanley. 

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Beware Young Ladies!

Beware young ladies


It's been just over 2 years since the breaching of the New Orleans levies. August 28 will forever make me think, strangely, of both the flooding of New Orleans and Tom Paley.

On the night of Katrina's landfall, my wife and I were in Two Rivers, Wisconsin to see our first concert by Paley, one of the three original founders of The New Lost City Ramblers. After the show, we went back to our hotel to watch CNN and drink Manhattans, nervously discussing whether the levies would hold up.

Since then, I've seen Paley twice more — once at a "house concert" around the corner from my Minneapolis apartment, once in a little conference room at a suburban Marriott.

One great thing about concerts by the old folk masters is that they're usually pretty much right there, sitting in the chair next to you. A fair sense of what those concerts were like can be gotten from his new CD, Beware Young Ladies!

It's heartening to hear him singing in that same voice I recognize from the Ramblers recordings of the late 1950's and early 1960's — a voice that has always given the impression of straining for its height and sweetness. There's a faintly humorous creak in it — there always has been — and it hints, a bit, at the silly, avuncular, generous presence you meet so vividly in person.

In concert, Paley's introductions to his songs are lengthy shaggy dog stories, starting and ending nowhere, and are fantastic to hear (possibly not three times in a short time, as I have). Any hint of them are sadly missing from Beware Young Ladies!

For example, in concert Paley points out that "Croquet Habit" apparently started out as a song about a cocaine habit, but at some point, someone allowed the subject to drift.

The songs of Beware Young Ladies! are nearly all traditional murder ballads and rounder songs about dissolute youths and the women they exploit, as the title suggests. Paley makes them seem like great old lullabies whispered into your crib.

This generates that same friction that sparked the performances of The Ramblers, the original Carter Family, and so many others. The incongruity engages me in a way that's rare in much "contemporary folk," where the subject matter rules the mood like a petty dictator.

His version of the "The Lazy Farmer" is very close to that on the Harry Smith Anthology, except slowed down and played on solo fiddle, producing a more lonesome, back-woods sound. Paley also milks the song for its laughs, which I'd forgotten it has.

The CD also includes one song I know only from The New Lost City Ramblers, "Three Men Went A-Hunting" which portrays three ethnic stereotypes — a practical and dull Englishman, an argumentative contrarian Scotsman, and an Irish dreamer lost in his own stories.

I wish Paley had included at least one of his Swedish polskas, which he plays so beautifully on fiddle and which feel so at home among the American folk songs.

Beware Young Ladies! is a sampling of Paley's work on banjo, guitar, fiddle and harmonica, and while I'm not sure he's never been sharper, he can still mop the floor with most musicians a fraction of his age currently making a living as old weird Americans.

By now, his clawhammer banjo technique shows so much experience that it doesn't bother to prove anything. His rendition of "Sporting Life Blues" will make country blues guitarists sit up and wish he'd done a whole album this way. Like Mike Seeger, when I've seen Paley blow into his harmonica, I've literally heard gasps from concert audiences — people just aren't used to that vivid old-time technique.

The CD is a close collaboration with one Bert Deivert, with whom I'm not familiar at all. I'm cool on Deivert's singing style, which I find overwrought, and Paley gives him too many chances to take the lead. But he and Paley seem to have been playing together for quite some time, judging from how beautifully they accompany one another, and Dievert's playing puts some meat on Paley's bare bones.

I should mention that I love the design of the CD's packaging, which my mp3-downloading readers will miss out on. It's cleanly modern and simple and European — ugly Americans will think of Ikea (I know I did) — but it feels rustic and hand-fashioned at the same time.

The photography is wonderful, and I thank the record company for their kind permission to use a bit of that.


Out Squatting in their Domain

Back in August 2005, I registered the domains NewLostCityRamblers dot com and dot net.

Remembering why I did this foolish thing causes me conflicted emotions, to the point that they cancel each other out. Today, I very rarely think of it, except to puzzle over why I did it and what to do next.

That summer, I was kicking around the idea of starting a blog devoted to the members of the New Lost City Ramblers. The band is the best-kept secret in America — their influence is truly incalculable, their musical output seemingly endless and of supreme quality, and almost nobody under the age of 50 seems to know who they are.

When I've asked baby-boomer folk and blues enthusiasts how they got into the music (hoping to hear a story about the Harry Smith Anthology), they've almost always said they were roped in by the New Lost City Ramblers. After a while, I started to take that message to heart.

The individual members of Ramblers are still out there performing, mostly on their own and often in mind-bogglingly small and informal settings. So starting a blog to trace their comings and goings — and what hot young bands were being compared to them, who was crediting them with starting their careers, and so forth — seemed both a fun project and a useful public service.

But it turned out to be something a good deal more. Once I started the blog, I found my own understanding of the band growing exponentially. I also became much more familiar with a wider community I'd have known nothing about had I not maintained that blog. It was a door to a considerably wider world than I had known.

It is now inactive, though I haven't given up on it completely. I never received one comment from a reader, and the site statistics remained virtually non-existent — it was as thankless as hell. When I started my full-time pursuit of the Anthology's Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe, something had to give, and it was the Ramblers blog. Still, I very much miss what I got out of it, and I hope it will somehow live again some day soon.

ANYWAY, point is, I was kicking around ideas for a name, so I went to a domain registration service and started plugging in ideas — BattleshipMaine.gov, BlackBottomStrut.net, LongPlayingShortSelling.com, and so forth. Soon, I thought to try the obvious thing — NewLostCityRamblers dot com and dot net. I was very surprised — startled — that the domains were just sitting there, waiting for anybody at all to just pay a few bucks for them.

So I puzzled over that. I had long been a fan of Tom Waits, so I knew TomWaits.com had been held for years by a cyber squatter. Going to the domain yielded a come-on for a flat-out porn site, plus a lot of pop-up windows. I hear Waits had to pay a lot of lawyers to finally get his name back. Although I'm not absolutely sure, it appears Mike Seeger's name is already being squatted on in an analogous, if slightly more clever way — perhaps the reason for the real Mikes's odd URL.

For several days in a row, I returned to the registration site. I thought about alerting the Ramblers that the domains were available, but figured they must already know. I wondered if there might be such acrimony among the members that none wanted to be seen as grabbing the band's name. Mostly, I foresaw the day that a cyber squatter grabbed the domains and set up his scam, at which point they would become much more expensive property.

After several days of watching and thinking, a normal person would have concluded that the domains were worthless, that nobody wanted them, and they would remain available forever. But not me! I started wringing my hands a bit over the issue, especially since knowing they were available made me feel partly responsible for any bad outcomes. I thought about seeking advice at certain discussion lists I follow, but going public might have resulted in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So ... one day, without really having thought it out very deeply — on a whim — I whipped out a credit card and nabbed them. (It's ssssooo easy to do, almost like "one-click" buying at Amazon.) Of course, this multiplied my involvement exponentially. Instead of resolving a puzzle, it turned the puzzle into a problem, and one that was decisively MINE. Maybe that's what I wanted — I'm not sure.

And so there it is. It's embarrassing, because it's ethically ambiguous and something only an obsessive "fan" would get himself into. It's a bit like Iraq — too costly to hold onto, especially since it was none of my business in the first place, but it's uncomfortable imagining what might happen if I walked away.

I'm pretty sure — assuming no other intervention — I'll hang onto the domains for a time and keep wondering about them. If the Ramblers want them, they can sure as hell have them for nothing. When I do let them go, I'll try to give their management plenty of advance warning.

In the meantime, the domains sit there as something for me to think about, a touch stone. The very situation itself is an episode in the screwy history of the band's under-appreciation ... and in the strange career this kind of music is enjoying in cyberspace ... and in my own obsessive, expensive relationship with both.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 22 in my 28-part attempt to post one entry of The Celestial Monochord every day during the month of February 2007. And boy howdy, am I running out of ideas ... but I'm still standing! I'm gunna make it!

 


The Young Musicologist

Today is the 39-year anniversary of Mike Seeger's recording of Dock Boggs singing "Careless Love." Last February 10, I marked the 38-year anniversary with a good entry about the song. That entry is one of the most-visited pages at The Celestial Monochord, and I won't try to rewrite it today.

Thanks to Invisible Republic by Greil Marcus, I bet Mike Seeger is almost constantly asked about Boggs these days. His "rediscovery" of Boggs in 1963 and the short time they spent working together have taken on the qualities of myth in a lot of people's minds, including mine. I always think of Mike and Dock alongside the story of Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's death bed. I've tried to interest a show-biz relative of mine in the idea of a movie about Seeger and Boggs (maybe with Kevin McDonald as Seeger and John C. Reilly as Doc Watson? Any ideas about Boggs?).

Anyway, in the few, very brief exchanges I've had with Seeger, I've tried to avoid the obvious topics like Boggs — I asked him about Maybelle Carter's playing of melodic autoharp, for example. But I made an exception back in 2004, when I told him a story about Boggs. It seemed to go well — maybe it was good to be told something new about Boggs for a change.

Mike had just completed a workshop on picking styles and a few people hung around afterwards to talk to him. Someone mentioned Boggs, and I launched into the "conversion experience" story I tell now and then:

The first CD I got after The Harry Smith Anthology was the Folkways stuff you did with Dock in the 1960's. I put it on the stereo for the first time, and when "New Prisoner's Song" came on, I just burst into tears. I sobbed openly for a while. And then I collected myself and thought ... "My musical tastes have CHANGED."
And with that, Mike let out a big belly laugh. It seemed to me that he appreciated how bizarre and potentially intolerable Boggs' music could sound to someone in their 30's, as I was then, and understood my surprise at myself.

Among the other people in the room was a kid around 20 years old, I guess. He had the coolest, silliest haircut — sort of a cross between a mohawk and the coxcomb of a chicken. This young banjoist — who reminded me of a very young Bob Carlin — mentioned that he had an original Brunswick 78 of Dock's "Sugar Baby."

Mike was surprised. He said his "friend Greil Marcus," who "loves to write about Dock Boggs," had asked him to see if he could get him some of those 78s, but Seeger was unable to locate any at a reasonable price. The youngster said he'd payed less than a hundred dollars for his. About a half an hour later, during lunch, Mike and this mohawk kid were sitting together, engaged in some kind of intense discussion.

