Interview: John Cohen (New Lost City Ramblers) and Eli Smith (Dust Busters) on "Old Man Below"

The Dust Busters and John Cohen (of The New Lost City Ramblers) recently released their new album, Old Man Below, on the legendary Smithsonian Folkways label. I am thrilled to present this interview with John Cohen and Eli Smith (of The Dust Busters) regarding their friendship, admiration for old time music, and musical collaboration together.

Eli, before we dig into The Dust Busters' work with John Cohen, I'd like to ask you if you can you discuss your own personal musical history with the work of The New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen?

Eli Smith: I've been very appreciative of the New Lost City Ramblers and John Cohen's work in particular as a musician, field recordist, photographer and film maker for years.

I first became acquainted with the New Lost City Ramblers' and John Cohen's work when I was first starting out as a musician and fan of folk, blues and old time music back in high school in the late 1990's. I loved the sound of the New Lost City Ramblers, thought and still think they are an incredible band and I also greatly appreciated the information about their sources for their music.

The Ramblers led me back to the original recorded sources of the music and those recordings have in turn become the core of my favorite music. I also greatly appreciate the field work that each of the Ramblers, of most particular note: John Cohen's work in recording and making known Roscoe Holcomb, Wade Ward, Frank Proffitt and so many others.

Can you discuss what drew you to this genre of music initially and what keeps it fresh to you?

John: I first got involved with old time music in 1948 when I first heard re-issues of 1920s string band recordings. It was music that excited me, and music I could perform, or learn to play it. It still excites me today, and the challenges I felt in 1948 are still with me.

There is a quality of music contained in the old stuff that is lost in today's music scene (it  has  been lost throughout the Folksong movement and revival.) It's lost quality is what fed the New Lost City Ramblers for 50 years, and continues to feed me  today.

Eli: I liked music since I was a kid and I started playing guitar when I was quite young. However, it was not until my high school era when I heard old time music and authentic American folk music that I really cared about music specifically. I had heard music on the radio and television, my parent's listened to some music around the house, but I didn't care about any of it too much. I thought it was my fault that I couldn't like any of that plastic garbage you hear everywhere.

Music is very close to the human soul, and when I heard old folk music that really spoke to me it hit me real hard. The music gave me a clarity in my mind that I required, and it was a lot of fun! And if you listened to the words you could learn a lot about some gritty subjects, about getting through life, and one can connect with people and history that you don't hear about or get to feel anywhere else.

You met and toured together before the release of Old Man Below. I'd like to dig into your back story including how you met, hit it off, and what led up to your collaboration.

Eli and John, how and when did you meet and begin your relationship and friendship?

John Cohen: We all met informally, at Peter Stampfel's place in the city and eventually at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn, NY.. Peter was part of the Holy Modal Rounders. We were playing music in the weird space between old time traditional, and old time experimental. We all loved Peter's wacky interpretations, but also recognized our own deep connections to traditional fiddle tunes, styles, songs etc. In Eli Smith and Walker Shepard, I recognize my own youthful music. They keep it (and me) going.

Eli: I met John at a screening of one of his films back in the late 1990's, but I'm sure he doesn't remember that! As john just mentioned, we met and started playing together through Peter Stampfel. I also met Walker Shepard through Peter and then Walker knew our fiddler Craig Judelman and that's how the Dust Busters started. 

 

John, what has it meant to you and your legacy in the New Lost City Ramblers working with the Dust Busters now?

John: For me, the music rolls on as it did with the NLCR. Perhaps the guys could seek out more of the old values. The folklorists had something to offer, and it needs to be challenged, updated, and perpetuated. I know the Dust Busters respond to the sound, and are deeply involved.

Eli: Being connected in a small way with the legacy of the Ramblers is an honor.

Can you discuss your experiences with working with Frank Fairfield and how he got involved with you for this project?

John: Frank has found the energy of old-time music, and we all recognize it in each other. We played and recorded with him on a west coast tour, and in a NYC Washington Square festival. It was a great combination, and fit perfectly. I wish the world would hear us all together.

Eli: Frank is one of our favorite musicians working today. It was an easy choice to ask him to play with us a bit on this album and we are very glad that he agreed to do so. He is a great talent and I always look forward to hearing the latest thing he is doing.

