The New Lost City Ramblers Last Ever Concert at Clifftop 2009
By Derek Halsey
It is the night of July 30th, 2009 at the Appalachian String Band Festival, an annual musical gathering also referred to as simply “Clifftop” held annually on top of a mountain in the New River Gorge area of West Virginia. Despite the threat of rain, roots music legends John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz of the New Lost City Ramblers are backstage getting ready to perform on the open-air main stage. A founding member of the Ramblers, Mike Seeger, half brother of folk music legend Pete Seeger, was supposed to give a Masters Workshop earlier in the day as well perform on this show with his long time compatriots. But, unfortunately, Seeger’s long time illness seems to be getting the better of him and he cannot make the festival at all. He will miss the Ramblers last-ever performance.
The New Lost City Ramblers have been at the festival for days, playing with all kinds of old friends, new friends and fellow musicians. Tonight, they will call it quits after 51 years as a group. Despite Seeger’s absence, the show must go on and Cohen and Schwarz reluctantly grab up a few expert musicians that they know at the festival to augment their sound. They put together a setlist and Cohen takes the time to go to their van to find a spare concert vest for one of the guest musicians. As the show begins, Cohen and Schwarz perform together and separately, explaining the history of the songs as they go. They also take the time to speak of the heavy heart they are playing with as their band mate Mike Seeger is quickly succumbing to his illness back home at the same time.
The Ramblers play many songs and tell a few stories about the band’s history and their 51 years of partnership with Seeger. But, as is typical of Clifftop 2009, one of the rainiest ever, the wind begins to stir, the tree limbs and leaves begin to hiss and a hard rain blows in to prematurely end their concert on the outdoor stage about a half hour in. The Ramblers can’t seem to catch a break. But, before the weather scatters the gathering for good, one of their guest musicians steps up to the microphone and talks to the crowd about the band’s history and Cohen and Schwarz, as well as Seeger and original member Tom Paley, receive the extended standing ovation that they deserve for five decades of performing, influencing, song collecting and bringing all of those old gems to the fore.
On August 7th, 2009, eight days later, Mike Seeger dies from cancer.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with Mike Seeger over the past few years at Clifftop and Merlefest, and I interviewed him for an article here at Gritz Magazine back in 2006. At the time, he played on a Dr. Ralph Stanley album called “A Distant Land To Roam; Songs Of The Carter Family,” and his interview was an essential part of the article because he had known Dr. Ralph for decades and also knew Sara and Mother Maybelle Carter of the original Carter Family. Here are some excerpts from my interview with the late Mike Seeger.
On Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers touring with the Stanley Brothers;
“(The New Lost City Ramblers) toured in 1966. We toured Europe and went to England and Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, either Holland or Denmark. I can’t remember. We did a TV show in Germany with Carter and Ralph (Stanley). Carter was not well at that point, but during the days when everything was calm, he was so wonderful to talk to. He was a very soulful, thoughtful, reflective person. And, he was just a great singer.”
On performing and recording with the Stanley Brothers;
“I substituted for Chick Stripling once when Chick was under the weather. He played bass with them. That was back at the University of Chicago in 1961. Chick was not able to play. I’m not a very good bass player, so I held the bass up (laughs). I played one song with Ralph on my ‘Third Annual Farewell Reunion’ album on Rounder Records. I got him to fingerpick ‘East Virginia Blues’ on the mandolin. He played three-finger style mandolin, and we sang it together. He doesn’t do many like that, but it is a wonderful thing he did. I think he plays the song on a Columbia Legacy record that Larry Ehrlich recorded of Carter and Ralph back in 1956 that came out a year or two ago.”
On meeting the Carter Family;
“Just Sara and Maybelle. I never met A.P.. Wish I had. Absolutely, I would have loved to have known him.”
On the guitar playing and musicianship of original Carter Family member Mother Maybelle Carter;
“It adds a strong feeling of melody and rhythm, both. She was a very smooth musician as well. At the time, when she first recorded, people were playing in a style a little bit like hers, but they didn’t put it together in the same way she did, and not as smooth as she did. Because of her personality, too, between her personality and the recordings and the actual music on those records, she certainly was one of the most influential country guitar players. She was very natural and humble. She had a nice, quiet sense of humor, and solid. She was a very solid person. She was a very strong, solid musician. There is definitely power there. You don’t have to be real complex and have notes all over the place to play solid, good music.”
I would like to thank Alabama fiddler and photographer J.J. Burgess for providing the black and white photograph above of John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz at their concert at Clifftop 2009. Below I would like to share the now infamous photograph that I took at the Clifftop Festival several years ago. It was taken at the annual Cocktail Party held on Saturday afternoon where festival goers get-together to share food and tunes and friendship before splitting off to do their own thing as the last night of the festival draws near. In this picture you will see Mike Seeger sitting in a chair surrounded by a group of musicians standing up and playing around him that include the late mandolin great Kelly Perdue of the Mando Mafia, his band mates Rick Friend on guitar and Pete Marshall to the left, bluegrass great Tim O’Brien in the foreground and many others.