I'm finding that it matters, this getting up close to the people you write about.

Over the course of the long weekend of the "Black Banjo: Then and Now" conference, Mike slowly painted a portrait of himself as a young, inexperienced folklorist in the 1950's and 1960's. Around 1953, he briefly met a black banjoist named Sam (the one he describes in the liner notes to "Tie Your Dog Sally Gal" on Close to Home). Days later, he asked a shopkeeper in a black section of Kensington, Maryland where he might find Sam. Mike explained, with obvious regret in his voice, "I was green, and looking for Sam, and he thought it may not be good for Sam." He never did find the banjoist.

That same weekend, Mike told a remarkable story about visiting Sewanee, TN, where he met the dean, Red Lancaster. Hearing that Mike was into the banjo, he invited Mike back to his house. This was OK, Lancaster said, because his wife was away. Young Mike wondered nervously what what this might mean, exactly. That night, Lancaster brought out some whiskey and began to drink it. Mike didn't feel he had much of an option except to drink it too, although Mike was definitely not a drinker of hard liquor. His memory of the evening is very cloudy, but he was able to record the session, and the tape is now at Chapel Hill.

What Mike does remember is that Lancaster consistently stroked the fifth string of his banjo with his thumbnail, flicking UP (not down, as everybody else does, regardless of style). He also remembers that Lancaster's thumb was clearly bloody after an evening of banjo playing.

This is the tension that would be great to get into a film — the young folksinger/folklorist, green and nervous, suddenly immersed in the universe of men and women very much older than himself, people who had seen a lot and who had many decades worth of demons, resentments, desires, and regrets to contend with. It reverses the old myth still so emblematic of anthropology — the picture of a worldly, sophisticated representative of the wider planet who comes to study an innocent product of a tiny, insular culture. When Mike met Dock in 1963, who was like a lamb, and who represented a big, complex world?

 

Editor's Note: This is installment #10 of The Celestial Monochord's great and stress-inducing adventure in cutting-edge bloggery — we are attempting to post one entry every day during the month of February.

 


When My Willie Come Home

Southern_banjo_sounds


Recently, Hillary Clinton made a cutesy Lockhorns-ish joke about her husband Bill being a bad and evil man, presumably thinking of the Monica Lewinsky incident, among others. And, you know, all the pundits got busy on it.

Personally ... maybe it's me ... what I thought of was a cut on Mike Seeger's "Southern Banjo Sounds" — the one called "Last Night When My Willie Come Home." It's one of my favorite cuts on a CD full of brilliant recordings.

It's a lively performance, sweet and funny, punctuated by quills — bamboo pan pipes, basically, which Mike wears the way Bob Dylan wears his harmonicas. At the same time, Mike accompanies himself on banjo, sounding absolutely effortless, natural. But the liner notes inform us that he's alternating between SIX different styles of banjo picking based on the playing of Sam McGee, Virgil Anderson, Maybelle Carter, and Charlie Poole.

The lyrics begin:

Well, it was late last night when my Willie come home
Heard a mighty rappin' at the door
Slippin and a-sliding with his new shoes on
Oh Willie, don't you ramble no more
Of course, Bill Clinton was called "Slick Willie" back in 1992, and the Willie in Seeger's song is "slipping and sliding". Maybe that's more than enough of an association.

But when Seeger refers to "my Willie" in the first line, it always carries an unfortunate penile image for me, and I have to remind myself that the speaker is Willie's long-suffering woman. Then again, the Starr Report conjured a lot of similarly unfortunate images, and the experience of trying to shake them from my head only reiterates the association, in my twisted mind, between these Willies.

More to the point, this is a rounder song — a song about a wastrel, "one who," according to my desk dictionary, "dissipates resources foolishly and self-indulgently." Willie's slippery new shoes are the central theme of all rounder songs — he lives high, spends a lot of capital on all the wrong things, and is ultimately a tragic figure. His shoes are new, but he's dangerously rootless.

Like a lot of these old songs, the point of view careens from one character to another recklessly and without warning. In the chorus, Willie speaks:

And it's "Oh me" and it's "Oh my"
What's gunna become of me?
For I'm down in town just a-fooling around
No one's gunna stand my bond.
The song is sympathetic to Willie's wife, but also to Willie — it understands his fear and regret:
Well the last time I seen my own true love
She was a-standing in the door
She threw her arms all around my neck
Saying "Honey, don't you go"
I don't have a "message" here, at least not about politics. Seeger's "Last Night When My Willie Come Home" is ill-suited to the politics you typically find today on TV and, come to think of it, in blogs. The point of view shifts (and is shared) among the characters, and the song doesn't bother much to identify the guilty and innocent. The song's affectation is light and comic, but the emotional lives of the characters are intense, sincerely felt (the inverse of what you might find on FOX chat shows).

Presidential candidates always promise to change the tenor of political debate and Hillary frames her campaign as a "conversation" — just the form in which this song comes at you. I wonder if she's looking for a campaign song ...

I'll love you, dear girl, till the sea runs dry
Rocks all dissolved by the sun
I'll love you dear girl till the day I die
And then, Oh Lord, I'm done

 

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a grand experiment! The Celestial Monochord will attempt to post one entry EVERY DAY during the month of February 2007. Pray for Mojo!

 


Tom Paley in the Twin Cities - November 5

Tom_paley
Tom Paley in 2005
(Detail from photo courtesy Woodland Dunes Concert Series)


Editor's Note (6 September 2007): For my review of Paley's new CD, see Beware Young Ladies!


Tom Paley, a founder of The New Lost City Ramblers, will perform in the Twin Cities on Sunday, November 5. This is a rare opportunity that no fan of old American music should miss. Strangely enough, the concert is from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the Marriott Minneapolis West located at 9960 Wayzata Blvd. Admission is $15.00 at the door. Please help spread the word.

The Minneapolis concert is part of a small national tour, although few details seem to be available about it. Perhaps check with your local acoustic instrument shop or concert venue, or see if there's a local folk, oldtime, or bluegrass music association. Here's the remaining dates, as published in early October on a fiddle-player's discussion list:

Fri: Nov 3: Duluth, MN
Sun: Nov 5: Minneapolis, MN
Sat: Nov 11: Evanston, IL
Thu: Nov 16: Columbia, MO
Mon: Nov 20: Reeds Spring, MO
Wed: Nov 22: Eureka Springs, AR
Sun: Nov 26: Tampa, FL
Thu: (?)Nov 30: Workshop, Tallahassee, FL(?)
Fri: Dec 1: House-Concert, Tallahassee, FL
Sat: Dec 2: House-Concert, Gainesville, FL
Sun: Dec 3: Workshop, Gainesville, FL

There may also be something coming up in the
Washington, DC area, sometime between Dec 4 and Dec 18.


The Ramblers and Tom Paley
The better I understand the importance of The New Lost City Ramblers, the harder it gets to explain. The band formed in 1958, when folk music had a massive audience in the USA. Unlike other folk groups, the Ramblers didn't make the music slick and simple, but instead focused on getting the sound "right" — on knowing how to play, sing and arrange in the real traditional styles of the Appalachians.

They also understood that playing in an "authentic" and "traditional" way meant constantly experimenting, sometimes "making do," and always having the biggest laughs and the best party you could manage.

The Ramblers were never a commercial hit, really, but they inspired armies of young people to take up the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, autoharp, and guitar, and learn to play them in a dizzying array of formerly obsolete styles. I've heard many stories of people starting out on banjo or fiddle, under the Rambler's influence, and then realizing that their own ethnic heritage — Scottish, Native American, Polish, Jewish from various places, Senegalese, Gambian, whatever — was worth reviving as well. There is no meaningful way to calculate the influence the Ramblers have had on almost every form of traditional music worldwide.

Today, Harry Smith's 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is usually credited with inspiring the various waves of revivalists to come — and it did deeply inspire the Ramblers themselves. But I find that the Ramblers usually "came first" for people. For many listeners, it was the Ramblers who taught the lessons that the Anthology had to teach. For many, it was the Ramblers who disseminated the varied techniques and rich shades of expression that make the old pre-war Southern recordings such a revelation to people who were familiar with the Anthology.

As just one example, it seems that the Harry Smith Anthology was an important influence on Bob Dylan, as Greil Marcus has famously pointed out. But as I've discussed before (at tedious, bone-crushing length) Dylan heard the Anthology's message mostly second-hand — in translation — most significantly through the Ramblers. Maybe we can think of the Ramblers as a thick pipeline for messages running between Dylan and the Anthology.

Of the three original New Lost City Ramblers, Tom Paley seems to have had the best-developed music career at the time the group formed. Still, he wanted the group to be a part-time pursuit while he held down other positions — teaching mathematics at Rutgers, for example. Paley left for Europe in 1962, ending his work with The New Lost City Ramblers. Tracy Schwarz joined the group shortly thereafter.

After leaving the Ramblers, Paley lived in Sweden until 1965 and has lived in England ever since. From what I can tell, I think he's had a "real life," making good use of his technical training to pursue a career. But he's also continued to work as a musician, making a record with Peggy Seeger, and then working with the Old Reliable String Band, the New Deal String Band, and with probably with masters of the Swedish music Paley loves so well.


What is a Tom Paley concert like today?
The only Tom Paley concert I've seen was on the night Katrina made landfall, August 28th, 2005. It was part of a folk concert series held at a Nature Center outside of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The concert series features world-class acts playing concerts as intimate as you're ever likely to experience. I drove 350 miles to see Paley and was very glad I did.

The concert venue could seat about 120, I suppose, but was about two-thirds empty. Not far from Paley was the Nature Center's poster about proper tree pruning. Next to that was a stuffed tundra swan shot in 1906. To get from the Center's front door to the concert venue, you walk down the stairs, through the kitchen, and past fish tanks occupied by live turtles. Really, it's a wonderful atmosphere for a concert, but it's truly a pity that any Tom Paley concert could have such a small audience. On the other hand, American culture's loss was definitely the audience's gain — I even got to exchange a few words with him during intermission.

