New Lost City Ramblers,
40 Years of Concert Performances
(Rounder, 2001)

If you experienced the folk revival of the late '50s/early '60s and want to relive part of it, or if you've wondered just what it was all about, here's a two-disc set that will help to fill you in. The New Lost City Ramblers, made up of John Cohen, Tracy Schwarz (who replaced Tom Paley in 1962) and Mike Seeger, were among the most authentic of the folk singers of the day, most of whom were, let's face it, pretty dull. The Ramblers, however, were exciting because they played their instruments (guitar, fiddle, autoharp, banjo, mandolin, harmonica and more) instead of just using them for vocal backup, and rather than getting themselves stuck in the English folk song tradition, they went back to America's country roots, blending old-time and bluegrass into a true American folk tradition, both instrumental and vocal. Their fast-pickin' wall of sound must have opened up the ears of young music fans whose idea of folk music was "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and the Kingston Trio's "Tom Dooley."

This is a collection of 48 tunes and songs, 16 of which are previously unreleased, so there will be plenty of new material for even the most dedicated Ramblers fan. The recordings, all of them live, go from a 1958 radio show to a 1998 New York City high school performance, but all of it is powerful and driving music, showing that the Ramblers have never lost their touch.

The track list reads like a top 40 list of old-time and country roots music: Soldier's Joy, Down in the Willow (Garden), Brown's Ferry Blues, Little Birdie, Darling Corey, Poor Ellen Smith, Cackling Hen, Worried Man Blues, The Unquiet Grave, Groundhog, Orange Blossom Special, Little Maggie, Arkansas Traveler, Sally Goodin, Sourwood Mountain, Turkey in the Straw, Old Joe Clark, and on and on. As such it would make a great gift for young new bluegrass and old-time players, who could get a crash course in the classics over the course of this two hours and 25 minutes of music. And since the Ramblers were also folk revivalists, a lot of the versions here are nearly identical to the old recorded originals, except for the fact that they're played and sung much better. In fact, if I were teaching a course called Bluegrass/Old Time 101, this would definitely be the first item on the syllabus.

Another benefit of these being live (as opposed to studio) recordings, is that the spirit of the Ramblers comes through all the more. You'll hear introductions and patter, and the band members playing with and off of one another. That in itself can take the place of my lecture on Band/Audience Interaction. The 28-page booklet nicely annotates the numbers, giving the original source as well as recording information on the versions offered here.

Still, for all the musical education a listener can get out of this set, the prime reason for buying it is that it's great fun. This is wildly contagious music, and you'll find it impossible not to move while you're listening. It's a perfect example of why this type of music has survived and stayed strong for all these years. The New Lost City Ramblers did folk music a great service by reviving these grand old songs and tunes and performing them so brilliantly, and this new release of these classics makes it possible to share in the joy all over again.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 30 May 2002

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