Mike Seeger (August 15, 1933 – August 7, 2009)

Mike was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype.” —Bob Dylan

In brushing the dust of time from American folk music, Mike Seeger illuminates the roots of contemporary music and champions their strength” – Dan Bottstein, Billboard

Clean and crisp as any acoustic music now being played . . . Here is an American artist standing forth, voice ‘well trained’, in narratives, in fun, in irony, himself branch and root of the entwined true vine.” – Jon Pankake, Rolling Stone

His instrumental technique borders on the astonishing. He switches easily from guitar to banjo to autoharp to fiddle to mouth harp, singing and foot stomping all the while. Just playing with authenticity and style is a trick in itself, but Seeger does it with class and jovial spirit.” – Philip Elwood, San Francisco Examiner

It’s not exactly breaking news anymore, so I’m sure by now you all have heard the sad news of Mike Seeger’s passing. But I feel he still needed a bit more honoring and recognition, Grapevine-style. Mike and the group with which he’s most associated, the New Lost City Ramblers (NLCR), have done more for American vernacular music than just about anybody, and yet they’re vastly under-known and under-appreciated, even though Mike’s half-brother Pete Seeger is a household name. I think this has something to do with their refusal to water-down or electrify their brand of folk music in order to appeal to young middle-class cityslickers. I know that for me, it took me a lot longer to get into Mike and the NLCR than it took to get into Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Some people have accused the NLCR of trying to recreate tradition too closely, trying to sound like the rural old-timers instead of the young middle-class cityslickers that they in fact were. But I think their refusal to ‘modernize’ their sound came less from some ludite notion of nostalgia, and more from a profound understanding of the subleties and beauty of the old styles – subleties which were completely lost on most everybody else coming up in the Folk Boom of the ’60s.

Though they became known for playing old-time music as close as possible to the ‘authentic’ old sound, they also played blues, cajun, proto-bluegrass, black string-band music, and other American vernacular musics. One of their most distinct and defining features was the fact that all of them played lots of instruments in lots of styles and would switch around from song to song so it always sounded fresh. Mike himself played over 9 instruments (counting the bass, cello, and viola as one) and mastered all of them.

The NLCR were one of the few groups who did absolutely nothing to change after Dylan shook the scene with folk-rock (I mean, Dylan was influenced by them, not the other way ’round…). And though at first listen they appear to be imitating the ‘authentic’ old traditional sound as much as possible, in reality they change the songs quite a bit, re-arranging and re-imagining them, but they do it in such a way that it always sounds natural and ‘authentic’. They actually took the time to understand that music on its terms, and so they can create new music that has the ring of some lost ancestral truth.

And perhaps the greatest contribution of Mike and his fellow Ramblers is in spreading this music further than the old-timers ever could, and in turn helping the old-timers to record and get more recognition.

Here’s some bits and bobs I scrounged from the inter-sea:

For more than fifty years, Mike Seeger has been a musician, documenter, and tireless advocate of early folk and traditional music of the United States. He has recorded extensively, and has a rich discography as a solo artist and as a member of the folk revival string band the New Lost City Ramblers (with John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz). As a collector he has captured the sounds of such seminal artists as Elizabeth Cotten and Dock Boggs and edited and compiled collections of material by many others, both obscure and well known. A historian and preservationist of the music he calls “old time,” Seeger has told the stories behind the music that is such an essential part of American culture.

In his book Chronicles, musician Bob Dylan wrote, “Mike [Seeger] was unprecedented. He was like a duke, the knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. … He played on all the various planes, the full index of the old-time styles, played in all the genres and had the idioms mastered — Delta blues, ragtime, minstrel songs, buck-and-wing, dance reels, play party, hymns and gospel — being there and seeing him up close, something hit me. It’s not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. … The thought occurred to me that maybe I’d have to write my own folk songs, ones that Mike didn’t know.”

To find out more about Mike Seeger go to his Web site: http://mikeseeger.info/.

Mike Seeger has devoted his life to singing and playing Music from True Vine – the home music made by American southerners before the media age. Music from True Vine grows out of hundreds of years of British traditions that blended in our country with equally ancient African traditions to produce songs and sounds which are unique to the United States. For the peoples of the rural South, their great variety of music, song, and story provided their Shakespeare, their dance music, their news, and the fabric of their daily lives. This music in time became the roots of today’s country, bluegrass, and popular music and remains as ever, enduring and refreshing listening.

