Mike Seeger

TrackAlbum
Will The WeaverOld Time Country Music
Hello StrangerMike Seeger
The Two SoldiersMike Seeger
Fair And Tender LadiesMike Seeger
Wind & RainSolo: Oldtime Country Music
Lord Thomas And Fair EllenderThird Annual Farewell Reunion
Breaking Up Ice In The AlleghenyTrue Vine
SpoonfulTrue Vine
Freight TrainTrue Vine
Shakin' The Pines In The HollerEarly Southern Guitar Sounds

Mike Seeger photo 1

Mike Seeger

 

 

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Mike Seeger playlist

 

Mike Seeger photo 4

Mike and Peggy Seeger

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

The best musician in the family.” Pete Seeger

He played all the instruments, whatever the song called for – the banjo, the fiddle, mandolin, autoharp, the guitar, even harmonica in the rack … He played on all the various planes, the full index of 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.” Bob Dylan

In a sense, it was both a blessing and something of a curse for Mike Seeger’s musical career that it was to be so closely associated with that of his older brother (or, to be strictly accurate, his half-brother) Pete.

Pete Seeger was of course, a key figure in the American Folk Revival of the second half of the twentieth century. His link with Pete was a blessing in Mike’s early career, as it introduced him at a very young age to several of the most important figures in that movement. These included collectors of the stature of John and Alan Lomax and musicians of the calibre of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. Mike also later credited Pete as one of the key influences on his early forays into banjo playing. Later in his life, however, Mike’s own hugely significant achievements both as a musician and collector tended to be overshadowed by what Bill C. Malone has described as “the almost iconic status that … Pete occupied in American life”. Unlike Mike’s career, Pete’s was also marked by political controversies which ultimately had the perhaps ironic effect of transforming him into the best-known folk musician in America.

Mike Seeger image

By contrast, Mike proved to be happier working outside the limelight, where he could concentrate his energies on his lifelong mission to preserve the Old-time rural music of America (especially that of the Southern part of the country). Mike’s obsession with that branch of American music had first developed in his youth. In some respects, his upbringing had been an unusual one for a budding folk musician. For example, both of his parents, Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, had begun their careers as classical composers. Indeed, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ruth had been a leading light in a group of avant-garde American composers which included Aaron Copland. Also, given Mike’s later championing of the rural music of the American South, it was somewhat ironic that he grew up in such an urban and urbane family. Whatever their own financial difficulties were, his parents generally continued to maintain an upper middle class lifestyle (which included employing servants, the best known of whom was Elizabeth Cotten, the great folk guitarist, who was one of the major influences on Mike’s own later guitar style), that was worlds away from those of the musicians that Mike championed in his later life.

However, for a variety of reasons (both practical and political) from the mid-1930s onwards, both Seeger parents began to develop a new interest in exploring and preserving American folk music. This shift in their musical and political horizons owed a good deal to their newfound belief that, through a closer engagement with folk music, they could hope to appeal to people who were not likely to respond to modern classical music. The shift was also part of a broader movement ‘back to the land’ which was widespread among a section of the radical left in America in this period. The elder Seeger’s conversion to the idea the music could be used for a political purpose was to have a particularly abiding effect on Pete Seeger’s view of his role as a folk musician.

More significantly, for Mike’s career, it also meant that his parents now began to seek out old-time musicians from whom they could hope to learn more about their individual styles and manner of playing. Among those they encountered in this way were ones of the calibre of Aunt Mollie Jackson and Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Throughout Mike’s youth, music played a central role in the everyday life of the Seeger household. From a very young age, he was encouraged to play music himself and given free access to his parents’ record collection. This was stocked with a wide variety of artists, including blues singers like Sonny Boy Williamson and Roosevelt Sykes. However, it was especially rich in what Mike would later term Old-time music. These included recordings by great rural artists like the Ward family of Galax, Virginia and Dock Boggs, the great banjo player and singer, who remained among Mike’s musical heroes for the remainder of his life. At this time, singing was also a central element in the Seeger children’s lives. During this period, they helped their mother in her work transcribing folk songs, first for the Lomax’s anthology, Our Singing Country, published in 1941, and later for her own shorter songbooks such as American Folk Songs For Children, which appeared in 1948. Near the end of his life, Mike recorded several of these songs on the superb duet album with his sister Peggy, Fly Down, Little Bird.

