Mike Seeger: Folk musician who influenced Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead

By Ken Hunt
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:49

Mike Seeger was one of the finest musicians specialising in North American vernacular music you could ever hope to see.

His gift was immense. A master musician, a musician's musician, he made music shaped by and imbued with his own wit and personality which eschewed sterile virtuosity in favour of retaining rough edges faithful to his sources. His impact on the shape and perception of American music is truly incalculable.

As a self-titled "sort of aural historian", he brought the talents of Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotten, Cousin Emmy, The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, Bill Monroe, Kilby Snow and The Stoneman Family to worldwide attention through his recordings and documentaries and shared stages, erudition and endorsement. The number of major musicians he influenced through his transformative vision, whether solo or through his work with the New Lost City Ramblers, is a roll-call of contemporary Americana – the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hazel Dickens, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, David Grisman, Tom O'Brien, Peggy Seeger and on and on.

Maybe informally dressed in jeans and shirt or taking the stage with the NLCR dapperly attired in pressed slacks, white shirts, "vests" and neckties – but with his waistcoat soon unbuttoned – he would peel off detonations of high-velocity notes, ooze romance on autoharp on the dance-time "California Cotillion" from True Vine (2003) or trade fiddle and mouth harp to Ry Cooder's guitar on "The Train That Carried My Girl From Town" from "The Second Annual Farewell Reunion" (1973). He could switch effortlessly between musical styles and genres and instruments like guitar, autoharp, jew's harp, gourd banjo or slide banjo.

He was also a dab hand at ensemble playing, as the NLCR's "Buck Creek Girls" from There Ain't No Way Out (1997) shows, and a whiz at simultaneously playing instruments, alternately singing or vocalising and puffing into quills (pan-pipe) while providing rhythmic accompaniment on shaker for True Vine's "Blow The Horn, Blow?", and "Quill Ditty" recorded at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall in May 2005 and released on Peggy Seeger's Three Score and Ten (2007).

Mike Seeger was born into American folk royalty, into a dynasty of musicians and thinkers. The Seegers were a musical family in the profoundest sense. The first of four born to two musicologists and composers, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike was half-brother to Pete Seeger, the youngest of three sons from his father's first marriage to Constance Edson. Following Mike, as he was always known, came three sisters – Margaret (Peggy) in 1935, Barbara in 1937 and Penelope in 1943.

With his mother making transcriptions of Library of Congress recordings, the children absorbed balladry like "Barbara Ellen" as naturally as any bedtime story. Growing up in a politically progressive household, as Judith Tick's Ruth Crawford Seeger – A Composer's Search for American Music (1997) relates, the children also absorbed the "unexpurgated and unaccompanied" lyrics of grown-up fare like "Careless Love", "My Father Is A Drunkard" and "Three Nights Drunk".

In the summer of 1956 Moe Asch, the head of Folkways Records, approached Seeger about making an album of Scruggs-style banjo playing. It became the first of Seeger's revelations. Another of his early discoveries came through Peggy, who tipped him off that the Seeger's housekeeper Libba Cotten had skills beyond domestic chores. Mike recorded her and released her "Freight Train" into the international consciousness through skiffle covers, notably Nancy Whiskey with Chas McDevitt's Skiffle Group. Later, Seeger fought for it to be acknowledged as Cotten's intellectual property and won. It is impossible to imagine the folk scene without Seeger's input.

And then came the New Lost City Ramblers. The Ramblers were Citybillies who were always more Folk than "Folkum", an expression attributed to the US writer Nat Hentoff, and their impact was pure revelation with their original research and recondite discographical borrowings. Talking to me in 2003 about their début, Seeger recalled, Moe Asch "recorded it himself in this tiny little studio with vintage microphones. Tom [Paley] was working full-time teaching. I was working full-time as a recording technician. John [Cohen] was working partly on the Ramblers and partly on his own work. It was amazing how much we did while" – here he began stage-whispering – "we were being paid to do something else."

After the group laughter subsided Seeger continued, "Now it takes us six months to make a record and get things together, figure how to do it and produce it. We took a rest from playing as the New Lost City Ramblers for about five years from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. Since that time we've played a couple to four or five times a year, as requested. We still seem to be able to be interested and think up a few interesting things to do."

Their influence still exceeds the imagination. Down Beat's Pete Welding wrote of the Ramblers, "They combine art and artlessness in a manner that places them among the finest contemporary folk performers." Dylan writes plangently about Seeger in the first volume of his autobiography Chronicles (2004). "They never made the big time like the Kingston Trio," he offered pointedly in one of his Theme Time Radio Hour programmes after playing the Ramblers' "Sales Tax On the Women" from Songs from the Depression (1959), "but they never did wear striped shirts. One of the things that the NLCR did was uncover great old songs – songs that you could only find in those days in piles of 78s in somebody's barn. They breathed new life into those songs."

Just as pertinently, Seeger created treasures galore on his own. Shamefully True Vine never got the recognition of his six Grammy-nominated albums – the NLCR's 20th Anniversary Concert Modern Times (1978) and There Ain't No Way Out (1997), Solo – Oldtime Music (1991), Third Annual Farewell Reunion (1994), Southern Banjo Sounds (1998) and Retrograss (1999, with David Grisman and John Hartford) – but he was in a pantheon occupied by an Olympian few.

Michael Seeger, multi-instrumentalist, singer and folklorist: born New York City 15 August 1933; married firstly Marge Ostrow (three sons), secondly Alice Gerrard, thirdly Alexia Smith; died 7 August 2009, Lexington, Rockbridge County, Virginia 7 August 2009.

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