The following from my Albuquerque friend, Wayne Shrubsall:
Wayne Shrubsall . . . Indiana born and bred, I became interested in Southern music via pop folk in 1959; from the Kingston Trio, I began listening to the Weavers, and then to Pete Seeger (though I was not as far left as he) and Erik Darling (though I was not as far right as he). But in 1964, while a student at Ball State University, I attended a concert at Earlham University in Richmond. I had been there in 1962 to hear Joan Baez, then in 1963 to hear Pete Seeger. The New Lost City Ramblers were the draw in 1964. In a way, these concerts signaled a progressive desire I was developing for music closer to what is now referred to as folk music.
The performers at Earlham appeared in a large auditorium, but we sat on the floor about four feet from the Ramblers, as we had for the Pete Seeger concert a year earlier. The Ramblers were introduced and took the stage. There were John Cohen on stage left, playing guitar and loudly tapping time with his right foot; Mike Seeger in the middle, playing fiddle; and Tracy Schwarz, having replaced Tom Paley, playing second guitar. In fact, they all beat time with their feet, and they tapped in perfect unison. They stood in a semi-circle, used one mike, and looked right at the audience with no affectation I could discern. Of course, their instrumentation changed throughout the performance, which appealed to me too.
Their first number, “Three Men Went a-Hunting,” snapped me to attention. This was not “MTA” in a frat-boy format, not “Barbara Allen” in a rich soprano art-song voice, not “We Shall Overcome” sung with revolutionary sincerity to white folks at a Quaker college. This was music that followed a tradition Indiana folks did not often hear. Then they did a variety of pieces they had recorded over the previous six years, including odd (for my whitebread sensibility at the time) pieces using musical modes I did not know existed.
After I was infatuated by their music, it was a short step to Mike’s involvement with bluegrass, and discovering the Country Gentlemen album Mike Seeger helped produce, and hearing the Strange Creek Singers, and seeing Mike as a soloist at festivals where I appeared with Peter Feldmann as the Old Time Band on the West Coast. At the San Diego Normal Heights folk festival around 1997, I heard Mike do his version of Tom Ashley’s “Walking Boss,” still one of my favorites; Mike played it on a low-tuned gourd banjo.
Mike and I chatted now and then; he came to John Cohen’s son’s wedding here in Albuquerque, and we played a bit at the wedding reception. Then the Ramblers appeared at the Santa Fe Folk Festival a few years ago, and they were still in fine form, blowing the audience away with a re-worked “Three Men Went a-Hunting.” Mike was ill then, but how ill I did not know.
The interesting thing was that they did not heavily politicize music; they just played it, to let it make its own point, whatever the point might be. After the Earlham concert, I asked them if they had much to do with “protest” songs. John and Mike replied simply that because they had other interests musically, they left protest stuff alone. In an era, the 1960s when I came of age, where that Marxist-oriented Popular Front music was a growing political force, it was a truly refreshing response.
Old-timey and bluegrass AND folksong collecting owe much to Mike and John and Tracy. When the Ramblers played old-timey and bluegrass, it was “right” only because it employed Southern traditions as well as anyone NOT a Southerner could. Their collecting saved traditions nearly lost in the industrial age. Best of all, their music saved me from a life of boundaries, boundaries as narrow as Indiana.