The most recent Tom Paley recordings I'd heard came from his New Lost City Ramblers days. They were nearly 45 years old. But the voice at Woodland Dunes was that same familiar voice — high, tight, unpretentious and capable of surprising changes of expression. One moment, he was singing the oldtime country murder ballad "Down in the Willow Garden (Rose Connelly)" in waltz time, and the next moment, he gave an extremely compelling blues vocal performance of "Sportin' Life Blues." Even with a head cold, Paley was really nailing the high notes.

He played guitar, fiddle, and banjo with all the versatility and power you'd expect from a founder of the New Lost City Ramblers. In "Sportin' Life," he showed himself to be a very sweet, effortless blues guitarist. On "Virginia Girls" (which you may know as "West Virginia Gals" by Al Hopkins) he played dazzlingly, in an oldtime raggy waltz style, in a menacing key, on a small borrowed guitar.

What attention Paley has gotten lately has mostly been for his fiddling. He surprised me deeply by playing a very touching fiddle instrumental solo of — of all things — "Fishing Blues" by Henry Thomas. My notes from that night read:

makes you realize that it really is a blues. Feels to me, now, like a white hillbilly blues. LOVELY as an instrumental
Other fiddle highlights were Paley's playing of Swedish polskas — waltz-time dances with a curious little hopping double accent. He reworked, as a vispolska or a song polska, "The Lazy Farmer" or "The Man Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn," which you may know from Harry Smith's Anthology. After singing one particularly lovely vispolska, Paley translated the lyrics from their original Swedish:
There's not much booze that I can give to you
My bottle's nearly empty
If you drink too much
You'll end up on the floor and so will I
Along with all the pastor's servants
Paley's word-play and goofy sense of humor have not let up since the days they enlivened concerts by the New Lost City Ramblers. At Woodland Dunes, he apologized for his relentless retuning, and claimed that:
Back in the Ramblers days, we would get on stage and then tune for the first 20 minutes. Then when we began playing, a lot of the audience would get up and leave.  So we figured they must've showed up just for the tuning.  But of course, the joke was on them — there was going to be plenty more tuning later! [quoted from memory]


Miniature "Interview" with John Cohen

Fullcircle

(John Cohen — photo by Howard Christopherson)

 

Last night, John Cohen was at the opening of a new exhibition of his photographs in Minneapolis (at the Icebox until November 4). The lines to have Cohen sign his books for you were short and occasionally non-existant, so you could sit down with him for a minute or two and chat before somebody started hovering nearby.

When I sat down at his little table in the corner, the Icebox's Howard Christopherson was making sure Cohen had a fresh round of hor d'oeuvres. Cohen seemed in good spirits — although I fired questions at him like a drunken Jack Webb, he was very patient and performed, like an actor, the emotional content of his answers.

Below is a pretty close transcript of what we said, furiously scribbled down immediately after the conversation. My apologies for any serious misquotes, and note that I did not identify myself as a blogger. Some clarifications follow the "interview."

 

The Celestial Monochord: I think the photos I'm noticing most are the ones I've never seen before — the one with Dylan and the chicken, and especially the one with [ Rambling Jack ] Elliott and ... and ...

John Cohen: And Woody [ Guthrie ]. Can you believe I missed that? I didn't see it until this show, and I'm so glad that I ...

Monochord: YOU'RE KIDDING! I thought you held it back until now. It's very intense, hard for me to look at ... I couldn't really, um ... I got very ...

Cohen: Yes, it is a very emotional picture. I just didn't know it existed until I got ready for this show. It's way over-exposed so I must have passed over it on the contact sheets until now.

Monochord: Oh, I see. I figured it was too personal so you didn't use it until now.

Cohen: Well, there was a lot of emotion then about Woody and what was happening with him, but on the other hand, I did use that one on the cover of "There is No Eye". [ he points at the book nearby on the table ]

Monochord: Yeah, that's true. Hey, who are these two guys here and here. [ pointing at the two musicians playing for Woody Guthrie on the cover of the book ]

Cohen: They're from The Tarriers — it's Bob Carey and Erik Darling [ more pointing — and I'm not 100% sure I remember this info correctly. ]

Monochord: Ok, I have a question, and I wouldn't ask you this question if I wasn't somewhat eppifficated. In the DVD that came with Dark Holler — the Dillard Chandler documentary — was that a drag queen? Was that a guy in a dress? What was that about?

Cohen: That was the same guy who was in the cafe before — Dillard's friend. Same guy. They knew I'd be filming at this party and they were putting one over on me. When I saw them coming through the door and he was wearing women's clothes, I thought, MY GOD, what joke are they pulling on me? So I just thought, well ...

Monochord: But he seems to be really into the clothes — he's so meticulous, he keeps adjusting himself, he's very into how he looks and making sure he's ... [ here, I'm pantomiming the guy in the film ]

Cohen: Yes, well, his wife is right there and his kids are there ...

Monochord: Ok, I'll leave you alone here, I'm taking up your time. I want to thank you for coming to Minneapolis and for everything you do. There are certain heroes of mine that I never got the chance to thank for what they did for me in my life, and I'm just glad I got to ... like Carl Sagan ... Oh I know — hey, just one more question! What was it like when you got that phone call saying, "Mr. Cohen, we want to send your recording of a Peruvian wedding song on a rocket ship into outer space." What did you think?

Cohen: [ before answering, he squeezes his eyes closed, turns his head to one side, and presses the tip of his index finger to his right temple for a good four seconds ] No, it wasn't like that. I found out about it in the New York Times.

Monochord: What, afterwards? When it was a done deal?

Cohen: Yes, I only read it ... I found out about it reading the New York Times.

Monochord: Ok, thank you. Please sign my book. My name is Kay You Are Tee — Kurt.

Cohen: [writes "To Kurt, John Cohen" on the title page of "Young Bob: John Cohen's Early Photographs of Bob Dylan"] Thanks.

Monochord: Thank you again. Nice to meet you.

 

Editor's Notes: As of this writing, the Icebox has posted the three photos we discussed — the one with Dylan and the chicken and the one with Jack Elliott and Woody Guthrie, who was suffering from Parkinson's Huntington's Disease (thanks Bill B.!). Here's the one with Woody and who I think are the Tarriers.

You get a free DVD of the documentary about Dillard Chandler, "The End of an Old Song" — with a cameo by a guy in drag — when you buy the Dark Holler CD.

For more on Cohen and Carl Sagan's Voyager record ("a Peruvian wedding song on a rocket ship"), see my previous post at the Celestial Monochord. Among the best moments in the book about the Voyager Record are those in which the team assembling the photos and music for the record seek permission from puzzled copyright holders.

I had him sign "Young Bob: John Cohen's Early Photographs of Bob Dylan" but unfortunately forgot to bring my copy of There is No Eye.

 


Jolie Holland and Elizabeth Cotton

Jolie_holland
Jolie Holland's new album is released May 9

Elizabeth_cotton
Nearly all Elizabeth Cotton's work is on Folkways

 

Guitarist and banjoist Elizabeth Cotton was one of the most beloved figures of the 1960's folk revival. Like Mississippi John Hurt, she played — and she somehow personally embodied — what Mike Seeger has called "black parlor music." As a lot of folks know, she was "discovered" by the Seeger family while working in their home, a story which entirely loses the whiff of exploitation the more I learn its facts. I'm now more curious about whether Cotton seemed to take on a little of the role of mother to Penny, Peggy and Mike Seeger after their own mother died at the age of 52.

The best written account I happen to have seen of Cotton's life is John Ullman's moving liner notes to Shake Sugaree. Another great account, available as an mp3, is Mike Seeger's early recollections of Cotton, which ends with one of the very first home recordings ever made of her. (The file is from "The Telling Takes Us Home.")

Back on February 8th, the New York Guitar Festival held an event in honor of Elizabeth Cotton, featuring Mike Seeger and Taj Mahal — two of the world's leading exponents of the African American banjo tradition, both of whom worked closely with Cotton. Also performing that night was singer-songwriter Jolie Holland.

It's not clear what Holland knows about Cotton — no published information exists other than her mere presence on February 9. Holland's manager informs me that Daniel Lanois introduced Holland's work to the Festival director, David Spelman, over two years ago and a chance to have her at the festival has been sought ever since.

In any case, whoever decided to associate Jolie Holland with Elizabeth Cotton knew what they were doing. As a devotee of the indispensably obsolete, Holland has the soul of a folk revivalist and is a musical heir of the New Lost City Ramblers and the Seeger family. More directly, Holland and Cotton are both parlor musicians, through and through. Their work is native to the living room — very small, close, antique, and feminine.

It's common to associate privacy with concealing the truth. But Holland and Cotton remind us that it's behind closed doors that the real disclosures are made. And when they sit you down in their parlor, we're reminded that the supposedly traditional domain of women is at least as hard and gritty as the world outside.

That's particularly surprising and endearing coming from kindly old Elizabeth Cotton. It's bizarre that her best-known composition, Freight Train, came to be thought of as a "nice" child's folksong:

Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Freight train, freight train, run so fast
Please don't tell what train I'm on
So they won't know what route I've gone

When I'm dead and in my grave
No more good times here I'll crave
Place a stone at my head and feet
And tell them all that I've gone to sleep
In a very similar song, also structured as a Girl Scout Camp sing-along, Holland has similar requests for the listener:
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
Give me that old fashioned morphine
It's good enough for me

Well, it was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It was good enough for my Grandpa
It's good enough for me

Sister, don't get worried
Sister, don't get worried
Sister, don't get worried
Because the world is almost done
Cotton once oversaw her grandchildren as they composed a song, using the writing of each verse or two as a bedtime activity. The result is certainly a "rounder song," and I even think of it as being about selling your ass once you've got nothing else left:
Pawned my buggy, horse and cap
Pawned everything that was in my lap

     chorus:
     Oh Lordy me, didn't I shake sugaree
     Everything I got is done in pawn

Pawned my chair, pawned my bed
Don't have nowhere to lay my head

     chorus

I have a little secret I ain't gonna tell
I'm goin' to heaven in a ground pea shell

     chorus

Chew my tobacco, spit my juice
I'd raise Cain but it ain't no use

     chorus
This strange, hardass domesticity is in everything Jolie Holland does. Here's another sing-along, sung with one of the softest, sweetest, most intimate arrangements on her album Escondida:
The smell of burnt exhaust drifts into the bar
It’s midnight in California, it’s high noon where you are
Motorcycles and booze and this dirty old perfume
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Is what it is
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame

I tried to go to sleep in my haunted little room
The shadows are churning in the passage of the moon
It’d break my heart to tell you I couldn’t come so soon
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Is what it is
Oh it’s nothing but a goddamn shame
Holland's next album, Springtime Can Kill You, is due out on Tuesday. The reviews I'm seeing are positive and seem to promise more of the same, at the very least.

