News & Politics

Sonya Cohen Cramer Died Too Young. Her Music Is Finally Being Rediscovered.

A new compilation unearths vital recordings.

Sonya Cohen Cramer at Judd Studio. Photograph by Dio Cramer.

Fame came early to Sonya Cohen Cramer. At about one week old, she attended the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, where her uncle Pete Seeger dedicated a performance to her and played a recording of her making baby sounds to the crowd. Her father, John Cohen, was a member of the folk-revival group the New Lost City Ramblers with Mike Seeger. Her mother, the potter Penny Seeger, was Pete and Mike’s sister. And her grandparents were the pioneering musicologist Charles Seeger and the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, who for decades lived in Chevy Chase. (The celebrated folk musician Elizabeth Cotten worked as their housekeeper.)

Cramer isn’t one of the better-known members of the extended Seeger clan; despite her lineage and a considerable amount of talent, she wasn’t drawn to a career in music. “She saw how challenging that was for a family,” says her husband, Reid Cramer. But she always wrote and played songs, whether performing with the New York band Last Forever in the late 1990s or just singing around the house.

Cramer died of cancer in 2015, when she was 50. At the time, she and her husband and two kids were living in Takoma Park, and during the last year of her life, she made a series of gorgeous recordings with Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, of the indie band Ida. Almost nobody ever heard them. Now Cramer’s music is finally reaching the wider audience it deserves. The DC-based Smithsonian Folkways label is releasing a new compilation of her music, You’ve Been a Friend to Me, which includes those final Takoma Park tracks, along with other music from earlier in her life. (There will also be a musical performance on June 23 at the Washington Ethical Society to celebrate the release.)

Cramer and Pete Seeger in 2007. Photograph by Robert Corwin.

Even before this album, Cramer’s connection to Smithsonian Folkways ran deep. The label is closely associated with the Seeger clan, and Cramer also worked as a freelance graphic designer for Folkways, creating artwork for more than 60 albums. Mitchell met Cramer when she designed the cover for one of Mitchell’s albums of kids’ music. She says she was gobsmacked when she eventually heard some of Cramer’s recordings. “I was just in disbelief that she was designing my record and not singing at Carnegie Hall,” Mitchell says.

Despite the varied origins of its songs, You’ve Been a Friend to Me sounds quite cohesive, thanks to Cramer’s unique phrasing and what Mitchell calls her “astonishing, heart-stopping voice.” The set—which also includes recordings Cramer made with Pete Seeger and with her aunt Peggy Seeger—has a lot of traditional songs, but it doesn’t sound old-­fashioned. “She felt like if she was going to sit down and sing,” Reid says, “she had to be bringing something new to something old.”

Eight of the songs come from that session with Mitchell and Littleton. The couple had long hoped to collaborate with Cramer, but plans never gelled. “When she got sick, it was clear this had to happen as soon as possible,” Mitchell says. “Her singing was just so beautiful, even though her lung capacity was significantly decreased because of her disease and the surgeries she’d had.” They recorded at a Takoma Park studio in October 2014, but despite the record’s quality, it was never released. Mitchell says she cried when she heard the final mixes for the new compilation. “I was like, okay, you’re done now. You have to say goodbye and move on.”

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.