Fidelity to traditional sounds has set Mike Seeger apart from other performers since he began touring the United States and abroad in 1960. Mike’s music conveys all the depth of feeling, the sheer energy, and the infinite variety and texture of true traditional rural music. Like earlier traditional musicians, Mike seeks out his own vision of the music by creating within its traditions, making his music uniquely his own.

As he sings the old songs, he plays in a wide variety of traditional styles, accompanying himself on an array of instruments, including banjo, fiddle, guitar, trump (jaw harp), mouth harp (harmonica), quills, lap dulcimer, mandolin, and autoharp.

The Seegers sang with their children most Saturday nights. Mike learned the old ballad Barbara Allen at age five from the singing of his musicologist/composer parents. Soon he graduated to listening and learning from their collection of early documentary recordings. He began playing instruments in his late teens, learning first from nearby musicians such as his close friend Elizabeth Cotten, and later seeking out other master stylists like guitarist Maybelle Carter, banjoists Dock Boggs, Cousin Emmy, and autoharpist Kilby Snow. Eventually Mike’s love for traditional music led him to produce documentaries – more than twenty five field recordings and videos – and to organize countless tours and concerts featuring traditional musicians and dancers.

As a founding member of the pioneering traditional music group, The New Lost City Ramblers, Mike played an integral role in helping to revive interest in a variety of traditional musics, now played by thousands of young musicians across the country. Since his first recordings with the Ramblers, in the late nineteen fifties, Mike has gone on to record more than forty albums, both solo and with others.

“. . . To see him perform is to experience the richness of our traditions.”

Mike Seeger has been honored with six Grammy nominations, recently for Southern Banjo Sounds in 1998 and Solo: Oldtime Country Music in 1991. In 1995 Mike received the Rex Foundation’s Ralph J. Gleason Lifetime Achievement Award, established by the Grateful Dead to recognize “those who exemplify the qualities of talent, vision, innovation that Ralph so tirelessly supported.” In the words of the award citation, Mike Seeger “. . . remains one of our great musical and cultural resources. To see him perform is to experience the richness of our traditions.”

Mike with Dock Boggs

from mikeseeger.info

Mike Seeger was born in 1933 and reared in Maryland, near Washington, DC. His parents, composers and musicologists Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, raised Mike and his three sisters, Peggy, Barbara, and Penny, with traditional folk music and introduced brother Pete to it as well. As a child, Mike listened to early field recordings of traditional folk music, and family singing was daily musical fare.

At age 18, Mike started teaching himself to play string instruments, and at about age 20 began collecting songs and tunes on a tape recorder from nearby traditional musicians. By the time he was 23 he had produced his first Folkways documentary recording. Over the years, he has absorbed traditional styles of music through direct association with master traditional musicians such as Elizabeth Cotten, Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, and many others. He is a founding member of the vanguard old time string band the New Lost City Ramblers, which was formed in 1958.

As a full-time musician and collector since 1960, Mike has toured throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan either solo, with the New Lost City Ramblers, with traditional artists such as Tommy Jarrell and Roscoe Holcomb, or as director of traditional music festivals. He sings a wide variety of traditional rural songs and plays a number of styles on banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, autoharp, lap dulcimer, trump (jew’s harp), harmonica, and quills (pan pipes). In the music he makes, he strives for both variety and depth of feeling while maintaining his own identity by creating within the boundaries of true traditional music.

Mike has produced 30 documentary recordings of traditional music and another 38 of his own music. He has also produced several instructional audio and video tapes for instrumentalists and a documentary videocassette/book, “Talking Feet,” on Southern traditional step dance.

Mike has received six Grammy nominations: two with the New Lost City Ramblers, one with John Hartford and David Grisman, and three on his own. He has served as an advisor or consultant for government agencies, a record company, and many folk festivals. He has won a couple of banjo contests: Galax, Virginia (1958) and Athens, Alabama (1974). He is recipient of four grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Smithsonian Research Fellowship grant, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and an award from the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation. In 2003, The Society for American Music presented Mike with its Honorary Membership Award, citing his “lifetime of work as a master performer and tireless champion of Southern rural music.”

He makes his home in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

Biography by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Born into one of the first families of American folk music, it was probably inevitable that Mike Seeger would become a musician and folklorist. His father and mother, Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, assisted John and Alan Lomax at the Archive of Folk Song in the Library of Congress. Mike’s half-brother, Pete Seeger, performed in both the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, while his sister Peggy Seeger was highly regarded in traditional music circles. There was little surprise, then, when Mike Seeger, at the age of 25, joined Tom Paley and John Cohen to form the New Lost City Ramblers.

