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Exclusive First Listen: New Lost City Ramblers

At a time of modern American music commemorations — the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival — it's easy for some milestones to go unnoticed, even though they're an essential part of the narrative. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of folk music revivalists The New Lost City Ramblers, who introduced a swath of American music traditions to new audiences and preserved them for generations to come.

New York-area musicians Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tom Paley (replaced in 1962 by Tracy Schwarz) formed the Ramblers in 1958. What differentiated the Ramblers from the commercial folk groups was their interest in its origins. They were tireless chroniclers and ambassadors of vernacular music, the blues, bluegrass and Cajun music of rural America. Before he joined the Ramblers, Seeger had already recorded an anthology of banjo music and captured field recordings of artists such as Dock Boggs and The Lilly Brothers. Cohen traveled eastern Kentucky and brought back audio and film recordings of Roscoe Holcomb. Schwarz, after an inspiring meeting with Louisiana's Dewey Balfa, went on to release instructional records of Cajun fiddle and accordion.

As performers, they emulated their sources with joy, respect and expert instrumentation. Their genuine old-time syntax revitalized young urban audiences tired of commercialized pop, and influenced other musicians: Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy have all cited the Ramblers as a source of inspiration.

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings celebrates 50 years of The New Lost City Ramblers with Where Do You Come From? Where Do You Go? — a three-disc box set of core performances and field recordings. The set will be released Aug. 25, 2009, but with Mike Seeger's recent passing on Aug. 7, it takes unexpected meaning as a tribute to his personal legacy.

We are proud to offer the entire first disc of the trilogy, featuring 26 songs by the original lineup, culled from 12 albums recorded for Folkways Records between 1958 and 1962. And in the inquisitive and didactic spirit of the Ramblers, we include the extensive liner notes with essays and detailed track annotations. It is an invitation to explore further the New Lost City Ramblers catalog, the heart and history of traditional American music and the multitude of voices who contributed to its sound — voices that may have never been heard had the band not picked up its tape recorders and instruments.

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