Mike Seeger. Photo by Mike Melnyk
Mike Seeger died at his home in Lexington, Virginia, on the evening of August 7, 2009, eight days before his 76th birthday. He had been living with cancer for more than a decade. Over the long course of his illness, he continued his life’s work as a performing musician, music collector, advocate for old-time music, and documenter of Southern traditional music and dance. He maintained an active solo performing career from his early twenties to the end of his life. In 1958, he was a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers, a string band that fueled an international revival of interest in old-time music that continues today. Paul Brown offers this appreciation.
It would be nearly impossible to list accurately the total of Mike Seeger’s contributions to the world of old-time music, American cultural and social history, and the lives of the people around him. It is probably safe to say, however, that he did more than any other single person in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries to spread the word about old-time music, to provide opportunities to the traditional musicians who made it, and to encourage new generations of players. Those younger people whom he helped show the way were profoundly important to him. In his final weeks, he told reporter and musician Keith Brand for an NPR radio story that his real satisfaction was “for all the people who are playing the music.” And when I visited him a week before his death with my wife Terri McMurray and friends Mary and David Winston, he was moved to tears as he described what had become his greatest joy at the annual Appalachian String Band Music Festival in West Virginia: walking down the lane in the wooded campsite area where he saw people playing and heard music coming from every direction.
Mike told me and others – including filmmaker Yasha Aginsky in the new film on the New Lost City Ramblers, Always Been a Rambler, that he was fortunate in his upbringing. Not only was he born into a family of musicologists, folklorists, scholars, and performers, it was a family that affirmed taking action, had a sense of mission, and surrounded itself with interesting characters. His father, the musicologist Charles Seeger, started out as a proponent of so-called high culture who came to value traditional music and its players strongly. His mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a composer who also cared deeply about old-time songs and tunes. She transcribed many of Charles’ field recordings, and Mike recalled that there was frequently singing at home. Mike’s older half-brother Pete had become addicted to the banjo as a teenager and had embarked on a career as a musician in the service of social activism – a career that brought him both fame and hardship as he found himself with secure positions on blacklists during the McCarthy era and beyond. A sister, Peggy, followed a path that was similar in some respects. As for house guests, Mike casually recalled to me people such as the painter Thomas Hart Benton and members of the renowned family of pioneering folklorists, the Lomaxes. My conversations with Mike over the years clearly revealed his basic understanding that he should pursue whatever interested him, and that to do anything less was something of a waste of the gift of life.
Pursue his interests he did. He started seriously playing music relatively late, at age eighteen. But since he’d already heard lots of music, including his father’s field recordings on aluminum discs at home, he had a good leg up on the task of learning instruments. People around him recall that before long, he was a whiz on banjo, mandolin, and guitar. He took up the fiddle, the autoharp, the jew’s harp. With his parents and their friends having modeled the behavior, he started to record traditional musicians in the Washington, DC, area where he lived at around age twenty. By this time he was playing early-style bluegrass, and swimming in the intense stew of old-time, country, gospel, and bluegrass music that was part of the DC soundscape. The stew became ever stronger as people continued pouring in from the mountain South looking for work, and met urban kids and young adults hooked on folk music and its relatives.
Then, as it emerged in several conversations over our thirty-year friendship, he came to recognize that he was in what could be a lifelong love affair with the older sounds. He said something similar to journalist Keith Brand: “I realized old-time Southern music was really what I wanted to play, because it had so much history that went back into the old, old songs.” To filmmaker Aginsky, he recalled, “Mainer’s Mountaineers and Uncle Dave Macon, Carter Family. That’s what I loved.”
Many of us love things, but tend to keep them for ourselves, perhaps polishing them, or putting them to use largely for our own benefit. But Mike, as he pursued a performing career with great energy, did much more than that. He lived the family sense of mission by documenting old-time musicians. He also expanded it by bringing them and their art before new audiences.
This sort of thing had been done before – most notably perhaps by John and Alan Lomax in the case of Leadbelly. But the New Lost City Ramblers, and Mike on his own, took it to a new level. In doing so, they bridged chasms of culture and time, helping urban audiences start to understand real country music and musicians while groups such as the Kingston Trio focused more on pure entertainment and their own financial success. Mike and the Ramblers affirmed the values, art, and lives of the rural musicians at a time when their music was forgotten or dismissed, often even in their local communities.