It is perhaps ironic that a traditional performer like Seeger was born in New York City to a middle-class family. Born on August 15, 1933, he began playing the autoharp at the age of 12. Soon, he also began playing the banjo, fiddle, dulcimer, mouth harp, mandolin, and dobro. His parents brought music home from the Library of Congress. “They started letting me play field recordings when I was six or seven,” Seeger told Dirty Linen. “These were aluminum records that you played with cactus needles.” He was also influenced by the African-American singer/guitarist Elizabeth Cotton, who lived in the Seeger home for five years.

In the early ’50s, Seeger began to conduct his own field recordings and perform at square dances in the Washington, D.C., area with his sister Peggy. Because he was a conscientious objector, he was assigned work in a hospital, and during this time formed a band with Hazel Dickens and Bob Baker. In 1958, he helped form the New Lost City Ramblers, a band that specialized in performing string band music from the 1920s and 1930s. While the band never gained the exposure of folk revival bands like the Kingston Trio, the group’s commitment to accurately reproducing traditional music proved significant. “The Ramblers’ influence on generations of young musicians who have followed in their footsteps,” wrote Randy Pitts in Music Hound Folk, “is incalculable.”

In 1962, when Tracy Schwarz replaced Paley in the Ramblers, Seeger became involved in a number of solo projects. He recorded Mike Seeger for Vanguard in 1964 and Tipple, Loom & Rail: Songs of the Industrialization of the South for Folkways in 1965. In the late ’60s, Seeger, Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Lamar Grier formed the Strange Creek Singers (Arhoolie released Strange Creek Singers: Get Acquainted Waltz in 1975, reissued in 1997). He also became involved in the Newport Folk Festival and, in 1970, became the director of the Smithsonian Folklife Company. In 1970, he married Gerrard, though they later divorced.

Seeger continued to involve himself in a multitude of projects. Beginning in the 1970s, he recorded a string of albums for Rounder, and he continued to compile scholarly projects such as Southern Banjo Sounds (1998) and True Vine (2003) — both for Smithsonian Folkways. He was nominated for three Grammys, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984, received the Rex Foundation’s Ralph Gleason Award in 1995, and an Award of Merit from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) the same year. “I feel there’s just as much fun in old-time music as there’s ever been,” Seeger told Dirty Linen in 1997. “People ask me, don’t you get tired of it? And some people do, but I think I could have three more lifetimes and not get tired of it.” Seeger’s 2007 album Early Southern Guitar Sounds was released on Smithsonian Folkways.

Obituaries (excerpted):

Mike Seeger, a folk musician, music historian and collector of traditional music who was a major influence on the folk music revival of the 1950s and 1960s, died Friday of multiple myeloma at his home in Lexington, Va. He was 75.

The younger half brother of folk musician Pete Seeger and part of a renowned musical family, Seeger dedicated his life to documenting, teaching and keeping alive traditional music of the American South. The interwoven strands of Anglo American ballads from the Appalachian hills and hollers, the blues laments of black people in the rural South and the gospel sounds of both black and white churches made up what he called the “true vine” of American music.

A singer and an instrumentalist, he was once described as a “one-man folk festival.” He played banjo, fiddle, guitar, autoharp, Jew’s-harp, quills, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica, and recorded extensively on Folkways Records and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. He made a number of recordings in the 1950s and 1960s as a member of the folk revival ensemble the New Lost City Ramblers with John Cohen and Tom Paley.

At age 18, Seeger began teaching himself to play stringed instruments. At about 20, he began collecting songs on a tape recorder from traditional musicians.

Among his discoveries was Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, who had learned to play the guitar as a youngster growing up in rural North Carolina and then had put the instrument aside for the next half-century. Cotten became the Seegers’ housekeeper, and Mike Seeger eventually taped her singing and playing. She became a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter whose classic “Freight Train” had an enormous effect on folk music.

Mike started playing autoharp (a form of stringed zither) aged 12, and soon began picking up other instruments, copying the field recordings his parents had brought home from the Library of Congress.

From 1953 he began to make his own field recordings of musicians he met while working as an orderly in a tuberculosis ward – he was a conscientious objector during the Korean War. During this period he also formed a band with Hazel Dickens and Bob Baker, and the recordings he made of Cotten in the family home were eventually released as Folk songs & Instrumentals with Guitar on Smithsonian Folkways Records (1958).

In the same year Seeger formed the New Lost City Ramblers with Tom Paley and John Cohen. Their objective was to give the treasures of old time music as wide an exposure as possible, and they were determined to be faithful to its original spirit.

Their authentic, rough-hewn take flew in the face of slicker, primmer and more commercial contemporaries then dominating the nascent folk revival, such as the Kingston Trio.