Despite his love of singing and of folk songs, Mike initially proved far less keen to take up an instrument. This changed in the early 1950s when he discovered first the guitar and later the five-string banjo, He subsequently claimed that the latter was his favourite instrument of them all. From there he went on to graduate to the autoharp, dulcimer, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, harmonica, Jews-harp and quills (an American variety of the panpipes). At the same time, he also began making field recordings of a wide variety of folk musicians, both at home in his parents’ house and for the Folkways record label. Among those he recorded in this way were Elizabeth Cotten, Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Bill and Charlie Monroe. Indeed, throughout his life, Mike proved indefatigable in recording tracks both by the old-time performers and by newer upcoming artists. Later, he turned to filming such performers, making a number of important documentaries including ones on dancing styles in rural America and this brilliant late one on the future prospects for old-time banjo playing in the USA.

This work cemented his commitment to the idea of preserving the musical traditions which such artists represented. In 1958, this goal eventually led him to become a founding member with John Cohen and Tom Paley of the – as Michael Gray has put it – ‘seminal folk-revivalist group’, the New Lost City Ramblers. From their foundation onwards, the Ramblers established themselves as the premier old-time string band group on the New York folk scene. It was with them also that Mike laid down what were to be the parameters of his own style for the rest of his career.

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New Lost City Ramblers at Newport Folk Festival, 1966 (l to r): Mike Seeger, Tracy Schwarz, John Cohen. Photo: Michael Ochs

 

Unlike Pete, who was one of the great popularisers of the Folk Revival, Mike was always far more of a purist in his approach towards the music. If Pete’s tendency was to rearrange songs to accommodate them to his own style, Mike’s primary goal was to remain as close as possible to the original performance he had heard of the songs that he covered. This did not mean that his approach was one of slavishly imitating those artists who had come before him. Instead, his interpretations – both in his solo career and with the Ramblers – always radiated his deep-seated love of the music and were tempered by his own innate taste and skill as a musician. While always working within the traditions he admired, Seeger had the judgement required to know when minor adjustments to the arrangements he had discovered would improve his delivery of a song. What also marked Seeger out from the traditional folk musicians he emulated was his mastery over such a wide variety of styles. Unlike them – and for both good and ill – he was not tied to any specific regional style or to a particular time and place.

His experiences with the New Lost City Ramblers – and his engagement with a wide variety of other musical performers (both young and old) – also led to a rapid improvement in Mike Seeger’s musical skills. In the long term, this also led him to embrace side projects, which would enable him to develop different sides of his musical personality not encompassed within the Ramblers’ sound. His first solo album, Old Time Country Music, released in 1962, was a classic example of this type of widening of his range.

Given his lifelong dedication to ‘Old-time’ music, this might be a good point at which to explore what he meant by his use of the term. In a piece he wrote for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in 1997, he described it as “the kind of music that Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and in fact most rural people prior to the mid nineteen twenties, were raised with. It is the old unaccompanied English ballads like Barbara Allen, new American songs like Wild Bill Jones, old fiddle tunes like Devil’s Dream, and newer banjo tunes like Cumberland Gap. It’s a rich and varied heritage of music – as rich as the roots music of any country.” As this demonstrates – and despite his admiration for many bluegrass and country artists like Merle Haggard and George Jones – the music Seeger played was generally written before those forms of music had emerged. Indeed, he once described bluegrass as “a modern way” of playing “Old-time music” and his own preference always remained with the older styles.