 


John Cohen and the Voyager Record

New Lost City Ramblers
The New Lost City Ramblers: John Cohen, Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz

Voyager Record
NASA technicians bolting the Voyager LP to the spacecraft

 

It has finally, really dawned on me.

The Voyager Record is a timecapsule, designed by Carl Sagan and friends, in the form of a long-playing phonograph record. Identical copies were bolted to the side of NASA's two Voyager Spacecraft, which are now drifting in interstellar space. And this record contains a field recording made in Peru by John Cohen, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers.

Here at The Celestial Monochord, that's one heck of a revelation. Let me think about this.

The Voyager Record (and the soundtrack to the Cosmos TV series, which borrowed heavily from it) was my first exposure to all sorts of music — not just Blind Willie Johnson, but also Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven string quartets, and a variety of non-Western musics like the Javanese gamelan and Japanese shakuhachi.

More often than you might think, 25 years later, the thought of the Voyager Record still occasionally overwhelms me with grief and wonder. It must be the strangest episode in the history of the US Government — for one thing, it was partly the result of Sagan's stunning, awe-inspiring innocence. The record is Carl Sagan's quixotic love letter to Planet Earth — Earth, which filled him with a grief and wonder of his own. To Sagan, the record expressed Earth's "cosmic loneliness."

And somehow, he arranged for this document to roar into interstellar space, riding like a stowaway aboard the federal government's Cold War nuclear missile technology.

———

When the Voyager Record was launched, Carl Sagan saw it as a fitting tribute to the recently-deceased inventor of the LP, Peter Goldmark.

Sagan had become a young Ph.D. in 1960, about six months before Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village. His generation passionately loved the long-playing record, and they soon came to define themselves and their worldview through the LP.

They studied LP's — such as Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper — with a reverence and creativity that previous generations reserved for The Bible. The social movements that defined the 60's and 70's were shaped and held together, to no small degree, by the LP format. It was The People's Format, an invention that invented a generation.

So, by 1977, it wasn't a big stretch for Sagan to envision a total summation of Planet Earth encoded into the grooves of an LP. But what should this record say? What would be its argument?

Above all, the Voyager Record is a global anthology. An anthology, because it juxtaposes diverse music, images, voices and sounds. And global, because it sees itself as unconstrained by national boundaries. Its varied elements belong together in a common space simply because they're all the work of Earthlings.

The argument of the Voyager Record (at least for its human audience) is its humanism, set against the Cold War. It tries to show, by means of an outlandish and beautiful thought-experiment, that the differences separating us are trivial when viewed from a "cosmic perspective," as Sagan liked to say. In the all-consuming milieu of the Cold War, now difficult to recall, that could be a very forceful vision.

It's often said that the peace and environmental movements were deeply inspired by NASA's photos of Earth taken from space. On the other hand, NASA was one of the USA's primary Cold War weapons. The display of those photos also scored points in the Space Race.

The Voyager Record inherited both poles of this irony. It was Carl Sagan's ambition to resolve the contradiction in favor of peace.


———

That ambition had roots, of course.

The intensely humanistic Alan Lomax served as an advisor to the Voyager project — it was Lomax who recommended to Sagan's group the inclusion of John Cohen's 1964 recording of a young Peruvian woman's wedding song.

Lomax himself had recorded folk musicians in many countries, partly to get out of the country during McCarthy's red-baiting and to find a way around the blacklist. This episode, like the Voyager LP, is clear case of the Cold War leading directly to "world music." Indeed, in a vivid echo of Sagan's project, Lomax would later dream of a Global Jukebox representing all of human culture through one portal.

And then there was Moe Asch's Folkways Records, for which The New Lost City Ramblers recorded exclusively. Back in the 1930's, Asch proposed "a complete acoustic record of the human lifeworld" (as Robert Cantwell put it). He came closer to fulfilling that dream than you might expect, as a little time with the Folkways catalog will show. The Folkways vision first formed in a spirit of resistance to the early stages of WWII and the Holocaust — and, as such, it was endorsed by Albert Einstein (as I've described before). Asch's company certainly became the most critical record label of the Folk Revival, a movement whose reason for being was the disillusionment of America's children in the post-WWII, Cold War environment (see Cantwell's brilliant book).

Asch and Lomax (both of whom vigorously pioneered the anthologizing potential of the LP) were the inventors of the Voyager Record's very spirit. Sagan and NASA — by reframing Asch and Lomax's vision in the contexts of the Cold War and the Cosmos — each appropriated the vision for their mutually contradictory, competing purposes.


———-

I will close with a few startling anecdotes about John Cohen — not so much to fit his life into the thesis above, but to show you that the guy actually makes sense, standing there on the corner of such mighty intersections.

Besides having co-founded The New Lost City Ramblers in 1958, and having made many recordings and award-winning documentaries about Andean culture, Cohen is also famous as the guy who coined the phrase "high lonesome sound." In Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg provides a good summary:

John Cohen ... contributed to the interest in bluegrass with his photography and through a short documentary film whose title has become closely associated with the music. In February 1963, when Cohen chose The High Lonesome Sound for his movie about Kentucky mountain music, he was seeking words to describe the high, intense quality of the singing which had impressed him during his research in the region ... The film included footage of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in a free concert at the 1962 Coal Carnival, on the courthouse steps in Hazard, Kentucky. It was the first documentary film to include bluegrass and marks the beginning of the association of Bill Monroe with the term "high lonesome sound."
This John Cohen is also the same John Cohen who Bob Dylan addresses in his liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited. In them, Dylan refers to Cohen's rooftop where Cohen had taken perhaps the first photos of Dylan in New York. I once read that this rooftop was demolished to make room for construction of the World Trade Center. Here's the passage [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]:
you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo.
This is also the same John Cohen who provided what was, for many years, the only available interview with Harry Smith, eccentric editor of the influential Anthology of American Folk Music.

And finally, it appears that the Grateful Dead song "Uncle John's Band" is about John Cohen and The New Lost City Ramblers.

 

Editor's Note: One of many reasons it's been so long since I've posted is that I'm working on an experimental news blog on The New Lost City Ramblers — The New Lost Times. Let me know if you think I should keep going or quit.

 


Little Birdie

Bedside Book of Birds

 

If I hadn't noticed it myself, I'm not sure I would have believed it either.

Mike Seeger recorded a common-enough old banjo turne, Little Birdie, for what might be his masterwork, Southern Banjo Sounds. Various other versions of the song exist and mix together in interesting ways, as these old Appalachian songs tend to do.

But Seeger's choice of style and lyrics seems to bring out something profound in the old song. His version comes off as a densely woven little contemplation on how art and death, and art and love, and love and death can all seem to circle around each other, amplifying each other's importance.

I'd heard the song plenty of times before, but this potential had never dawned on me. By comparing this version with an older one, I think I see hints of how he brought out these deep, far-ranging implications in the song, how he got that fledging bird to take flight.

Here's the lyrics as Mike Seeger sings them, I think:

Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing to me your song.
Got a short time to stay here
And a long time to be gone.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
Dissatisfied, dissatisfied
And a-caring never a bit to die.

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes your wings so blue?
It's nothing else but grieving,
But grieving over you.

Fly down, fly down, little birdie,
And sing to me your song.
Sing it now, while I'm with you,
Can't hear you when I'm gone.
Like everything else on Southern Banjo Sounds, it's a solo performance, played on an old banjo, in an old style — in this case, an 1860's resonator banjo with a curious hybrid of two-finger picking and clawhammer. The long instrumental passages between verses have the smooth, flowing feel of flying — I guess a little like "Flying" from Magical Mystery Tour or John Hartford's song "Steam Powered Aereo Plane."

Thirty-seven years before this recording, when he was only 26 (and maybe less experienced in love, art, and death), he performed the song with the New Lost City Ramblers during a concert in Boston. A recording of it is available on 40 Years of Concert Performances.

To my ears, the earlier version is unusually "folkie" for the Ramblers, with the kind of bright, proud, collegiate sound you find in someone like the Kingston Trio. But being the Ramblers, of course, the musicianship is excellent, with a taste of Mike Seeger's mandolin skills and Tom Paley's firm, syncopated, snappy banjo picking.

The text is a little elusive. Who is the narrator talking to, a bird or a woman? In fact, the identity of the narrator seems to move around from character to character without warning — first a young man speaks (he's either a married woman's lover or a bird watcher), and then at the end, the bird (or the woman) talks back.

Despite the marchy, declarative sound and the shifting viewpoint, the lyrics are touching — a snapshot of youthful need and loss.

(Chorus)
Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing me your song.
Got a short time for to be here
And a long time to be gone.

Married woman, married woman,
Come and see what you done done
You have caused me for you to love you
Now your husband's done come.

(Chorus, then mandolin solo)

I'm a long ways from old Dixie
And my old Kentucky home,
And my father and mother are both dead,
Got no one to call my own.

(Chorus)

Little birdie, little birdie,
What makes you fly so high?
It's because I have a true little heart
And I do not care to die.
In the later Southern Banjo Sounds recording, Mike has removed the married woman and the husband, the father and mother, and Kentucky — and with them goes any hint of a story line. He leaves us, then, entirely in the realm of abstracted notions, the imagination, and the pure emotional force of the music. The lyrics have been stripped down to nothing but a conversation between singer and bird — between artist (or lover, or mortal) and what matters most to him. What used to be a youthful complaint in the Ramblers version is now an older man's contemplation.

I guess to take away a lesson from all this, you could do worse than the lesson taught in almost every writing workshop (and which, some day, even The Celestial Monochord might learn) — less is more.