About a month ago, Mike Seeger was still touring, still playing the old-time Southern folk music he loved and nurtured for more than 50 years.

After his latest — and last — tour, Seeger returned home to Lexington and attended a concert at Lime Kiln Theater performed by his old friend James Leva.

“We talked after the show,” said Leva, a Rockbridge County musician who knew Seeger for more than 25 years. “I thought it was real sweet of him to come right after his tour. He seemed a little tired, but I thought it was because he had been on the road.”

Seeger was gravely sick, however. In July, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of plasma cells. Following a brief round of treatments at the University of Virginia Cancer Center, he returned home to Lexington, where he died Friday at age 75.

A six-time Grammy nominee and the half-brother of folk legend Pete Seeger, Mike Seeger was a major figure in preserving and perpetuating American folk music, especially the music of the Appalachian Mountains. Even as his illness progressed quickly, he still performed.

“Five days before he went into the hospital, he played a concert at Wintergreen [Resort],” said Alexia Smith, Seeger’s wife of 14 years. “He wasn’t feeling great, but he valiantly did it.”

Mike Seeger – Mike Seeger

Year: 1964
Label: Vanguard (VSD 79150)

01 – Hello Stranger
02 – Oh Molly Dear
03 – Bachelor’s Hall
04 – We Live a Long Time to Grow Old
05 – Fishing Blues
06 – Johnny Grey
07 – The Two Soldiers
08 – Waterbound
09 – Leather Breeches
10 – Young Mcaffe at the Gallows
11 – Old Rachel
12 – It’ll Aggravate Your Soul
13 – Fair and Tender Ladies
14 – Wild Bill Jones
15 – I’ve Been All Around This World

he hadn’t yet been all around this world.
vinyl, cleaned | 320kbps | no cover | 94mb


Mike Seeger – 2nd Annual Farewell Reunion

Year: 1973
Label: Mercury

* Mike Seeger – vocal, banjo, bass, mandolin, fiddle, mouth harp, jew’s harp, guitar, autoharp

* Highwoods String Band
Walt Koken – fiddle
Bob Potts – fiddle
Mac Benford – banjo
Doug Dorschug – guitar
Jenny Clelland – bass

* New Lost City Ramblers
Tracy Schwarz – resonator guitar
John Cohen – banjo-mandolin

* Strange Creek Singers
Hazel Dickens – vocal, string bass
Alice Gerrard – vocal, guitar
Tracy Schwarz – vocal

* Ry Cooder – guitar
* Peggy Seeger – vocal harmony, lead guitar
* Ewan McColl – vocal
* Penny Cohen – dulcimer
* David Rea – banjo
* Pete Seeger – vocal, banjo
* Maria D’Amato Muldaur – vocal guitar
* Elizabeth Cotten – lead guitar
* Lesley Riddle – vocal, guitar
* Roscoe Holcomb – vocal, banjo
* Kilby Snow – autoharp
* Tex Londan – fiddle
* Don Stover – banjo
* Eric Thompson – guitar

1. Rye Straw
2. The Train That Carried My Girl From Town
3. Texas Rangers
4. Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow
5. Cindy
6. Blues In A Bottle
7. Snowdrop
8. Well May The World Go
9. I Am A Traveling Creature
10. You’ll Find Her Name Written There
11. Take Me Back To The Sweet Sunny South
12. New Year’s Eve Song
13. Careless Love
14. Old Smokey
15. You Are My Flower
16. Kill The Shanghai Rooster

that’s one hell of a birthday party, mike!
vinyl, cleaned | mp3 128kbps | with back cover


thanks to banjoreinhard!

and don’t miss our blogofamily’s posts:
Music From the True Vine at Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be
Old-Time Banjo Styles at Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be
Fresh Oldtime Stringband Music at Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be
Peggy and Mike Seeger at Merlin-in-Rags
Tipple, Loom & Rail at Merlin-in-Rags
and at Freebornman’s journal, several postings of Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers

and an interview with Mike at Down Home Radio Show.

A performance by Mike Seeger at The Kennedy Center can be seen here.

another great obituary at The Real Mr. Heartache.

Recordings, videos, books -ography here.
and an illustrated New Lost City Ramblers discography here.

This entry was posted in banjo, fiddle, Folk, fruits, old-time. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Mike Seeger (August 15, 1933 – August 7, 2009)

  1. Eli Smith says:

    Hey Grapeviners,

    Check out my 2003 interview with Mike Seeger and his live set at the 2003 Oberlin Folk Festival, posted up at http://www.DownHomeRadioShow.com .


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