(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.