As a child, Mike Seeger found the music he loved, became passionately committed to it, and made it his life’s mission to preserve and present it to the public. Many years after that first joyous discovery, Mike said: “Old-time rural music remains at the centre of my life. The words are my Shakespeare and my mysteries; the music is my Bach, my pastime, and it makes me want to dance.” Bill C. Malone

If you asked Ry Cooder, if you asked Taj Mahal, if you asked David Lindley, if you asked me, you would all get, ‘I wanted to be Mike Seeger’.” Chris Darrow

As he pointed out himself, however, Mike’s definition of old-time music encompassed a very wide variety of musical styles and I have tried to do justice to the scope of his work in making these selections. My first choice, Will The Weaver, comes from his first solo record. The song itself has Scottish origins but Mike Seeger’s version of it is derived from a 1927 recording by Charlie Parker and Mack Woolbright. In my opinion, whatever the merits of the original, Seeger’s recording represents a significant advance on it, with the addition of the harmonica giving it a forward momentum that the earlier version lacks. By current standards, the lyric is decidedly un-PC, despite the rather half-hearted role reversal at the end.

My next three selections come from Seeger’s second self-titled solo album from 1964. For me at least, Mike Seeger stands as probably his finest record. The covers on it are all excellent and showcase his easy mastery of a wide range of traditional styles. These range from a capella ballads like Young McAfee On The Gallows to the fiddle-accompanied tongue-in-cheek song Bachelor’s Hall, which Seeger had discovered through a recording by Fiddling John Carson. Throughout the album, he displays musicianship of the highest order on a wide variety of string instruments. This near contemporary two-part video shows Seeger playing a number of the songs from the album (below) and continued here.

My first choice from Mike Seeger, Hello Stranger, is a classic Carter Family song, first released in 1937. Taking on one of their songs is obviously something of a gamble, but Seeger carries it off through the excellence of his guitar playing (and that of his then-wife Marge) and through his obvious love and respect for the song.

My next selection, The Two Soldiers, is a fine Civil War ballad, which Bob Dylan later recorded to good effect on his 1993 album, World Gone Wrong. Seeger discovered the song through a recording by the Gevedon family from Kentucky. In my opinion, Mike’s version marks a considerable improvement, musically. While more understated than Dylan’s, Seeger’s use of the autoharp shows his mastery of the art of arranging folk songs.

Fair And Tender Ladies, my last pick from the album, is a classic American folk ballad, which was among those collected by Cecil Sharp for his book, “English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians”, the first volume of which was published in 1933. The song borrows elements from much earlier English, Scottish and Irish folk songs, including O Waly Waly which dates back, at least, to the eighteenth century. It has been recorded by numerous artists, including the Carter Family and both Pete and Peggy Seeger. The definitive version is probably that by Gene Clark and Carla Olson on their classic album, So Rebellious A Lover, but Mike’s runs it a close second. Again, it is an instrumental masterclass which also shows off Mike’s ability as a singer. Although technically not a great singer, perhaps, he was able to tell a story through a song and this strength is particularly apparent here.

Mike Seeger’s complete mastery of the long narrative song is also demonstrated in my next pick, Wind & Rain, which comes from his excellent 1991 album, Solo: Oldtime Country Music. The song itself is a very old one, with some sources dating its origins to as early as the seventeenth century. Seeger’s version, however, is based on one by the great American autoharpist, John Kilby Snow. Again, while showing considerable fidelity to Snow’s take on the song, Seeger adapts it to fit his own individual sensibility. There are also variant versions of the song under the names The Two Sisters (or The Twa Sisters – I included Paul Clayton’s fine version of the song under that name in his Toppermost) and The Bows Of London, which Martin Carthy has recorded to very good effect on a number of occasions.

In her recent autobiography, his sister Peggy describes Mike as her first “musical companion”. During their careers, they recorded together occasionally and there was always a special quality to their duet performances. In the book, Peggy specifically mentions Lord Thomas And Fair Ellender as one of their joint songs and states that she has rarely sung it in the years since Mike’s death. The version I have chosen for inclusion comes from the Third Annual Farewell Reunion album first released in 1994, which also includes Mike duetting with artists of the calibre of Bob Dylan, Jean Ritchie, Etta Baker, John Jackson, Tim O’Brien and David Grisman. Despite this stellar line up, my favourite track from it is this great brother-sister duet, which clearly demonstrates their joint mastery of the art of folk singing.