Affirmation can be a very powerful thing. When I worked at mountain music radio station WPAQ in the early 1980s, the owner, Ralph Epperson, told me one evening that one of his greatest satisfactions was being able to affirm publicly the value of old-time music by putting local musicians on the air for thousands of people to hear, while the mainstream radio industry shunned them in favor of the Nashville country music jukebox. He said that a number of older musicians had mentioned to him that performing on his station had given them new enthusiasm for life, and a new sense of worth in the world.
Mike Seeger practiced the same affirmation throughout his career. First with the Ramblers, and on his own as the Ramblers performed less regularly, he went to great effort to present older musicians on stage and communicate to audiences a sense of their value. He sought out people who seemed to have disappeared, such as the stunning banjoist and singer Dock Boggs. He championed bluegrass pioneers the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe as they struggled to make a living against the onslaught of rock and roll and commercial country music. He realized that the housekeeper in his own home as a child, Elizabeth Cotten, was a musician of astounding interest who needed to be heard. He helped her build a career that took her around the world.
And as he appeared with these artists at venues ranging from the Newport Folk Festival to small house concerts and local radio shows, he consistently celebrated them and their achievements, rather than pursuing adulation for himself. My NPR colleague Corey Flintoff recalls that when he worked at a public radio station in Alaska many years ago, Mike and Libba Cotten performed live one day on his show. But Flintoff says he now realizes he didn’t pay anywhere near the attention he probably should have to Mike – because Mike, who could have tried to steal the show or at least compete for notice, was quietly, assiduously directing the attention elsewhere. Flintoff recalls, “Mike stayed in the background, except where he could interject to shine some other light on Libba Cotten and her music. I should add that she, in her quiet way, seemed to be having a really good time because Mike had made these tours possible for her.”
Older generations were not the only ones to benefit from Mike’s drive to share and champion the art and lives of others. His contemporaries, such as the West Virginia-born singer Hazel Dickens, and younger musicians felt the same impact. One of the most common responses I hear from these younger players when I ask for their thoughts about Mike is, “He changed my life.” For example, banjo player Stefan Senders says meeting Mike resulted in a sudden ninety-degree turn in the direction of his life, sending him into a joyous period of learning banjo, hanging out with old-timers, and broadening his view of music and the world. “He heard me and somehow conveyed a kind of respect and recognition and just picked me up right there and supported me…Then he said, ‘You know, you should go listen to Tommy Jarrell.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? I thought he was dead.’ He said, ‘No no, you’ve got to do that.’ And he invited me to his house, and he took me down to see Tommy and introduced me to people.” Senders also recalls Mike as a memorably careful listener who would hear things in Senders’ playing that were unique and valuable, and tell him so.
I certainly experienced all of this myself. I met Mike quite by accident one afternoon at Tommy’s home in North Carolina. We talked for a while, started playing music with Tommy, and quickly became musical companions and fast friends. Somewhat to my surprise, he soon invited me to join him on recordings, to perform with him and with some of the old-timers, and form a band with him and Andy Cahan – the Bent Mountain Band. Mike didn’t have to do any of this. But he chose to. Affirmation and example from Mike and Ralph Epperson, not to mention my friend and fellow collector Ray Alden, helped me strengthen commitments that still dominate my life – public service, documenting, interpreting, presenting, and celebrating the work of others.
Mike’s mission-driven life didn’t come without costs. He recalled to filmmaker Aginsky that for part of the first year of the Ramblers, he and his young family were homeless, staying with friends and relatives, as he forged ahead on what he called a combination of ignorance and hope. He had trouble sleeping. In the earlier days of my friendship with him, he could often be nervous, anxious, uptight, tough to deal with, both socially and when we were preparing music to perform. But people of extreme focus, brilliance, and commitment often come with extreme characteristics of all sorts. I found accepting these aspects of Mike, as his friend, was well worth it. His eccentricities were certainly no more challenging than many other people’s, including, I would assume, my own.