 


Hollis Brown's South Dakota

Hollissmall

When Bob Dylan was 13 years old, one of the century's worst epidemics of black stem rust struck the upper midwest — particularly North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Up to 75% of the wheat harvest was lost to the disease, which blackens the crop with a powdery, sooty fungus. The economic consequences were severe, and the incident became legendary within the science of plant pathology. There's no way young Bob Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota wouldn't have heard about it.

But there were plenty of other diseases to blacken your crops, or kill your animals or you. I'm not an expert in any of them. Ergot can blacken wheat, barley, and other cereals and causes "bad blood" in cattle and humans — convulsions, gangrene, derangement. An invisible fungus in a common grass leads to tall fescue toxicosis, with grotesque symptoms like "fescue foot" and nasty birthing problems. Maybe Bob had heard of such diseases as well.

Dylan's "Ballad of Hollis Brown" is an exercise in empathy — its power is in the vividness of its vantage point within the head of a desperately bad-luck South Dakota farmer, and in the way the song dares you to turn away. Having lived in Minnesota for almost 20 years, or about as long as Dylan did before he moved to New York, and I can almost see how the young songwriter might have found the empathy to write such a convincing song.

Even in fairly cosmopolitan Minneapolis and St. Paul, farming is always a presence — to this day, grain mills and breweries (or their ruins) are lined up along the Mississippi River. They're a constant reminder that the cold climate used to limit the viable crops to stuff you could grind or brew, plus animal feed — wheat, barley, oats, alfalfa, sorghum, various kinds of hay. When you fill your gas tank in Minnesota, you have a good chance of being reminded that farmers have more options today, such as President Bush's switchgrass. Fully 200 of the nation's 600 ethanol ("E-85") gas pumps are in Minnesota.

A few years ago, a friend of mine moved from the University of Minnesota to New York — just like Dylan, you might say, only forty years later. On her first day in Manhattan, a shopkeeper mentioned the lack of rain, and my friend, forgetting herself, asked if the farmers upstate were suffering. The shopkeeper gave her a look as if she'd just evidenced a severe case of Tourette's Syndrome.

But that awareness and empathy, which so animated Dylan's "Hollis Brown" in 1964, has its limits. In fact, "Hollis Brown" is primarily about those limits. For that reason, it's convenient for Minnesotans that the song is set next door, in South Dakota.

South Dakota's leaders have worked to make the state's economy, and perhaps its conscience, better insulated from the booms and busts of farm life. In 1980, South Dakota was in desperate financial straits and took action by eliminating all laws against usury. Citibank, among other credit card companies, moved operations to the state almost immediately, leading to an explosion of growth in Sioux Falls and, some say, to a lot of South Dakota farmers declaring bankruptcy.

I happened to hear "Hollis Brown" on the same day the South Dakota governor (born the very year of the black stem rust epidemic) signed the bill designed to ban almost all abortions in the state, and ultimately, to overturn Roe v. Wade nationwide. That's what got me thinking about the song again. It seemed like yet another example of Dylan's uncanny foresight that he set the song in South Dakota even though, in 1964, Mississippi played the role in folksong that South Dakota now seems eager to play.

Dylan got the melody of Hollis Brown from "Pretty Polly," as Greil Marcus has pointed out. "Pretty Polly" is about a young man named Willie who murders his girlfriend for reasons which the song leaves completely unaddressed and which therefore seem to take on a menacing profundity. But as Rennie Sparks points out, at least one of Pretty Polly's 16th-century sources explains the motive simply and without ambiguity: She was pregnant and Willie doesn't want the birth to take place. At least partly, this is the origin of "Hollis Brown" — a story about the murder of a woman as a de facto abortion.

The best-known version of "Pretty Polly" (the version Rennie Sparks calls "cold as a cockroach") was recorded by Dock Boggs in 1927. In 1963, Boggs was rediscovered by Mike Seeger who then recorded and traveled extensively with him. In 1993, Bob Dylan made a studio recording of "Hollis Brown" accompanied by Mike Seeger playing banjo in Dock Boggs' very singular style. Really, the banjo part on the recording is basically just a sped-up version of Boggs' "Pretty Polly." The effect of the recording is to return "Hollis Brown" to its family tree, to explicitly situate it within its lineage.

In writing "Hollis Brown," then, Dylan surely wasn't looking ahead to 2006. He was looking back to the old Appalachian murder ballads, which the song so convincingly resembles. Marcus seems to claim the song was also inspired by a newspaper report of a mass murder in South Dakota, but I haven't been able to track that down (Charles Starkweather?). Perhaps the more inspiring history took place at Wounded Knee, South Dakota's most notorious mass murder and part of the Indian Wars in which Minnesota also played an unfortunate role. Given the history of this South Dakota farm — where the buffalo no longer roam — I wonder if Hollis Brown and his family aren't merely the most recent seven people to have died there.

It makes little sense to try to enlist "Hollis Brown" in a contemporary political fight. Or anyway, that's simply not The Celestial Monochord's schtick. Besides, the song is striking as an early hint of the full-blown poetic strategies Dylan was about to unleash — strategies that revolve around undecided meaning, meaning as an unfinished art for the listener to complete, meaning not as autocratic rule but as democratic process. To claim that "Hollis Brown" is somehow against South Dakota's new abortion law is to pretty much miss the song entirely.

Still, it's in the character of Dylan's art to keep coming around, over and over, asserting itself in new contexts. I think this uncanny relevence comes from reaching as deep into empathy as he can, and from his willingness to share with us the work of meaning. Or, maybe the more you're able to encounter the world with the past very much alive in you, the more you're able to anticipate the future. Maybe this is why Dylan continues to mystify, particularly in America where memory is notoriously short and empathy often runs thin.

 

Editor's Notes: The following is transcribed from the 1993 recording with Mike Seeger. Also, the coyote is the official state animal of South Dakota.

 

THE BALLAD OF HOLLIS BROWN

Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
Hollis Brown, he lived on the outside of town
With his wife and five children and his cabin breaking down

You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
You looked for work and money and you walked a ragged mile
Your children are so hungry, man, that they don't know how to smile

Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
Your babies' eyes look crazy there, a-tuggin' at your sleeve
You walk the floor and wonder why with every breath you breathe

The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
The rats have got your flour, bad blood it got your mare
Is there anyone that knows, is there anyone that cares?

You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
You prayed to the Lord above, "Oh please send you a friend"
Your empty pockets tell you that you ain't a-got no friend

Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your babies are crying louder, it's pounding on your brain
Your wife's screams are stabbin' you like the dirty drivin' rain

Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
Your grass is turning black, there's no water in your well
You spent your last lone dollar on seven shotgun shells

Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Way out in the wilderness a cold coyote calls
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that's hangin' on the wall

Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your brain is a-bleedin' and your legs can't seem to stand
Your eyes fix on the shotgun that you're holdin' in your hand

There's seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven breezes blowin' all around your cabin door
Seven shots ring out like the ocean's pounding roar

There's seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Seven people dead on a South Dakota farm
Somewheres in the distance there's seven new people born

 


Beyond The Anthology

 

Banjo_camp_rancher

A reader has asked:

I only recently discovered the Harry Smith Anthology but I'm already obsessed. Any further recomendations?
What a question! For the past eight years or so, my musical and intellectual life has revolved around my own discovery of the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music compiled and designed by Harry Smith. You could say The Celestial Monochord's own reason for being is to provide such "further recommendations."

But I also hesitate to answer. Much of the energy and diversity in a Folk Revival (which is what's happening today) seems to come from everybody struggling to find their own way. When I ask like-minded people how they found the old folk and blues music — and where they went from there — the answers almost always surprise me.

At the 2004 American Banjo Camp in Washington State, I met the guy pictured above (I can't recall his name). He was a rancher from arid eastern Washington near the Idaho pan handle. Several campers listened as he told about the time he traded his much sought-after banjo — an old Gibson Mastertone — for seventeen tons of hay. We all laughed and told him he'd been bamboozled. When the laughing died down, he said, "Do you know what seventeen tons of hay cost?" We all conceded that indeed we did not.

Anyway, point is, this guy seemed like a truly authentic folk character — The Genuine Article. So I asked him how he got into playing the banjo, hoping he'd say it was a family tradition going back centuries. Instead, he said "Well, when I was a kid, I was very heavily into the Rolling Stones. And their liner notes said they owed it all to Muddy Waters. So I got some Muddy Waters albums, and that got me into Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton records, and that got me to Harry Smith and Dock Boggs, which got me into bluegrass and ... well, twenty years later, here I am at Banjo Camp."

You just never know.

I'm happy to list some of the places I've been, but I wouldn't think of it as a road map. It's mind-boggling how much stuff is out there today, and how many paths there are into and out of The Anthology.

 

THE ANTHOLOGY

Harry_smith

Once you've memorized The Anthology and scoured its liner notes, you may want even more supporting material.

Anthology of American Folk Music is an invaluable but out-of-print book from Oak Publications. I found a hard copy from an online bookseller, but this electronic version at Tower of Babel will also do nicely.

Volume 4 was released in 2000 by Revenant, where it promptly went out of print (which is why I wish Folkways had done this, as nothing goes out of print there). Smith had long planned this fourth volume, but his attention span expired. It's wonderful — maybe you can find it used somewhere.

Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus. In a way, it's a book-length argument that the spirit of The Anthology deeply animates Dylan's vision — even more so AFTER he "went electric." I think you need to know this book to go any further. It's been renamed and revised, but I only know this first version.

When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell — especially Chapter Six, "Smith's Memory Theater." Cantwell's writing is often dense and difficult (in a postmodern cultural studies kind of way) but if you can figure out what he's saying, he'll change your life. I've returned to this beautiful chapter again and again over the years.

Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith — Selected Interviews is for the serious Smith-head. It's easy to forget that the highly honored and influential Anthology was put together by a border-line homeless weirdo whose main source of income was often small-time dope peddling. This collection of interviews is frustrating, hilarious, tedious, inspiring, illuminating. Mostly, it's a sad reminder that Allen Ginsberg was right about what becomes of the best minds of his (and your) generation.

 

THOSE ANTHOLOGIZED

Henry_thomas

Find out what ELSE the people on The Anthology recorded — that is, find out what Smith chose from to arrive at The Anthology. Here are my favorites so far.

