Most pop culture watchers only know a couple of things about the post World War II folk music revival. First, Joan Baez is cool, if more than a little old-fashioned. Second, those folkies went ballistic when Bob Dylan brought rock ‘n’ roll to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, booing him in their frustration. Of course, most also know Christopher Guest’s scathing send-up of aging ‘60s balladeers, A Mighty Wind.
This largely negative image mirrors a scholarly view of the folk boom. The commercial viability of folk for those few years in the early-‘60s has tainted it, suggested an image of cultural plunderers who created slick, overproduced versions of traditional tunes. The story told is one of decline and fall. The authentic musical traditions of the folk became the Weavers and then the folk power-pop of Peter, Paul and Mary.
If generally unflattering snapshots such as these are your image of the post war folk revival, Ray Allen’s Gone to the Country will help you understand the motivations and complications of this movement. Allen has written a close history of the New Lost City Ramblers, folk music purists who eschewed pop folk in favor of a deeply traditional style. Their struggle for authenticity even carried over into their lifestyle, with some members of the band even doing farming on the side. Deeply countercultural, while oddly apolitical, the New Lost City Ramblers provide a window into a largely forgotten, but highly influential, side to American folk music.
Originally made up of Mike Seeger (Pete Seeger’s half-brother), Tom Paley and John Cohen, the New Lost City Ramblers found a place for themselves within the larger folk revival. While many of the folk revivalists attempted to scrub traditional tunes of their rough edge and turn them into top 40 singles, they were purists who never lost their devotion to frailing the banjo and the fingerpicking guitar styles of the southern mountains. Never reaching the mega-stardom of their better known peers, they played college campuses, promoted the work of traditional musicians like Roscoe Holcomb and the Stanley Brothers, and recorded albums that became classics for collectors of traditionalist music.
Allen’s history thoughtfully explores the cultural concerns that lie behind terms like “folk revivalist”, “traditionalist” and, most importantly, the idea of authenticity in relation to commercial music. The quest for authenticity guided the New Lost City Rambler’s self-understanding, a problematic idea for city boys attempting to replicate the sounds of rural folk from another era.
Yet it was an idea that they pursued aggressively. Rather than learning folk tunes by swapping with other singers or pulling them from popular songbooks, the New Lost City Ramblers’ search for a sound true to the music led them to original Library of Congress recordings and fieldwork in Appalachia itself. Soon they would seek to become mediators of traditional music for their fellow urbanites, bringing traditional musicians to university towns and coffee houses, often with mixed results.
Allen also examines, though perhaps in not enough depth, the role of politics in the group’s public and private lives. Folk music, especially through Baez and Pete Seeger drew on the tradition of “the singing left” of the ‘30s, using traditional tunes, especially gospel, as anthems for the civil right and eventually the anti-war movement.
The New Lost City Ramblers represent an alternative approach. Only Tom Paley seems to have been consistently interested in progressive politics and, at least according to his own account, it was this that, in part, led to his leaving the band in 1962. Seeger and Cohen, at least in Allen’s reading, had little problem playing for segregated audiences in their brief visits to the South. Allen suggests at points that the New Lost City Ramblers may have romanticized the traditional cultures whose music they played, muting them on politics. This is the dark side of authenticity and it would have been interesting and useful to hear more from Allen about why they took this somewhat reactionary path.
Allen chooses instead to focus on the New Lost City Rambler’s quest for, and understanding of, authentic folk music. Does the use of traditional instruments and tunes create an anti-commercial style, faithful to an original Americana? Or is “real” folk music only music for the enclave, automatically spoiled when taken out of its original, usually rural context?
These are not theoretical questions for ethnomusicologists. Allen points out that NEA grant guidelines for their Folk Arts guidelines emphasize a rarefied and reified notion of “authenticity”. Tracey Schwarz failed to get a NEA grant to study Cajun music in the ‘80s since the parameters of such grants require that they be awarded to “community-based traditionalists”. Anxiety over the categories of the real versus the inauthentic, Allen shows, are at the heart of this discussion. Maybe they are at the heart of broader discussion of what makes music worth listening to.
Allen is a gifted writer with a talent for creating a precise and highly detailed narrative that never becomes obscure. At moments, this is a book that feels primarily like a read for the New Lost City Rambler’s fan club, drenched as it is in rather minute details about touring, the experience of making each album, and a close examination of their critical reception. Fortunately, the fluidity of Allen’s prose and straightforward story-telling skills are likely to make it a book for anyone interested in the history of American music.
There are times when Allen could have easily argued the importance of his topic more strongly. He notes, very briefly, the importance of the New Lost City Ramblers on a young Bob Dylan but never expands on this point. We also learn that the band shared a stage with Maybelle Carter and even her son-in-law Johnny Cash, both of whom they greatly admired.
The failure to further explore these connections, or even bring them forward very much is his discussion, seems a missed opportunity to explore links between the purist wing of the folk revival and the country/rock/blues styles that would influence Cash, Dylan and the next 40 years of American music. The careers of both make a case for the purist wing triumphing over the more radio-friendly folk music that seemed ascendant in the early-‘60s.
Named for one of the New Lost City Rambler’s best-known albums, Gone to the Country will make you eager to rediscover at least an element of America’s folk revival, that element most interested in the folk themselves. When one of the best albums of the last decade was Dylan’s Love and Theft and the new release of the Decemberist’s The King is Dead, which was recorded in a barn and is heavily influenced by British folk music, the mission of the New Lost City Ramblers seems less a lost cause than a rediscovered world.