‘You’ve Been a Friend to Me,’ Music from the Singular Vocalist Sonya Cohen Cramer, Set for 5/17 Release on Smithsonian Folkways

Article Contributed by Shore Fire Media | Published on Thursday, April 4, 2024

Sonya Cohen Cramer (1965-2015), the singular vocalist, graphic designer, art director, and member of the Seeger family, will finally get her musical due on May 17th when the first-ever collection dedicated fully to her music, ‘You’ve Been a Friend to Me,’ is 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, Sonya 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 and Uncle Pete Seeger, Elizabeth Mitchell, Daniel Littleton, and the folk-fusion group Last Forever, the new set features nearly thirty years of Sonya’s work. A life-long student of traditional folk music, and re-interpreter 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 Sonya’s recording sessions with Mitchell and Littleton (who feature prominently on the track) in 2014, and then 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 50th birthday.

Listen to “You’ve Been a Friend to Me,” the first single to be released from the collection, HERE.

Born in New York City in July 1965, Sonya Cohen grew up in Putnam Valley, New York in a family with deep musical and artistic roots. She was the daughter of John Cohen, member of folk revival music group The New Lost City Ramblers, and Penelope Seeger, a potter whose elder siblings were folk musicians Mike, Peggy, and Pete Seeger. She was the granddaughter of seminal musicologist Charles Seeger and the avant-garde composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, and her godfather was Folkways founder Moe Asch. When she was only a few days old, her parents took her to the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where her Uncle Pete dedicated the evening's performance to her, saying she represented the hope for the future. Later that same historic night, Dylan “went electric."

During her college years at Wesleyan University, Sonya explored the connections between feminist theory and art through books, printmaking, and collage. She began to study and perform in a range of musical traditions originating outside of North America. She sang South Indian music, studying with T. Viswanathan, saying his "radiating warmth and love opened up the richest possibilities of life to me."

After college, Sonya moved to New York City and began her graphic design career. While in New York, she became the vocalist for the folk-fusion music group Last Forever, a project and collaboration with Dick Connette based on new and old songs out of the American tradition. Signed originally to Nonesuch Records, they released music from 1997 until Sonya’s death in 2015. The New York Times music critic Stephen Holden, reviewing Last Forever, wrote that Sonya’s “plain, twangy voice embodies the spirit of Mr. Connette's austere, beautifully constructed rural ballads. A haunting evocation of American prairie life in an era before television.” On “Hide and Seek” and “In the Pines” - two Last Forever songs that appear on ‘You’ve Been a Friend to Me’ - the nostalgia of Sonya’s more traditionally rendered stylings blends with chamber-folk atmospherics for a sound that’s deeply felt, almost spiritual.

Like her family, Sonya 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. Although Ruth Crawford Seeger passed away long before Sonya was born, she made sure to honor her grandmother’s legacy, alongside other living members of her extended family, by contributing to two recordings of her grandmother’s influential songbooks – ‘American Folk Songs for Christmas,’ and ‘Animal Folk Songs for Children.’ The second song on ‘You’ve Been a Friend to Me,’ “A Squirrel is a Pretty Thing,” which features Sonya’s Aunt Peggy on piano, originally appeared on the latter collection.

On the spare, heart-wrenching “When I Was Most Beautiful,” Sonya is accompanied by her Uncle Pete on guitar, working from a translation of a Japanese poem that Pete originally set to music in 1969. This recording originally appeared on the Grammy-winning Pete Seeger at 89 (Appleseed Recordings, 2008), and Sonya and Pete also performed the song together at the Library of Congress in 2007.

During the early 2000s, Sonya enjoyed a rich career as a graphic designer for Folkways. She ultimately designed 64 covers for the label, honoring her interests in American folk music, and international music traditions like Bulgarian and Indian music in doing so. Her design work on a series of Folkways Records with Elizabeth Mitchell was especially gratifying - through that work, they formed the deep personal and musical bond which led to them recording many songs together and with Daniel Littleton.

Through all of the music Sonya recorded in her 50 years, one thing was always prioritized: honesty. From the way she honored music from over a century ago (the Mississippi John Hurt-inspired “Louis Collins / Spike Driver Blues”), to just a few decades prior (the Townes Van Zandt cover “No Place to Fall”), and from chamber-folk and pure acapella (“Oh Blue”), Sonya recorded everything with heart and soul, stripped-down to their core elements and with room left for listeners to fill in their own blanks. Acclaimed Joe Boyd once said, “I remember very well the first time I heard Sonya’s voice … I was just so stunned, charmed, and intrigued by the simplicity, the honesty, the deep feeling in everything she sang, and I never got tired of listening to Sonya’s voice … she was such a wonderful person and wonderful singer, and sorely missed.”

‘You’ve Been a Friend to Me’ is out on May 17th - pre-save it HERE.