The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain. The fact that I laid out the cash for this Bear Family box set suggests how important I think the Carter Family is (it sure as hell doesn't mean I've got the money to spend — you might want to go for some of the box sets put out by JSP instead). You know ... sometimes I walk down a crowded street and am suddenly saddened, thinking "Most of these people don't know about the Carter Family."

The Complete Blind Willie Johnson and its liner notes. Johnson is a gospel musician, so the central themes of his work go back to African American slavery, and back through all of Western literature, and ultimately to Jewish slavery and the Torah. This may be why his artistry can seem to take on layer upon layer upon layer. It's DEEP. Don't screw around with any "selected" collection — go for the Complete.

The Complete Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas. Despite their wild differences, Thomas is like Willie Johnson in that a Great Theme gives his art a depth that opens up beneath you and swallows you up. Born less than a decade after the abolition of slavery, his theme is travel — the road's promises of freedom and its ever-present threats of sudden terror.

Dock Boggs: His Folkways Years, 1963-1968. Boggs is like the greatest old Irish storyteller you'll ever meet — you never know whether to laugh or cry. These years that Dock Boggs and Mike Seeger spent together have a mythic status in my mind — like Dylan and Guthrie at Greystone Hospital, or like Johannes Kepler at Tycho Brahe's bedside. The difference is that Seeger made recordings.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford: Ballads, Banjo Tunes and Sacred Songs of Western North Carolina. After many weeks of listening exclusively to this, I stood on the shore of Lake Superior and tried an impersonation of Bascom Lamar Lunsford. To my surprise, what came out was a terrible Lunsford, but a great Bob Dylan. I think not only Dylan's voice, but his approach to imagery and meaning owes a large, mostly unrecognized debt to Lunsford.

Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962 documents one of the great moments of American music — Ralph Rinzler's simultaneous rediscovery of The Anthology's Clarence (Tom) Ashley, and his discovery of the young Doc Watson. The collection has the sound of music being reborn.

 

THE NEW LOST CITY RAMBLERS + ALAN LOMAX

Black_texicans

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a city, while hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like visiting that city and eating its gumbo. That's the big shift in which Harry Smith's Anthology participated. Technology and imagination allowed The Anthology, The New Lost City Ramblers, and Alan Lomax to put the true sound of real folk music right into people's ears — and it literally remade the world.

New Lost City Ramblers, 40 Years of Concert Performances. A great introduction to the Ramblers, with many stories told between songs, plenty of laughs, and brilliant musicianship. You can hear the guys grow to a venerable age right before your ears. Tracy Schwarz's introductory comments about "I've Always Been a Rambler" are alone worth the price.

New Lost City Ramblers: The Early Years, 1958-1962. Selections from the Folkways albums before Tom Paley left the group. Particularly surprising for these Patron Saints of Oldtime is all the bluegrass they played so capably. Particularly amusing are all the bawdy and politically questionable songs such as "Sales Tax on the Women" and "Sal's Got a Meatskin."

Out Standing in Their Field: The New Lost City Ramblers Volume II, 1963-1973. Selections from the albums recorded with Tracy Schartz in the line-up. I love the ever-timely Roger Miller song "Private John Q," the hilariously bad-news "Dear Okie," John Cohen's insanely shaggy shaggy-dog story "Automobile Trip Through Alabama," and the worryingly moving Freudian parable "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake." For more on the Ramblers see The New Lost Times.

Southern Banjo Sounds
Solo Oldtime Country Music
Third Annual Fairwell Reunion. I carry around these CDs by founding Rambler Mike Seeger like the American President's nuclear football — they're never far from my side. Mike has done more than any other living person to make the music of The Anthology a living reality in the hearts and hands of people like us. Like the Ramblers themselves, Mike is not a nostalgic impersonator of old records — he's very much a new thing, a creature of today and tomorrow.

The Alan Lomax Collection Sampler. A brilliant way to get a sense of what Alan Lomax preserved in his journeys through America, and during his McCarthy-era exile in Europe. A good third of these performances by longshoremen, patrons of taverns, and prisoners in work crews just don't seem possible — they're too beautiful and strange.

Deep River of Song: Black Texicans. The reason I choose these recordings of black Texans over all the other Lomax recordings I own is that they just happen to blow my mind so consistently. Lomax recordings have a startling immediacy — you feel like you're there watching the thing get recorded, every time you hear it. If I could sit down with you and spin some disks, I might just start you off with Butter Boy's freaky "Old Aunt Dinah."

 

INHERITORS OF THE ANTHOLOGY

Aereoplain

It's silly to list performers influenced by The Anthology, since just about everybody's world has been transformed by it, whether they know it or not. But here's a few people I happen to like, and who just seem to smell like Harry Smith — they have The Anthology and/or Lomax and/or the Ramblers written all over them.

There's a vast universe of incredible musicians who perform in old folk styles. They are world-class masters of their instruments, but when you see them in concert, you might be one of only a dozen people in the audience. It's insane, but ... hey, at least they do requests. I once told Ken Perlman that I've given his brilliant "Northern Banjo" CD to friends as gifts a few times. He gave me a puzzled look and said, "Where do you get them?" Lord help us all. I'm also crazy about Tom, Brad, and Alice, Mac Benford, and local boys Spider John Koerner, Charlie Parr, and Lonesome Dan Kase. (These last three are all fine songwriters, but I think of them as oldtime bluesmen.)

Then there's all the more popular (for better or worse) singer-songwriter acts who Smith-ites might like. Recordings I really like and tend to associate with the Anthology are Jolie Holland's Escondida, Gillian Welch's Time the Revelator and Revival, John Prine's John Prine and Diamonds in the Rough, John Hartford's albums, the great and unavailable Aereo-Plain and the very strange Mark Twang, Tom Waits' Mule Variations, and The Handsome Family's Through the Trees.

Also, for all that can be said about Bob Dylan's debt to The Anthology, Alan Lomax, and The New Lost City Ramblers, I think Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong are the Dylan albums that make the point most clearly. They're also among Dylan's best, it seems to me, and like his first album, they're heard far too rarely.

 


Careless Love

Dockboggs

The first version of Careless Love I knew was the one Dock Boggs did, recorded by Mike Seeger thirty-eight years ago today, just in time for Valentine's Day 1968.

This was near the end of Dock's life, and so near the end of his second music career — his "Revival" career. As I've discussed at length before, Mike Seeger writes that Dock loved this second career but also found it unsettling in some ways. It apparently brought back memories of his misspent youth and its moonshine-fueled violence. Everything Boggs played in this second career could be heard as confronting this past, and as exorcising his decades working the infernal coal mines.

Careless Love is a fine example. To match Dock's high, raspy, pinched voice, you'd have to sing and sob at the same time. Though the tempo is so fast — and accelerating — that Dock can barely get some of the lines sung clearly, he delivers every word as if speaking spontaneously. Like all great singers, his song feels immediate and new:

Oh when my money you could blow
Oh when my money you could blow, Lord Lord
When my money you could blow
You was always hanging around my door

I wish to the Lord this train would run
I wish to the Lord this train would run, Lord Lord
I wish to the Lord this train would run
To carry me back where I come from

Oh now my money's all spent and gone
Oh now my money's all spent and gone, Lord Lord
Oh now my money's all spent and gone
You pass my door and sing a song

But it's not one of Dock's graveyard songs — it's a party blues tune in good old open-G banjo tuning. In Boggs, I see the cliche of the theater's masks of tragedy and comedy taking on a new life — his music projects so many intense facial expressions.

Into this mix, add the fact that Dock apparently learned this song — and many others — from recordings of female blues singers of the 1920's. Oddly and movingly, Dock retains the original gender of the narrator:

Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes
Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes, Lord Lord
Oh momma, oh momma, yonder he goes
With a banded hat and a suit of clothes

Oh place this ring upon his hand
Oh place this ring upon his hand, Lord Lord
Oh place this ring upon his hand
To show the world he's a married man

Oh take this ring and put it on
Oh take this ring and put it on, Lord Lord
Oh take this ring and put it on
And think of me when I'm gone

If I had listened to what momma said
If I had listened to what momma said, Lord Lord
If I had listened to what momma said
I'd been at home in momma's bed

Given Careless Love's subject — people gathering around when you're doing well, dumping you when you're down — there's no wonder the song has drawn the attention of a lot of professional musicians, from Elvis and Janis Joplin to Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk. Since discovering the song through Boggs in 1999, at least two other versions have crept into my CD collection. Both are unbelievable in entirely separate ways — like Boggs' version, they make me want to sit you down and say "Listen to THIS!"

One is on the first bluegrass LP every released, also recorded by Mike Seeger. It's by Snuffy Jenkins, who inspired several generations of three-finger banjo players, including Earl Scruggs. His version is outlandishly cheerful and skilled, a virtuoso piece that Seeger describes as "much influenced by jazz, as if he were playing a trumpet or jazz guitar." Follow the links above to get the Smithsonian CDs that the Jenkins and Boggs versions come from (I highly recommend them) or get the individual tracks from Smithsonian Global Sound.

The other version in my CD collection is a duet between Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, who probably know a thing or two about careless love. The track is available only as a bootleg. In this version, Cash and Dylan are mostly screwing around. Dylan seems initially lost until Cash comes to the rescue by feeding Dylan a verse he can sink his teeth into as a tool for improvisation — a reason for the recording to exist:

Cash: Love, oh love, oh careless love
Gimme some love, oh love, oh careless love
Love, oh love, oh careless love
Won't you see what your love has done to me

Cash: Sing one now, Bob.

Dylan: Hmmm. Give me a verse.

Cash: I pass my window. [pause] Pass your window. [pause] Pass your window.

Dylan: Pass your window by.
I pass your door and your window too.
I pass your door and your window too.
Yes, I'm still very much in love with you.

Cash: Well, I pass your window, pass your door
You pass my window, pass my door
Woman, man, you pass by my window and you pass my door
But you'll never get by my forty-four

Cash: Sing one now, Bob.

Dylan: Well, I pass your door, I pass your gate.
Well, you pass my door and you pass my gate
Yes, you pass my door and you pass my gate
But you won't pass by my thirty-eight.