On his latest album, Out On The Open West,  he plays with a band or backup musicians in various configurations, but when we were recording for Old Man Below I had never heard him play with others, only solo. I very much wanted to hear him as part of an old time string band, and we are very glad to have him as part of our band sound on this record.

Frank met us in Berkeley California when were were playing at the Freight and Salvage out there and we spent an afternoon at a friends recordings studio in Oakland. We played together at Down Home Music in El Cerrito, the Arhoolie Records store and then he sat in with us as well at the Freight and Salvage. He is a lot of fun to play with and a wealth of knowledge about the music.

Please discuss working together on the song selection for the album.

John: We recorded a lot of tunes, and re-recorded many. Personally, I was more interested in seeing how the Dust Busters would sequence the record. I already know my own ideas, and as a relief, I enjoy seeing their viewpoint.

Eli: We wanted a range of material to show the true diversity of American folk music / old time music. Unlike the New Lost City Ramblers, we didn't do solo numbers on this record, we went for the band sound in various configurations the whole way. However, within that we wanted to presents a number of the different sounds and styles that attracted us to the music in the first place. We do not feel that a diversity of sounds takes away from our original sound as a band, it actually is our sound and has unity.

Can you discuss the recording processes for Old Man Below?

John: All I remember is several long days of playing music in my farm house, cooking  dinner, and recording first-time performances. That's where we started. They decided what they wanted to re-do or refine, and then we re-recorded later. Those first-time sessions were pure and full of discovery.

Eli: We were given free reign by Smithsonian Folkways to record where and how we wanted to. We did several recording sessions at a friend's studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and we also did a recording session one afternoon while on tour in Oakland, California, which is when we recorded with Frank Fairfield.

In this case we decided to record a hi-fi, stereo album using modern studio equipment. I enjoy music recorded that way as well as things that have a "field recording" sound. However, we did want a natural sound on this album, we did not use and don't generally like reverb and close mic-ing itself can be dangerous to a good sounding record.

There is no over-dubbing, everything was done live. We mixed and produced the whole album ourselves with the technical assistance of our engineer-friend and we are very happy with how the sound of the record came out.

For new listeners who may be discovering old time music, could you describe some of your biggest influences? Can you share some of the most inspirational artists and albums that you recommend for those looking to dig deeper?

John: There is a wealth of old-time music available starting with the Harry Smith Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, and the field recordings of the Library of Congress. There are excellent re-issues from Shanachie and County records. Plus, there is the old time music revival and festivals such as  Clifftop, Mount  Airy, Swannonah, and Ashokan. There is the Old Time Herald magazine which lists all of this.

Personally, I have been musically bowled over by Roscoe Holcomb, Uncle Dave  Macon, the Carter  Family, and crazy fiddle bands from Carter Bros & Son, Charlie Poole, and the Skillet Likkers.

Eli: Perhaps first off people should go to http://www.juneberry78s.com/sounds/index.htm and listen to tons of free awesome old time, blues, etc. music from 78rpm records. This resource is pivotal! http://www.folkstreams.net is also worth delving into deeply and the Secret Museum of the Air at: http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/SM/ and Art Rosenbaum's radio archives at: http://1690wmlb.com/programs/backroads-and-banjos/

I have more great links on the Down Home Radio webpage. There are so many great artists in the field of old time and traditional music to listen to.

I'd also recommend the New Lost City Ramblers' new box set, 50 Years: Where Do You Come From? Where Do You Go? or their two volumes of live recordings. I always recommend the Anthology of American Folk Music, compiled by Harry Smith, also on the Folkways label. It is still central after all these years.

I love Roscoe Holcomb and would recommend him to anybody. He's an amazing singer, great banjo player. John Cohen's field recording compilation album called High Atmosphere is great as is his relatively recent Back Roads to Cold Mountain CD. The Secret Museum of Mankind CDs are great too, and were compiled by Pat Conte. That's been some of my core stuff over the years.  Also you can't forget Yazoo Records. Buy everything they ever did at http://www.yazoorecords.com

Also I would direct people to my internet radio show: http://www.DownHomeRadioShow.com where I have numbers of "radio show" type broadcasts that aim to be both educational as well as entertaining as well as web links to hear a whole lot of great folk music. Much of it is for free, including interviews with many different artists, etc. I have also digitized and posted up a bunch of out of print LPs on Down Home Radio that you can find if you dig back into the archives. Good stuff...

