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June 30, 2009

Obray Ramsey - Blue Ridge Banjo

Obray Ramsey. I don't think they make names like that anymore. Or if they do (Riley Baugus?), they're reserved for old mountain-dwelling banjo-plunkers like this one. His banjo-playing perfectly matches his singing style; he hits a high note and then immediately drops down (sometimes triply so) so there is always a yearning, mealancholy undercurrent to the sprightly and bubbling brook of his banjo and his sparklingly clear voice. Not quite as fearsome as Dock Boggs or Roscoe Holcomb, or as lonesome as Ralph Stanley, but really enjoyable.

Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

Obray Ramsey is the banjo-picking cousin of old-time music instrumentalist Byard Ray, and the two worked regularly as a duo until they were "discovered" playing at an Asheville folk festival during the folk music revival of the '60s. From that point on, the two men's musical career took a strangely twisted path. Late-night television mongers who may have made it all the way through the strange psychedelic rock western Zachariah, may wonder who the two old-time musicians are that show up in one of this epic's many strange musical wonders, and the answer would be Ray and Ramsey. The same viewer may also wonder why they have become attached to their seat with cement, the only condition under which an intelligent human being would endure the length of the aforementioned film. In 1962, producer John Simon invited the duo to New York City, or "thawt New Yawk," as it is known south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The players were swept into experimental recording projects with a strange combination of players, although perhaps something a bit more threatening than a broom was needed to get these old-timers to pick alongside players such as avant garde classical guitarist Sam Brown, studio pro and funkmeister Chuck Rainey, rhythm and blues session drummer Herb Lovelle, sarcastic pianist Dave Frishberg, and even a black gospel group, the Wondrous Joy Clouds. File Under Rock was the name of the first album edited together from these sessions, the players collectively given the ad hoc group was given the name White Lightnin', at that time a slang term for a type of LSD as well as the traditional name for home-brewed liquor from the mountains. A second album entitled Fresh Air was also released, notable for a pleasant Bob Dylan cover version featuring the old-time musicians performing with the collegiate folkies Judy Collins and Eric Anderson, resulting in a memorable meeting of the old and new in folk music.

Ramsey has also recorded on his own, including an album of folk music for Prestige International. He is considered one of the finest banjoists for accompanying singing and has been compared favorably with Doc Boggs. In the late '50s, he was a member of fiddler Tommy Hunter's Carolina String Band with the leader's sister Nan Hunter and her husband George Fisher. The archival type Deadheads might have his name on the tip of their tongue (along with lord knows what else) via Grateful Dead's cover version of Ramsey's song "Cold Rain and Snow," one of many traditional Appalachian numbers this band used to jam out on. Ramsey and his music is also credited with having a large influence on the writer Manly Wade Wellman, a creator of science fiction, adventure, and mystery stories who once beat out William Faulkner in a writing contest. Through a friendship with folklorist Vance Randolf, Wellman met Ramsey during one of several collecting and recording trips in hillbilly territory. Ramsay is also a member of an elite club of musicians that have had songs written about them, in this case the ditty "Ballad of Obray Ramsey," recorded by Matthew's Southern Comfort on their 1970 album Second Spring. Ramsey also gave some music lessons to Mel Lyman, a musician who would eventually join the Jim Kweskin Jug Band as a replacement member and go on to supposedly form his own mind control cult in the Bay Area. Despite basically being a farmer and banjo picker, Ramsey just couldn't seem to avoid contacts with weird '60s stuff.


note: the following LP is untainted by all that '60s weirdness... It was his first album, and it's pure old mountain music, just Obray and his banjer.

Obray Ramsey - Blue Ridge Banjo

Label: Washington (WLP 707)
Year: 1957

From the back cover:

In recent years, we have heard all to often about the 'dying' of folk culture in the Southern mountains. Many of the collectors who ventured into this area to record the songlore of the region in the 1930s and '40s, shed sorry tears for the passing of a beautiful and rich tradition, each proclaiming his own collection to be the "last leaves" of this once-proud heritage. So, fewer and fewer adventuresome souls have involved themselves in recording the still-living tradition of the area. Those who have, however, have been amply rewarded by finding that, even though mountain life has been completely revolutionized in the past few decades, tradition dies hard, and numerous singers may still be heard and recorded. To be sure, there are new sounds and new songs, but this material is, in many ways, as vibrant and vital as it was in the days of Cecil Sharp's pioneering collecting forays.

Obray Ramsey, whose sprightly banjo songs and instrumentals make up this LP, is living proof that this tradition still exists. And there are many more young, middle-aged and old folksingers like him, who have retained the best songs of their hardy mountain ancestors, perhaps changing some of them to suit their own artistic and performing abilities, but still retaining the best elements of old-style singing and playing.

Ramsey was born on the banks of the three Laurels at the edge of the Smokey Mountains in western North Carolina. His father's people came from the highlands of Scotland, and his mother's ancestors were Cherokee Indians. Most of his songs were learned from his mother and grandmother, both fine singers with extensive repertoires. For most of his life he has sung his songs unaccompanied, though he had learned to play the guitar when still a young boy. After he married and settled down as a successful farmer near Marshall, North Carolina, he met Bascom Lamar Lunsford, folksinger, collector, and organizer of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival held annually in Asheville, North Carolina. Lunsford recognized his fine singing talents and encouraged him to take up the 5-string banjo, which he believed would be perfectly suited to Obray's style of singing. To show his faith in this belief, Lunsford gave Ramsey his first banjo in 1953. Now, Obray Ramsey is one of the finest banjo-pickers in the Southern Mountains. His style is a perfect compromise between old picking styles and currently popular modern styles.
- Kenneth S. Goldstein

1. The Rambling Boy
2. Keep on the Sunny Side
3. Polly Put the Kettle On
4. Little Margaret
5. I Am a Pilgrim
6. Cripple Creek
7. Down By the Sea Shore
8. Song of the French Broad River
9. God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign
10. Shortenin' Bread
11. Wildwood Flower
12. My Lord, What a Morning
13. Lonesome Road Blues
14. Weeping Willow

twangy and transcendent.
my rip (vinyl, cleaned) | mp3 ~290kbps | w/ scans | 71mb

* definitely out of print. i don't think the label has even existed for a long time...

reccomended if you like: Buell Kazee


Unknown said...

I met Obray Ramsey in about 1958 or so. He taught me "Little Margaret" which I still play in Clawhammer but the melody and words are still his.

Anonymous said...

I met Obray Ramsey in the spring of 1963 when I and a friend were visiting Mel Lyman in North Carlina on a college vacation break. I'm still playing "Rain & Snow," "Poor Little Ellen," "Wild Bill Jones," "Lady Margaret" and "The French Broad River."