And so on. Louis Black describes the recording fairly well:

They do an overly long version of "Careless Love" ... One of the lines refers to a gun that Cash identifies first as a .44 caliber, then Dylan labels it a .38, and then a .45. By the end of the song, Cash has identified it as a .30-ought-6 (a rifle rather than a pistol). At one point, however, in order to hit a rhyme, Cash calls it a .41 (which doesn't exist). He's so pleased with this that, just a bit later, he again refers to a .41, and you can hear the absolute delight at this silliness in his voice. Especially noticeable throughout the recordings is just how sweet and lovely Dylan's singing and harmonies with Cash are.

Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 2)

(See also Part 1)


The New Lost City Ramblers and Harry Smith

Reading a song as sheet music is like looking at a roadmap of a place.  Hearing an actual recorded performance of a song is like is going to the place and eating its gumbo. Both the Ramblers and the Anthology grew out of this critical historical shift:

The locus of collecting, preserving, and disseminating folklore changed from the printed page to the electronic media. In the first half of the twentieth century, folklorists began to use disc, tape, wire, and film rather than writing to collect and preserve sung and played folk music, and a parallel documentation was carried out by the fledgling entertainment industry which inadvertently preserved some dying folkways among its ... phonograph records. [John Pankake, liner notes to NLCR: The Early Years, 1958-1962]

The Ramblers and the Anthology made this transformation matter desparately after WWII, when the LP brought the actual sound of America's folk musicians into the ears of young urban musicians.

Mike Seeger's ears were full of these sounds long before the Anthology. His parents had been turned on to Dock Boggs, for example, by Thomas Hart Benton in the early 1930's.  They turned away from the European museum pieces that meant "folk musc" to American intellectual leftists and musicologists. Instead, Mike grew up in a house with fresh field recordings by the likes of the Lomaxes, and with lively commercial recordings. Mike's dad even played for a time in Benton's hillbilly-style stringband (see Charles Seeger: A Life in American Music). But it is important to remember that this was not the mainstream American view of folk music until well after Moe Asch asked Harry Smith to compile his Anthology (with the intent of changing that mainstream view, I imagine). This explains the odd fact that when the Ramblers first appeared, a great many folk purists considered them "inauthentic."

Tom Paley, too, had anticipated the Anthology's message. In the late 1940's, he'd already been "an admired virtuoso on guitar and banjo," according to Philip Gura:

By the early 1950s, Paley and a few others began to steer an important segment of [East coast] urban musicians away from the then popular English ballads and political songs toward country music. The shift was crucial, for it distinguished Paley and Cohen from such proponents of the "art" folksong as Richard Dryer-Bennet and John Jacob Niles, on the one hand, and politically motivated artists like Pete Seeger and the Weavers, on the other.

Although Paley and Seeger knew some of the terrain covered by the Anthology, they very much welcomed it as a guide for themselves and their audience. Tom Paley:

When Folkways issued Harry Smith's Anthology, those three albums (six 12" LPs) hit us like thunderbolts ... The impact on those of us already interested in the music was terrific. [Harry Smith Tribute]

Interestingly, Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler (a protege of Mike Seeger's, I think it's fair to say) found much of the Rambler's material in Harry Smith's record collection, which Smith had sold to the New York Public Library (see Cantwell's book, When We Were Good).

The influence of the Anthology on John Cohen is even more clear-cut:

Raised in the suburbs where the Hit Parade (the top forty) dominated musical taste, I first became aware of a world outside my musical milieu when I heard the old commercial records on Harry Smith's Anthology, issued by Folkways in 1953. The Anthology, along with Alan Lomax's "Listen Tour Our Story, Mountain Frolic & Smoky Mountain Ballads," made me more receptive to the sounds that spawned bluegrass, Cajun, and rhythm & blues. It was very different from what filled the folk song marketplace of the 60s.

Over the years, Cohen has been a significant force in keeping the Anthology in the public imagination. For three decades, Cohen's 1969 interview with Harry Smith was just about the sole source of information about Smith that folk enthusiasts had available to them. Moe Asch reports that Cohen had been among those who had tried and failed to get the final "missing" volume of the Anthology released (see the 1997 notes to the Anthology).

In a certain sense, the Ramblers influenced the Anthology as much as the other way around by embodying its spirit, asserting its definitions of folk music, and putting it "in currency" among folk music enthusiasts. The Ramblers and the Anthology shared the same project of not only exhuming the old recordings, but resurrecting them — giving them new life in new contexts with new meanings and functions.

"Anthologizing" Dylan: The Ramblers Step

Bob Dylan didn't need the Anthology — he had the Ramblers. More importantly, before Dylan even showed up, the Folk Revival itself had already been crafted by the Anthology and the powerfully reenforcing efforts of the Ramblers. Let's go back to a quote from Dylan we saw earlier, in which he denies being strongly influenced by the Anthology:

... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to ... mostly you heard other performers. All those people [Griel Marcus is] talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan could sit at the feet of these musicians only because, in the years immediately before Dylan showed up in New York, devotees of the Anthology had gone south in search of the musicians it featured. At Mike Seeger's strong urging, Ralph Rinzler traveled in 1960 to the Union Grove, NC Fiddler's Convention where Rinzler's research into the Anthology enabled him to recognize a musician prominently featured on the Anthology, Clarence Ashley. Rinzler soon returned to record Ashley, at which point Ashley introduced Rinzler to a young, blind guitarist named Arthel Watson, who everyone called "Doc":

I had brought the six-record collection [the Anthology] with me to give to Ashley as a way of making clear to him why I understood his importance. Doc Watson and I reviewed the list of performers and songs on the album covers. To my astonisment, he was familiar with many of them, having heard the recordings and some of the performers themselves in his childhood and having known others as neighbors. [from Rinzler's liner notes to "Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley: The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960-1962"]

Thanks to Rinzler's apprenticeship to the necessary combination of Mike Seeger and the Anthology, Clarence Ashley and Dock Watson made their first appearance in Greenwich Village only a couple of months before Dylan arrived from Minneapolis.

The Ramblers were, according to Philip Gura, "among the first to bring on stage with them living exemplars of the southern folk tradition, a very significant innovation." It was Seeger, for example, who "rediscovered" Dock Boggs and brought him to New York in 1964. If I understand Gura correctly, the Ramblers spearheaded the founding of the New York Friends of Old Time Music, a major force in bringing Southern musicians to urban audiences. Gura's essay — particularly its last section — provides a stirring summary of the enormous impact the Ramblers had on generations of traditional musicians in the United States, and Dylan was simply part of the first such generation. The streets of Dylan's Greenwich Village were simply paved with what Greil Marcus calls "The Old Weird America."

I believe the lesson Dylan learned best of all in those early years was the startling modernism of the Anthology's form and (most surprisingly) its contents, which were reinforced, I think, by the particular styles and personalities of the Ramblers. Cohen's experience with the avant-garde clicked with the Anthology. The Ramblers, like Dylan, had a mischievous attitude toward their own identity, sometimes telling audiences that their music originated in a place called New Lost City and impishly calling one album "Tom Paley, John Cohen, and Mike Seeger Sing Songs of the New Lost City Ramblers." I especially recognize Dylan in John Pankake's description of John Cohen:

John Cohen was the groups's William Blake, a visionary role befitting his artist's traning and talents. In retrospect, he seemed ... most aware that the group was about something more than entertaining, was carving out some yet unknown place in history and inspiring many of its audience to become a new kind of musical community, and he often struggled to articulate this evovling vision both onstage and in the poetic essays he wrote for the Rambler's albums.

The Beat movement and the Folk Revival grew up together in Greenwich Village, and developed a kind of shared culture (see Robert Cantwell's When We Were Good). Dylan, of course, explored this intersection more brilliantly than anyone. His stage was certainly set by the Anthology, with its improvisational plan, its prescient racial integration, and its flat-out weirdness. But Dylan was not alone. According to Gura, Cohen "had financed his first field trip to Kentucky in 1959 by selling Life magazine his photographs of Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and others whom he had known in Greenwich Village." Somewhere, I recall a story in which the Ramblers ran across the street to a notorious Beat hangout to drag Ginsberg and others to see a concert by a Southern musician they'd brought to the city.

Finally, I simply hear the Ramblers in Dylan, most clearly in his first album, which I think remains shamefully underrated and too rarely heard. Although the Ramblers are often mistaken for simply imitating the old records, they instead deeply absorbed their spirit and idiom and then fearlessly created a new, vibrant art in response. Dylan's first album does nothing less. It comes off as pure Dylan in both its profound respect for tradition and (already) its almost reckless thrusting beyond tradition. It brings vividly to mind something John Cohen wrote in Sing Out! a full year before the album's release:

There are certain qualities we demand from the music. A sense of immediacy, of personal involvement, a sense of tradition as well as appreciation for that which carries things to a point where they can go no further ... a rejection of compromise ... an obsession ... with the song material and a sense of an event with every performance.


Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 1)

John Cohen's Dylan

(See also Part 2)


Greil Marcus did a fine and important thing with "Invisible Republic," a book which has overturned the way a lot of Bob Dylan's fans think of Dylan's career and music.

Rarely do Dylan fans still think of him as starting out as a folkie and then "going electric," leaving folk music behind in the transition. Marcus showed (very convincingly and much to our surprise) that the true influence of folk music on Dylan's imagination deepened, intensified, and reached a kind of maturity during and after Dylan's turn to rock and roll — instead of before.

However, at the center of his argument, Marcus places the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music edited by Harry Smith.

After about seven years trying to retrace and "fill in" this picture, I've decide that Marcus is right about folk music and Dylan's imagination, but he's only half right about Harry Smith and Dylan. Dylan did not learn Harry Smith's lessons directly from the Smith Anthology. He got them mostly second-hand — that is, he learned them, but mostly in translation. I'm now convinced that the single most important vehicle delivering Harry Smith's peculiar message to Dylan in those early days — the widest pipeline between Harry and Bob — was The New Lost City Ramblers. I'm also convinced that it matters, this missing what I think of as "The Ramblers Step."