My remaining selections come from two of the superb late albums which Mike made for the Smithsonian Folkways label. In a way, these albums are especially precious as they represent a distillation of a lifetime immersion in the different styles of American rural folk music. Even though his health was not particularly good at the time these albums were made, Mike’s enthusiasm for the music remained undimmed.

 

Two of the tracks, the brilliant instrumentals, Breaking Up Ice In The Allegheny and Shakin’ The Pines In The Holler display the lovely, relaxed and seemingly effortless style Mike had developed over the course of his career on banjo and guitar respectively.

The version of Freight Train I have chosen repays a debt to Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, which went back to Seeger’s childhood, and here’s Mike performing Libba’s song in concert:

By contrast, Mike’s version of Spoonful, which he derived from the playing of the obscure banjoist Will Clayden, seems to take us back almost to the early 1920s and to the birth of some of the newer blues styles then. It also seems to derive from an earlier African American tradition of banjo playing which was largely ignored by some of the earlier folklore and musical scholars.

In many respects, then, these late recordings represent a fitting summation of the career of this great musician who – through both his own records and through his preservation work with older artists and constant encouragement and graciousness towards younger ones – made an incalculable contribution to American folk music. While the Seeger family’s monumental contribution to American folk music has frequently been acknowledged, Mike’s crucial role has too often been much underestimated.

 

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The Seeger family c.1937 (l to r): Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger, Charles Seeger

 

The New Lost City Ramblers – Mike Seeger sings Man Of Constant Sorrow on Pete Seeger’s TV show “Rainbow Quest” (1965).

 

Mike Seeger with Roscoe Holcomb at his home in Kentucky from the 1980 film, “Homemade American Music”.

 

The Ballad Of Hollis Brown recorded for the Third Annual Farewell Reunion album in 1994 with Bob Dylan on guitar and vocals and Mike Seeger on 5-string banjo.

 

Mike Seeger performing The Cuckoo on Country Road TV, “celebrating the legacy of country music”.

 

Mike Seeger (1933–2009)

 

Mike Seeger official website

Mike Seeger at Discogs

New Lost City Ramblers discography

“Music from the True Vine: Mike Seeger’s Life and Musical Journey” by Bill C. Malone (UNC Press, 2011)

Bluegrass Today – Mike Seeger remembered

The Mountain Music Project interview Mike Seeger at his home in 2008 (YouTube)

Charles Seeger (Wikipedia)

Ruth Crawford Seeger (Wikipedia)

Peggy Seeger official website

Pete Seeger Music

John Cohen (1932–2019)

Mike Seeger biography (Apple Music)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Carter Family, Martin Carthy, Gene Clark, Paul Clayton, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, David Grisman, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Lead Belly, Taj Mahal, Bill Monroe

TopperPost #840

6 Comments

  1. David Wilcox
    Feb 23, 2020

    Thanks for this fascinating post Andrew. An excellent collection of music and a unique insight into the life and work of this brilliant musician.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 24, 2020

    What a family, and I suspect Mike is the best of them… certainly Pete was right when he called him the best musician in the family.

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 24, 2020

    What an ‘I didn’t know that’ experience. It is hard to find Mike Seeger in the net or in music literature, at least in these woods. Even though I am interested in folk music in its political context, I find Pete Seeger’s music too often pathetic. As opposed to Pete, Mike is easy-going and funny. I enjoy his old-time rural style banjo playing, too. It is easy to follow – even for a complete amateur player like me. My favorite song ‘Wish I was In Bowling Green’ was not in your list, but now I know a hundred times more than I did yesterday.

  4. Andrew Shields
    Feb 24, 2020

    David (x2) and Ilkka – thanks for the kind words. Mike was such a great musician – ‘Bowling green’ came close to inclusion, as did a lot of other tracks.

  5. Dave Stephens
    Mar 1, 2020

    A fine, fine Topper. I finally found time to listen to the music and my, was it both worthwhile and enjoyable. And the words that accompany the music are spot on.

  6. Andrew Shields
    Mar 2, 2020

    Thanks for comment Dave. To paraphrase Séamus Ennis on Barney McKenna (another great banjo player), Mike was a ‘man who took delight in every note of music’ that he played. As a result, everything he recorded is well worth listening to.

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