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The Ballad of The Lost Agency Ramblers

by Bob Holden

The Lost Agency Ramblers formed in the mid-90s as a vehicle for song parodies at USIA holiday parties. In the flaky days of the reinvented I Bureau, we made up names for each appearance, like “Bob & Barry’s Unnatural Act” and “Dr. Fulton’s Keep Your Day Job Band.”

In 1997, rumors of a merger with the State Department gave us focus – and a new mission. The 1997 I Bureau Holiday party featured the first song I ever wrote from scratch. It opened with this dubious sentiment:

I believe in America and the story that we tell.
And I believe when we merge with State, we’ll manage pretty well.
Yes, I believe it’ll be all right; we serve a common cause.
And I believe in Santa Claus.

More snark ensued over the next year and a half until we realized that “Consolidation” was inevitable. On October 1, 1999, while Madeleine Albright was out in front of USIA Headquarters welcoming us to the Mothership, we were out back on the plaza with a songbook that would literally put us in a history book. The moment was neatly captured by Nicholas J. Cull in his 2013 book, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001. On page 163, he wrote: “Two staffers—Bob Holden and Barry Fitzgerald, who styled themselves ‘The Lost Agency Ramblers’— composed a number of songs satirizing the merger. They adapted Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ into ‘The Day That USIA Died,’ with the chorus:

Why, why must USIA die?
Why did Jesse think it messy to let sleeping dogs lie?
We’ll go down to State and will give it a try,
Before they slice us like American pie…’”

Truth be told, not much changed with start of consolidation. IIP had minor irritants like being called an “office” instead of a bureau, but we stayed in our building and ended up playing for a lot of retirement parties. One of my favorites was a song we did to the tune of “Venus” by Shocking Blue for Howard Cincotta’s send-off:

Cincotta, he’s Howard Cincotta!
A propagandist! Like no other!
He sell your mother!

The frequency of our gatherings changed dramatically in 2001 with the arrival of Air Force veteran and HR officer Bill Goodwin. Bill was a drummer and guitar player who told us that he staged weekly jam sessions with colleagues at bases all over the world. He pitched it as a good way to ease stress and learn to play better. In November 2001, we established a weekly jam session that continued uninterrupted until the pandemic of 2020. We’ve since tried to carry on virtually: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wREWVKEu4MY

People drifted in and out of the jam over the years. FSOs serving in DC would join and then recommend it to others when they went back to the field. We played songs from memory, switched to loose-leaf binders full of songs, before finally putting the songs online and projecting them onto walls of rooms where we play. The Lost Agency Ramblers has always a pick-up band. Whoever showed up got to play, even if it meant too many guitar players. Large numbers usually showed up for annual holiday parties and picnics for IIP and ECA, and, starting in 2003, for Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Subsets of the group played for special occasions like ECA programs in the Thomas Jefferson Room.

The most amazing run for the group was from 2016 to 2017, when other bureaus discovered us. We played nearly a dozen engagements and printed a t-shirt to commemorate the “tour.” Perhaps the height of our notoriety came in March 2017 when we played at a send-off party for Department Spokesman Mark Toner, who also played with us on occasion. CNN Correspondent Michelle Kosinski tweeted out a picture of the band with the caption: “Turns out the State Dept. has a band – and it’s incredible! Impressed!”

Linked-In congratulated me a few weeks ago for reaching 21 years with the State Department. I served 15 years with USIA. While the agency remains “lost,” the people who gave it heart play on. The band was started by Barry Fitzgerald, Bob Holden, Peggy Hu, and René Soudée. Bill Goodwin’s jam brought in Steve Kaufman, Mark Jacobs, Dave Hawk, and Chas Hausheer. People who joined over the years include Dorothy Mora, Bruce Wharton, Jeremy Curtin, Dan Sreebny, Julianne Paunescu, Lynne Weil, John Alan Connerley, Shai Korman, Rick Taylor, Peter Eisenhauer, Barbara Silberstein, Alicia Pelton, Paul Magadia, Aaron Steers-Smith, Jim Bullock, Shenandoah Sampson, Rebecca Ernest, Nick Geisinger, Yvette St. André, Robert Ogburn, Jason Evans, Carol Brey, and Kate Bentley. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but I’m also sure that there will be more.¤

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1 comment to The Ballad of The Lost Agency Ramblers

  • A delightful remembrance of a great musical (and social commentary) tradition in PD at USIA and State.

    For the historian and the rest of us, it would be wonderful to find and share the lyrics of USIA policy adviser Joe Glazer. For decades, Joe and his guitar graced various Agency events with Labor songs. Coming from the labor movement, Joe had encyclopedic knowledge of the folk tradition it gave America. In a gravely voice, always with gusto, Joe sang of struggle for a living wage, better working conditions and hope for a more equal nation. Despite setbacks we inch forward.