skip navigation  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
AFC Logo The American Folklife Center
A - Z Index
 home >> event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> lecture flyer for ray allen 2011

The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

September 8 , 2011 Event Flyer

Passing for Traditional:
The New Lost City Ramblers and Folk Music Authenticity

Presented by Ray Allen

2011 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Ray Allen

The self-conscious revival of traditional music among urban
Americans that peaked in the postwar years was a tremendously
complex social phenomenon not easily reducible to a single
category of music, a particular political ideology, a common set of
values, or even a shared cultural perspective. The postwar folk
music revival was at once a commercial boom, a protest song
movement, a rebellion by disillusioned college students, a search
for cultural roots, a D.I.Y. approach to homemade music, and
more. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Americans
swooned to (and purchased) the sounds of sweet-crooning
commercial folk groups like the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, and
Peter, Paul and Mary. Drawn to music they perceived to be more
genuinely humane than the pop culture pap of the late 1950s,
thousands of college students across the country picked up guitars
and banjos to sing and socialize with kindred spirits. A small but
vocal contingency embraced the legacy of the old singing left,
writing their own songs of significance as the turmoil of the civil
rights movement and the Vietnam War engulfed the country. As
the idealism of the 1960s turned into the malaise of the 1970s,
the idea of homegrown music became increasingly appealing to
those seeking lifestyles on the edges of conventional society.

The folk revival spawned endless debates over exactly what constituted folk music, who should play it, and how it should be played. It was this last question that became a central concern for those musicians who would come to be known as the "purist," "traditional," or "neo-ethnic" camp of the movement. These were the city players who were simply mesmerized by the sounds of traditional music and the exotic cultures and bygone eras those sounds evoked. The shuffle of an old-timey fiddle, the brush and pluck of a frailed banjo, the rolling arpeggios of a bluesy, finger-picked guitar, the reckless abandon of a mountain-string-band breakdown, and the high lonesome wail of a backwoods balladeer or a bluegrass vocal duet were transformative when initially heard by city musicians like the New Lost City Ramblers.

Formed in 1958 by Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley (replaced in 1962 by Tracy Schwarz), the trio introduced northern urban audiences to what they judged to be authentic southern folk traditions at a time when the urban revival was dominated by popular and artsy interpreters of folk music. The three musicians embodied the paradoxes of America's urban folk music revival. All were born in New York City, and as youngsters had no direct personal contact with the rural southern communities whose music would captivate them as adults. Yet each experienced the sounds of southern country music at an early age. Mike Seeger (1933-2009), the son of the erudite musicologist Charles Seeger and ultra-modernist composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, was reared on folk music field recordings that his mother transcribed and his family sang in their home in suburban Washington. John Cohen (b. 1932), a native of Queens and suburban Long Island, grew up hearing folk music at leftist Catskill summer camps, listened to traditional country records as a high school student, and helped organize hoots at Yale where he received his BFA and MFA degrees in art and photography. Bronx-born Tom Paley (b. 1928) collected old 78 rpm country and blues records and followed Woody Guthrie around before entering graduate school at Yale to study mathematics. A fourth Rambler, Tracy Schwarz (b. 1938), would replace Paley in 1962. The son of an investment banker and a classically trained pianist, he tuned in late-night country radio stations from his homes in suburban New Jersey and Connecticut. Though city born and suburban bred, the Ramblers would eventually immerse themselves in the sounds of traditional southern music, initially through recordings and later through visits south to meet, record, and commune with rural artists

Their early recordings on Folkways Records and live appearances at folk festivals and college campuses propelled the Ramblers' rise to prominence as the preeminent northern interpreters of old-time string-band and early bluegrass music. Their attempts to faithfully replicate southern folk styles and to champion a group of rural artists who they believed embodied a genuine folk sensibility opened up critical debates over the nature of so-called "authentic" folk expression, eventually putting them at odds with academic and public sector folklorists.

The Ramblers story demands a rethinking of "folk revivals" and "authenticity," concepts that too often diminish the validity of certain musical practices. Self-conscious reinvigoration and transformation can be natural components of dynamic music cultures, and the interactions of community insiders and outsiders are often necessary to maintain the vitality of local music traditions. Such a reorientation promises to enhance our understanding of regional and ethnic music cultures and their place in contemporary U.S. society, and to more fully appreciate musicians and cultural activists such as the Ramblers who sought to connect worlds that were eagerly waiting to discover one another.

Ray Allen
Director, American Studies Program
Conservatory of Music
Brooklyn College, CUNY

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


  Back to Top


 home >> event archive >> botkin lecture archive >> lecture flyer for ray allen 2011

A - Z Index
  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
   March 30, 2012
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:
Ask a Librarian