Math and Memory in Las Vegas
Harry Smith, Bob Dylan, and
"The Ramblers Step" (Part 1)

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.