John, what would you say distinguishes this album most from your previous work? How do you see this collaboration connecting to your discography?

John: This album is my latest effort to remain alive, and pass the music on, and watch it grow with me or without me.

How did you connect with/ decide to go with Folkways for the release?

Eli: John Cohen has a long and close history with Folkways records and the founder, Moe Asch, going back to the 1950's. I never thought I would have the chance to make a Folkways record, but when that opportunity presented itself Walker, Craig and myself were really very pleased to move forward with the album. There was no talk of going with any other record label.  Folkways is the pioneer American folk music label and really the pioneer "indie" label in the nation. 

Eli, you mentioned your Down Home Radio Show earlier. Can you tell us more about it?

Eli: I founded Down Home Radio in 2006, it was the first "radio show" of its kind on the internet. I started the show with Henrietta Yurchenco, an amazing enthomusicologist who had done work in Mexico, Europe, North Africa and the American South and had been a pioneer in the field of folk music radio in New York in the 1940's.

The show would mostly consist at that point of me interviewing her and then we would play examples from her field recordings, we would also jointly interview other artists and scholars for the program.

Henrietta passed on in 2007, she was a treasure. Since her passing I have continued to do interviews with various artists and interesting persons in the field of folk music, as well as play records. The website now also regularly features articles, video, etc.

Can you describe your own experiences and the the musical community at Jalopy Theatre and School of Music in Brooklyn?

Eli: The Jalopy Theatre is in the Red Hook neighborhood Brooklyn. It is the new home for folk music in New York City. There is a resurgence of interest in the music going on these days and Jalopy is the best place for it in the city and in a lot of ways, at least to me, nationally.

There is no better or bigger scene in the country, not that it is that big! But it is definitely a good time around here these days. The Jalopy seems to be much like the Folklore Center in the old days on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. It is a real kind of home turf staging area for the kind of music and culture that I like and support.

How did the Brooklyn Folk Festival come together?

Eli: I founded the Brooklyn Folk Festival (http://www.brooklynfolkfest.com) in 2009 and then in 2011. I also started the Washington Square Park Folk Festival (www.WSPFolkFest.com) in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. That is a free outdoor event sponsored by the NYC Parks Dept. So I now have two festivals, Brooklyn in the Spring and Washington Square in the Fall.

I use these events as yearly focal points for the scene that we have worked hard and been lucky to develop here. I model these festivals, on a smaller scale, on the old original Newport and University of Chicago folk festivals from back in the early 1960's.

I endeavor to present a real folk festival with recognized forms of American and word folk music, and move away from the "folk" festival as a platform solely for singer-songwriters. The Brooklyn Folk Festival regularly features 30+ bands, workshops, film screenings, contests, an more. It is lots of fun for the whole family!

What's next for each of you?

John: I will continue publishing books of my photographs (for Steidl publishers). There's a new one called Been There... John Cohen Photographs Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the 1960s). I'm also working on my new films and performing whenever someone wants me, as well as struggling to get into my studio to draw and paint.

There are some wonderful music changes in the works. Fiddlers coming and going, new bands a-forming, and music getting stronger and better, Always.

Eli: We all have our own solo projects in mind. I've once again started work preparing next year's Brooklyn and Washington Square Park Folk Festivals. Look out for Brooklyn Folk Fest in April of 2013!

I also have an album of old great American labor songs coming out which I recorded with my friend Peter K. Siegel. Oh, and I am also planning the release of an album of live recordings from the Brooklyn Folk Festival, to be released this Spring.

 

Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.

As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.

You can read his posts here on No Depression and on Uprooted Music Revue at http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com/. To follow Chris and UMR more closely, sign up on UMR's Facebook page and subscribe to UMR's twitter feed.

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Tags: Brooklyn, Busters, Chris, City, Cohen, Conte, Dust, Eli, Fairfield, Festival, More…Folk, Folkways, Frank, Harry, Jalopy, John, Lost, Mateer, Mike, Music, New, Pat, Ramblers, Records, Seeger, Smith, Smithsonian, Theatre, Uprooted, Yazoo

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