Bob Dylan and Harry Smith

Like Harry Smith himself, the Anthology of American Folk Music was peculiar — perhaps even a bit insane. It was not a neutral, representative overview of folk music in America, but rather an idiosyncratic work of kaleidoscopic art that had little to do with folk music as it had previously been understood. Released in 1952, the Anthology was a collection of scarcely 20-year-old commercial recordings that few folklorists saw as folk music at all — one cut is even from a Hollywood singing-cowboy movie. But the music sounded (and still sounds) strange, wild and wooly, intensely immediate, and was presented with a modernist, mystic sense of collage that, today, is hard not to see as "Dylanesque."

Marcus' Invisible Republic established the Smith-Dylan connection, and the consequences are vast —but the details are fuzzy and shifting. Momentous but uncertain ... you can understand what made me want to confirm and describe the connection, sort of as a historian might. After years of trying, I'm come to feel that Marcus seems more persuasive the "bigger" he thinks — that is, he is a master of teasing out what matters, what has significance, what is at stake. Writing in this mode, he still has me entirely conviced of why the Anthology matters to Dylan, and why both should matter to you. But like a painting by Georges Seurat, the closer you get to the details, the more the picture breaks apart.

Really specific historical evidence that Dylan knew the Anthology well in the 1960's — that is, that it "was Bob Dylan's first true map" — is measly. Dylan did rewrite "Down on Penny's Farm" twice, and he recycled a line from "I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground" for "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." But both these Anthology songs were "covered" often by Greenwich Village street and coffeehouse singers. Admittedly, "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" does sound suspiciously like "Moonshiner's Dance" (except played as a march), but this would never stand up in court.

I'm sincerely sorry to admit it, but I think we have an intellectual obligation to take Dylan seriously when he told Rolling Stone (November 22, 2001):

[Marcus] makes way too much of that ... those recordings were around — that Harry Smith anthology — but that's not what everybody was listening to. Sure, there were all those songs. You could hear them at people's houses. In know in my case, I think Dave Van Ronk had that record ... but mostly you heard other performers. All those people he's talking about, you could hear the actual people singing those ballads. You could hear Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Dock Boggs, the Memphis Jug Band, Furry Lewis. You could see those people live and in person. They were around.

But Dylan was deeply and directly affected by the New Lost City Ramblers, and the NLCR, in turn, were powerfully infuenced by Harry Smith's Anthology. Just as importantly, in the years between the release of the Anthology and Dylan's arrival in Greenwich Village, the Ramblers were a major force in spreading, far and wide, the same kind of lessons taught by the Anthology, so that by the time Dylan showed up on the scene, the Folk Revival that shaped Dylan had itself been thoroughly "Anthologized." Happily, the historical evidence for these claims is hard, over-lapping, deep, and dense.

Bob Dylan and the New Lost City Ramblers

Clearly, the New Lost City Ramblers were crucial to the early development of Dylan's self-image as a performer. Among the earliest photos ever taken of Dylan as a young musician is a fine photo set by a member of the NLCR, John Cohen. In them, you see the young Dylan adopting various poses and personas, experimenting with his image, trying to please the eye of the Rambler's camera. Cohen was a student of the fine arts and a sophisticated image-maker — it had been John Cohen who had come up with the name "New Lost City Ramblers," and he was thus the first person among many to admire the ambiguous, ambivalent, self-referential irony in the band's name. A few years later, Dylan addressed Cohen directly in the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited (referring to, among other things, Cohen's apartment which had just been demolished to make room for the World Trade Center):

you are right john cohen — quazimodo was right — mozart was right … I cannot say the word eye any more … when I speak this word eye, it is as if I am speaking of somebody's eye that I faintly remember … there is no eye — there is only a series of mouths — long live the mouths — your rooftop — if you don't already know — has been demolished … eye is plasma & you are right about that too — you are lucky — you don't have to think about such things as eye & rooftops & quazimodo. [punctuation and capitalization are Dylan's]

As I mentioned in a previous post, Dylan dedicates a lenghty passage of his recent autobiography to the importance of Rambler Mike Seeger to Dylan's sense of himself as an artist:

He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart ... It's not as if he just played everyting well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them ... it dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns ... the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought.

Perhaps to partly repay this debt, Dylan later recorded a banjo-guitar duet with Seeger for one of Seeger's albums.

Invisible Republic points to "Henry Lee" as opening both the Anthology and World Gone Wrong, one of two great albums of old folksongs Dylan recorded in the early 1990's. But in the liner notes to World Gone Wrong, Dylan again points to a Rambler, Tom Paley, as the song's source instead of the Anthology. Indeed, World Gone Wrong's version bares very little resemblance to that on the Anthology, either lyrically, melodically, or emotionally. The two songs share the same subject matter, but they are different songs entirely — Dylan's version is Paley's.  (Actually, the song appeared on a 1965 album by Tom Paley and Peggy Seeger, Mike's sister.)  In confusing the Anthology's version with Paley's, Marcus has erased the Ramblers from the trail of evidence. Nevertheless, it's clear to me that Dylan, at least based on his word, wants to be associated with the Ramblers and is at best indifferent to his association with the Anthology.



See also Part 2




Math and Memory in New Lost City

Paley Cohen Seeger New Lost City Rambler

I finally bought The New Lost City Rambler's compilation of their later stuff, 1963-1973, which is titled "Out Standing in their Field." The cover art has a photo of them, you know ... out ... standing ... in their field. This is a very old joke, which is never funny — except in the case of the New Lost City Ramblers, where it really is funny.

One of the members of the band, John Cohen, tells another story that also isn't funny, but because it's the New Lost City Ramblers, it's really hilarious:

A few years ago at a literary gathering in New York City, I was introduced to a music publisher. He remembered the New Lost City Ramblers, he said, and then asked, "What was the band's big hit?"

When you read about the New Lost City Ramblers, you're told over and over that their influence has outdistanced their sales. But over the last half-dozen years or so, I've come to realize, with deepening amazement, just how true this is. It should always be written with exclamation points.

The band formed in 1958. By 1962, they had already broken up largely due to the fact that there was no money it. With three guys in the band (one of whom had a family to support), the math just didn't add up. They reconfigured, replacing one member, and proceeded to limp along, although for the vast majority of the last 43 years, they've been able to make more money individually being remembered as members of the NLCR than they could together performing as members of the NLCR. Of something like 30 original albums, I count about 5 that are in print as CD's.

The irony is this:

The Ramblers' influence on generations of young musicians who have followed in their footsteps is incalculable: it's difficult to imagine a revival of old-time music of any consequence without them. (MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide)

Jerry Garcia, Ry Cooder, and David Grisman learned to play from their albums. Bob Dylan's recent autobiography includes a thirteen-page ode dedicated to dramatizing the enormous impact that Rambler Mike Seeger had on the young Dylan:

Sometimes you know things have to change, are going to change, but you can only feel it ... But then something immediate happens and you're in another world, you jump into the unknown, have an instinctive understanding of it — you're set free ... Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door — something jerks it open and you're shoved in and your head has to go into a different place. Sometimes it takes a certain somebody to make you realize it. Mike Seeger had that affect on me.

There's little danger of over-stating the Rambler's influence — at least until somebody finally gets around to just stating it. Philip Gura, in a hair-raising essay in the journal Southern Culture, is one of the few who've tried. The essay leaves you with the impression that he may be over-stating the case. But is he? It's worth looking into the New Lost City Ramblers and giving it some thought. You may as well — they're out standing in their field.


"A Talk on the World" by Clyde Lewis



In April 1967, Clyde Lewis delivered a 3-minute history of the world to a group of maybe one or two dozen spectators gathered in the parking lot of the Union Grove Fiddler's Convention at Union Grove, North Carolina. Mike Seeger was there with his Nagra portable tape recorder to capture the talk, which is now available on Close To Home, an invaluable selection of Seeger's field recordings.

The atmosphere of the parking lot is intense in the 38-year-old recording. Seeger writes that the Fiddler's Convention,

was getting huge and more than a little wild in the late 1960s. It was quite a scene. As I recall, Bessie Jones stayed in the car, probably a wise decision for an elderly Black woman ... People were playing fiddles, banjos, and guitars all over the place, some drinking, others undoubtedly taking other substances ... somebody came and got me, saying "There's somebody over here you need to hear."
Lewis' Talk on the World needs no commentary, but after several years of frequent listening, some exorcism would do me good. It's mesmerizing, in part because my father would have loved this recording more than any other I own. In the late sixties, he was delivering very similar speaches to Knights of Columbus audiences across Illinois.

Lewis begins (I should add that there are no typos in what follows):
My subject for this evening am entitled, "Whyfore, Wherefore, and How Come." But before I starts to commence to begin, there am some mighty important trifles that must be took into sideration before the main subject of the discourse am discoursed on this here elevated platform.
The character Lewis is playing stepped right out of a medicine show, like an overstuffed small-town mayor, a holiness preacher, a snake-oil salesman, or Shakespeare's Polonius. Lewis mainly lampoons the high-falutin' ways of the excessively educated and their obsession, especially at the time, with the idea of progress.

The main target for the Talk on the World is celestial navigation, long the branch of astronomy most useful to navies and corporations. Europe's global empires were built on it.
The world were always round like an apple. This epileptyc shape on account on of the axil what done perperates through the middle of the center in congestion with the latitude of the horizontal. Now then, when the solar plexus of the sun's violet rays congregate on the middle of the bisection, there am set in motion the magnetic conundrum ...
I can't help but be reminded that Lewis and his Appalachian audience — their world so deeply and brutally defined by the mining industry — know very well that the benefits of science and technology are not always evenly shared:
And in the year fourteen and ninety-two AD (AD, understand, mean After Dark), they discovered Columbus, Ohio. That's where the dark ages of history done stopped. Christmas [Columbus] done leave all his men in Ohio, he scoots back to the Queen of Spain, she done tapped him on the head with a sword and made him a knight. The men what stayed in Ohio got tapped on the head with swords and was made angels.
Lewis even reminds the attendees of this Fiddler's Convention of the dubious benefits of modern media technology:
And did you ever stop to think what a great invention the raido am to the chromonology and the welfare of the universe? Sure am a coppious invention. All you got to did am sit right at home and revolvitate the dials and the music am preambilated through the atmosphere and comes right down the chimbley onto your Aunt Emma.
It's clear from the editing of the piece that Seeger has more of Lewis and that day in Union Grove than he's provided on Close To Home, and I rack my brains trying to think of a way to get at those tapes.