As Mike aged, he became steadily more mellow. He seemed to realize that he had some significant accomplishments to his name, and appeared more and more at ease with himself and others. Photos and films bear this out. In the early days, he displays an earnest, almost unsettlingly serious intensity. In later images and film, he’s equally intense, but frequently smiling, laughing, and joking. He became yet more generous and even more willing to fade into the background in public situations. Many of us who saw him at fiddlers’ conventions or parties, even at his own home, took notice of the fact that when he joined a jam session, he was often as not on the edge, playing an accompanying instrument.
He could easily have big-footed these sessions. But banjo player David Winston of Lexington, Virginia, remembers something quite different when Mike showed up at local music gatherings after he moved to the area in the early 1980s. “He’d really focus on who was playing and show his appreciation for the music that was being produced by those people he lived near.” Winston says Mike might look at the group of musicians and go out to his car and get a banjo-ukulele.
“Here’s a guy who had masterful command of every instrument that’s used in the music, and had no interest at all in showing anyone how proficient he might be. He wanted to make the best music that could be made in that situation. So he would go and get the appropriate instrument, find a comfortable chair, and start playing. A smile would spread across his face, and the music became better. His presence was one of how to elevate the situation, not how to show people how proficient he was. And that’s a gift, not just a musical gift, but the gift of a lifetime, to have that message conveyed.”
As far back as the decade of his fifties, Mike had a sense of the limited span of life. At that time, he remarked to me that there were certain things he wanted to accomplish, and he would be sacrificing some other activities. I was a little surprised, because I did not normally hear such talk from people his age.
Then he sailed into the list in an unstoppable manner. He phoned one day, and asked what I thought of the idea of a music festival in the South run by and for musicians, with no contests – something like a Brandywine South, as he called it. I told him I thought it was great. The next thing I knew, in 1986, he had founded the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival. He immediately started handing over its operation to the community of musicians around him. The festival continues today, a living, evolving gift from Mike.
He decided traditional Southern flatfoot dancing hadn’t been adequately documented, and set out to rectify that before the old dancers were gone – just as he’d done with autoharp players decades before. The result was the video documentary Talking Feet.
Largely in the spacious, cluttered, and fascinating work room at his home, he recorded two impressive albums, life statements in a way, one each devoted to Southern guitar and banjo styles. He archived his field recordings. And finally, he started an ambitious video project, recording banjo players in the South – most of them younger than he. It remains unfinished.
Along the way, he became ill. Those of us who were his friends watched him handle his affliction with grace, and saw with amazement that he never stopped performing or documenting.
I tried to give him some space to accomplish the tasks he felt were important, because I’d spent so many priceless hours with him already. But in 2006, when I was pulling together a new album, I realized that for three of the songs, no other guitar player could possibly do. I asked if he would help me if I promised not to take more than one day of his time. He agreed, partly because two of the songs came from old-timers we had known together, and a third from my own family’s tradition, which he never ceased to celebrate.
I arrived at his house. He looked a bit wan, but he was enthusiastic. We worked through the morning and into the afternoon. He played magnificently. I ran into momentary trouble with the singing of one of the songs. As usual, he was encouraging. By the end of the afternoon, we’d nailed them all. When I listen back to the album, the guitar work still sends shivers up my spine. Mike said that on one of the songs, from the Ward family, he was trying to recall the playing of our mutual friend Fields Ward. He succeeded in that, of course, but with his own striking yet unpretentious identity clearly audible. What he demonstrated that day was what he had consistently encouraged in all of us: respect for tradition, taking the responsibility to be genuinely creative, and a certain level of humility.
In our final visit with him a week before he died, Mike was happy to talk about music, but he didn’t want to hear any more of it. “I just want quiet,” he said, which was what he had in his big old house on a wooded hillside surrounded by trees, shrubs, and flowers. He was clearly grateful for his many friendships. We departed understanding that as his life flickered away, he was leaving it up to all of us -- those who happened to be close to him and thousands of people he’d never met -- to continue the music, the collecting, and the affirming.
Mike Seeger is survived by his wife, Alexia Smith; three sons from his first marriage, to Marge Marash: Kim, Chris, and Jeremy; and four stepchildren: Cory, Jenny, Jesse, and Joel, whose mother is Mike’s second wife, Alice Gerrard.