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A woman wearing sunglasses and curly hair in a low bun looks into the distance, shading her eyes with one hand. Black-and-white photo.

Photo by Reid Cramer

  • Smithsonian Folkways Releases History-Making Collection of Music from Sonya Cohen Cramer

    Sonya Cohen Cramer (1965–2015), the singular vocalist, graphic designer, art director, and member of the Seeger family, will receive her musical due on Wednesday, May 17, when the first-ever collection dedicated fully to her music, You’ve Been a Friend to Me, will be released on Smithsonian Folkways. A musician who mostly practiced the craft for her own enjoyment and fulfillment while she worked as, among other things, a designer of over sixty Smithsonian Folkways record packages, Cramer was a true “singer’s singer” whose musical admirers included Jeff Buckley, Loudon Wainwright III, Joe Boyd, and Meredith Monk.

    Following the full arc of her musical life through collaborations with her aunt Peggy Seegerr and uncle Pete Seeger, Elizabeth Mitchell, Daniel Littleton, and the folk-fusion group Last Forever, the new set features nearly thirty years of Cramer’s work.

    A lifelong student of traditional folk music and reinterpreter of classic old-time ballads, her performance of the title track of the collection, “You’ve Been a Friend to Me,” reveals the emotional integrity she championed through each song she recorded. Originally published as sheet music in 1858 and made widely known through a 1936 recording by the Carter Family, “You’ve Been a Friend to Me” first provided a theme for Cramer’s recording sessions with Mitchell and Littleton (who feature prominently on the track) in 2014, and then it evolved into a personal anthem as she navigated the challenges of cancer in her last year. A few months before she passed away in 2015, she sang it to a large group of friends assembled to celebrate her fiftieth birthday.

    Like her family, Cramer cared about where the old tunes and stories she heard came from, and she valued the contributions of the music makers and the keepers of culture. In addition to her work with Last Forever, she also recorded with her relatives throughout her career. During the early 2000s, Cramer enjoyed a rich career as a graphic designer for Folkways. She ultimately designed sixty-four covers for the label, honoring her interests in American folk music and international music traditions like Bulgarian and Indian music in doing so.

    Through all of the music Cramer recorded in her fifty years, one thing was always prioritized: honesty. From the way she honored music from over a century ago to just a few decades prior (the Townes Van Zandt cover “No Place to Fall”), and from her use of bluegrass guitar (“Louis Collins / Spike Driver Blues”) to chamber folk and pure a cappella (“Oh Blue”), Cramer recorded everything with heart and soul, stripped down to their core elements and with room left for listeners to fill in their own blanks.

    About Smithsonian Folkways

    Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the “National Museum of Sound,” makes available close to 60,000 tracks in physical and digital format as the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian, with a reach of 80 million people per year. A division of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the nonprofit label is dedicated to supporting cultural diversity, and increased understanding among people through the documentation, preservation, production, and dissemination of sound. Its mission is the legacy of Moses Asch, who founded Folkways Records in 1948 to document “people’s music” from around the world.

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