The New Lost City Ramblers: 50 Years – Interview with John Cohen & Tom Paley

The New Lost City Ramblers (John Cohen, Mike Seeger & Tom Paley) formed as a band in 1958, and this year marks their 50th anniversary.  In fact, this interview, recorded on September 13th, 2008, was 50 years to the day after their first concert, held on September 13th, 1958 at a chapter hall of Carnegie Hall.  On today’s show I speak with John Cohen and Tom Paley about their memories of the birth of the band, how it happened, how they met, began playing together, chose the name, got their sound, made recordings and started touring.  John and Tom don’t remember it quite the same way, but some where in there lies the truth!

Tom left the band in 1962 and moved to Europe where he still lives.  But he and John were both in New York where they played together at the “11th Annual Park Slope Bluegrass & Old-Time Jamboree” at the Society for Ethical Culture.  I was able to catch up with them there and we sat in the basement and talked.

The New Lost City Ramblers have been a tremendously influential band in the folk revival of the last 50 years as well as in the parallel revival of interest in old-time string band music.  Their enthusiasm for and devotion to the old-time sound changed the debate in the folk music world of the 1950’s and 60’s and made musicians and listeners take a much deeper and nuanced listen to the rural sounds they were hearing on records.  The NLCR made urban, non-traditionally schooled musicians approaching the material, aware of not the just songs, but the style and challenged them to grapple with that issue.  This is still a serious question and one that is very relevant today.
(Read the rest of my essay below, plus track information for the today’s show)

The Ramblers were and are a highly skilled string band, and through their concerts and records were able to share songs in a dynamic way with audience after audience.  The members of the NLCR made deep researches into the world of folk music, listening, reading, talking with researchers and fieldworkers and gathering information in ways that few others were in a position to do.  Everybody needs a good editor and the NLCR were in many ways the editors of the folk revival, shaping the narrative of material being performed, listened to and learned from.   Countless musicians have not only enjoyed and learned from their records, but used them as a road map back into the trove of material from which they were drawn.

John Cohen and Mike Seeger of the The New Lost City Ramblers have also done extensive field work of their own, recording and promoting musicians such as Roscoe Holcomb, Doc Boggs, Cousin Emmy and many others.  The NLCR have also had a profound impact on the world of popular music through their influence on Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and many other popular music groups.

Tracks played on today’s show:

New Lost Train Blues – Mainer’s Mountaineers
Cumberland Gap – NLCR, There Ain’t No Way Out
Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down – NLCR, Early Years 1958-62
Brown’s Ferry Blues – NLCR, 40 Years of Concert Recordings Disc 1
Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel – NLCR, Friends of Old Time Music Disc, 2
When First Unto This Country- NLCR, Early Years 1958-62
John Brown’s Dream – NLCR, Classic Old-Time on Folkways
Old Joe Bone – NLCR, 40 Years of Concert Recordings Disc 2
Leaving Home – Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers
Sail Away Ladies – Uncle Dave Macon & the Fruit Jar Drinkers
East Virginia Blues – The Carter Family
Run Mountain – Mainer’s Mountaineers
Backup & Push/Rubber Dolly – Skillet Lickers
Likes Likker Better Than Me – Ephraim Woodie & the Henpecked Husbands / The Woodie Brothers
The House Carpenter – Clarence Ashley
Ladies on the Steamboat – Burnett & Rutherford

John Cohen and Tom Paley cited these bands as their primary influences in the sound of the band:

Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers
J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers
Uncle Dave Macon & The Fruit Jar Drinkers / McGhee Brothers
The Skillet Lickers
The Carter Family

To that primary list I would add a number of bands who they cited in their early liner notes.  This list may give you some idea of the scope of their listening and learning:

Ernest Stoneman & Family
Grayson & Whitter
The Delmore Brothers
Clarence Ashley/The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers/Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots/The Carolina Tar Heels
Fiddlin’ John Carson
Al Hopkins & the Hill Billies / Buckle Busters
“Eck” Robertson
The Monroe Brothers
Chris Buchillion
The Dixon Brothers
The Carlisle Brothers
Frank Blevins & the Tar Heel Rattlers
Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers
Mississippi John Hurt
Kelly Harrell
The Leake County Revelers
The Carolina Buddies
The Georgia Crackers
Doc Boggs
Blind Alfred Reed
The Hickory Nuts
The Carter Brothers
Fiddlin’ Powers & Family
Woodie Brothers
Woody Guthrie
Short Buckle Roark & Family
Dyke’s Magic City Entertainers
Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers
Ephraim Woodie & the Henpecked Husbands
Fisher Hendley & His Aristocratic Pigs

This list is definitely incomplete, and exludes the names of many of the Library of Congress recordings they listened to.  I really recommend reading the liner notes to their albums. To download the liner notes for the NLCR’s first four albums, CLICK HERE.  To see them all go to- and search for New Lost City Ramblers.
(photo E. Smith)
John Cohen & Tom Paley rehearse for their gig on the 50th anniversary of the first gig of the New Lost City Ramblers back in 1958

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6 Responses to “The New Lost City Ramblers: 50 Years – Interview with John Cohen & Tom Paley”

  1. Gadaya Says:

    The Jewbilly Jubilee… that would have been a great name too…

  2. Don Mallow Says:

    This is Don Mallow writing…It was at my apartment on Chapel Street in New Haven that John Cohen speaks about… The place was packed…floor, window sills, bookshelves covered with people.. there was someone sitting on top of the refrigerator… I believe it was 1952, I still had my guitar (though I did not play) which I swapped in ’53 for a bicycle to pedal in Europe that summer…
    It’s good to hear John’s voice and that he remembers that long ago event..It was the start of the hootinanies at Yale.

  3. Will Spires Says:

    I think we can get along without the “Jewbilly Jubilee,” Gadaya, if I don’t err by dignifying your suggestion with comment.

  4. Bang gia dich vu dang tin rao vat Doc quyen 2011 Says:

    I will immediately clutch your rss as I can’t in finding your e-mail subscription link or e-newsletter service. Do you have any? Kindly let me realize in order that I could subscribe. Thanks.

  5. Tanne Faulk Ryland Says:

    Can’t find way to listen to this interview. What’s the process to be able to listen? My mother was Hally Wood. I was raised around people & music like this & am interested in hearing this material. Thank you for your time & attention.

  6. Tanne Faulk Ryland Says:

    Found it. Thanks a mill.

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