Exclusive Listen: The Dust Busters with John Cohen on Smithsonian Folkways

Here at No Depression we hear all the time about music being passed on from generation to generation, but there's something really exciting about actually watching this happen. This is part of the wonderful story behind Smithsonian Folkways' album, Old Man Below, from The Dust Busters with John Cohen. It's a story that started 50 years ago when a young man from Queens traveled South to Hazard, Kentucky and met a local construction worker whose other-worldly singing would go on to form the archetype of Southern old-time music. When John Cohen met Roscoe Holcomb in that little Kentucky town, he was fresh off the first album from his band the New Lost City Ramblers, which he'd formed with friends Mike Seeger and Tom Paley. The Ramblers were informed by the old 78s uncovered by iconoclastic genius Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music. And unlike the Kingston Trio, the Ramblers refused to sanitize this music, playing with a reverence that gradually turned into simple joy as the group learned how to integrate this regional music into their lives on the national stage. Gradually, this unexplainable love for the eerie depths of American folk music created new communities across the US and the world and spread across generations. But the key moment in all of this was that meeting with Roscoe Holcomb, and the subsequent trips, as Cohen moved from imitating the sounds he heard on old 78s to learning directly from someone of another generation, another time, soaking up memories and stories and jokes and songs in Holcomb's home.

Flash forward to 2008, and the story repeats itself. Three young men from Brooklyn meet John Cohen, a fellow New Yorker so changed by his lifetime of dedication to Southern old-time music that he has become the kind of elder master musician he used to trek through the Appalachian mountains to find. Like John, the Dust Busters first came about from a mutual love of the old 78 recordings of American folk music. They're avid 78 collectors, and singer/guitar/banjo player Eli Smith runs a radio show in Brooklyn in order to play his latest finds. Fiddler/singer Craig Judelman grew up in Seattle, but grew up closely tied to klezmer and old-time music communities. Banjo player/guitarist/singer Walker Shepard is the enigma of the group, singing with a voice impossibly old, at times indistinguishable from Cohen's voice, and so closely informed by the Southern inflections of the old 78s that you start to feel you're listening to an old recording. But while the Dust Busters came out of a love for 78s, they were nurtured in real communities of old-time music makers, hanging out with Peter Stampfel and Alice Gerrard, and learning fiddle tunes at old-time campouts and jam circles. Like Cohen, they adapted their lives to the music, and this is why their music sounds so compelling. Like their friend and compatriot, Frank Fairfield (who guests on this album on an unsual version of Arkansas Traveller), they tap into the visceral rawness of the music. On their new album Old Man Below (this is their third album and second with John Cohen), the Dust Busters sound remarkably like the early New Lost City Ramblers, tumbling over each other in their excitement to get the song out, and filling their albums with up to 20 different songs, all sourced from rare finds or meetings.

If the music on the new album sounds rough and tumble, or somewhat off-kilter, it's because you're listening to a process. You're listening to young men looking for elders, looking for community, and ultimately looking for their own roots. You're listening to a generation passing its music on to another generation, and you're listening to the generations that came before and will come after.

We are proud to present an Exclusive Listen to the Dust Busters with John Cohen album, Old Man Below. It'll be up for a week until the release date on August 14, so rev up your computers and grab your headphones. If you like the music, pick it up at your local record store or online!



Disclaimer: Via Hearth Music, we've worked as publicists for both Smithsonian Folkways and the Dust Busters. We believe in Folkways and their mission, and we've been fans of The Dust Busters for a while. We are NOT currently working with either group and we write this just to showcase music we enjoy.

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Tags: Alice Gerrard, Craig Judelman, Eli Smith, John Cohen, Old Man Below, Peter Stampfel, Roscoe Holcomb, Smithsonian Folkways, The Dust Busters, Walker Shepard

Comment by Cary Allen Fields on August 10, 2012 at 4:49am

Visiting my mom's people each year during my childhood, spread out between Hazard and Whitesburg, Kentucky in Knott and Perry Counties, never realized what a rich musical tradition existed in those hills at the time.
Remember well what emanated from my grandmother's old Philco floor model radio (t0 this day they still have 24/7 bluegrass programming going.) Estil Baker, a guitar and banjo player that was backing Lee Allen last I heard, often visited in the evening and would pick and sing for us. The church services up the road could be heard down the road, their powerful music and speaking in tongues scared us kids. My great uncle's farm (where I spent several summers as a teen) was located near Viper, where Jean Ritchie and her family lived. And it was while 'breakin' beans' on the front porch in the evening that I learned much of my family history, and about 'ol' John L' and 'Bloody Harlan,' for that matter. Burl had been a coal miner in that tumultuous time. 
Ron Thomason of The Dry Branch Fire Squad once told me, "Ain't much difference between playing old-time music and not being able to play at all." And when he said that, the humor of that statement struck me immediately, of course. Then I processed his intended meaning. You can't overplay this honest music, or it becomes something else entirely. The form requires, by it's very nature, getting to the very essence of a song.
I certainly appreciate the efforts of the Lomaxes and Rinzlers and Cohens and Smithsonian Folkways of this world that this music might be known beyond that geographic area. 
Told you all that to tell you this - what Mr. Cohen and The Dustbusters are layin' down here is speaking to me. It's encoded in my DNA. It sounds and feels like them hills, there's some of that in it. 

Comment by Douglas Strobel on August 10, 2012 at 10:54am

The version Waltz of Roses (waitin' for a Train) is an eyeopener...sounds great....pax doug

Comment by Hearth Music on August 11, 2012 at 1:58pm

AWESOME story, Cary, thank you so much for sharing those family memories with us!


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.