Mike Seeger 1933 – 2009

After a long struggle with cancer, Mike Seeger died peacefully last Friday, August 7th, in his Lexington, Virginia home, surrounded by his wife, family, and friends.
Mike Seeger with John Cohen, 1963
Mike Seeger with John Cohen, 1963 (Peter Feldmann photo)

Best known perhaps for his role as co-founder of the music group The New Lost City Ramblers, Mike devoted his life and career to performing, collecting, teaching, and disseminating the music of rural Appalachian America to a vast throng of friends, students, and admirers. Born in NYC in 1933 to Charles and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Mike grew up in Washington DC and its suburbs. Along with the Lomaxes, the Seegers could be considered among the first families of the American folk music revival. His father, Charles, beginning his career as a musicologist, once recounted that he’d tired of studying European classical music, as he realized that this segment comprised just a small amount of the world’s musical output. Shifting his attention to folk and ethnic musics from around the world, his studies formed the basis of what we now call ethnomusicology. Mike’s mother, Ruth, was an accomplished pianist and music arranger, transcribing the field recordings of such collecting luminaries as John and Alan Lomax for publication via the Library of Congress.

Mike spent long hours listening to constant repetitions of collected folk songs that his mother was compiling for publication, many from fragile aluminum discs that were used by the field collectors of that day. He began playing guitar, banjo, and fiddle for himself, and soon added mandolin, spoons, harmonica (or mouth-harp), quills (panpipes), autoharp and other instruments to his arsenal of musical tools. He developed his own, unique singing style, and could turn a phrase in an ancient Elizabethan ballad as well as any of the traditional mountain singers he studied. His innate musicianship was professionally honed at Julliard in New York City, where he was introduced to many musical concepts that served him well throughout his life. Learning the techniques of sound recording at a nearby radio station, Mike soon took off with his own recorder and microphones to collect songs on his own at early country music festivals, in hillbilly bars and clubs, and along secluded roads and trails winding through the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, and West Virginia.

To understand the contribution that Mike and his collaborators in the New Lost City Ramblers, (John Cohen, Tom Paley, and Tracy Schwarz) made to the traditional music community, one needs to understand the situation in the USA in 1958, the year the Ramblers were founded. In general, folk songs were generally regarded as quaint, sometimes beautiful, but backward relics of an agricultural past; something to be sung to children at bedtime, perhaps, or something to be “improved” and “beautified” in a classical setting by such artists as Richard Dyer Bennet, John Dowland, et al, in a manner similar to the German lieder or French art songs. Some attempts at popularizing such music were made by groups such as the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, but no one had attempted to perform the music in a concert setting in its native, traditional styles. Mike’s father, Charles, was one of the pioneers of the idea of studying traditional musics by performance, but generally applied this concept to ethnic music outside US borders. The Ramblers changed all this with their efforts to study and perform the music as it was originally played by their folk sources, whether early field or commercial 78 RPM recordings, or the country artists themselves. Making trips out into the countryside, they discovered that many musicians who had recorded some of the classic pieces of string band music for record companies in the 1920s and 30s were still alive and picking! Not only did Mike and the others study and document their musicianship, but they invited these performers for visits to the cities up North and out West for joint performances with their group. A support group, The Friends Of Old Time Music, was set up in New York by Mike, John, and their friend Ralph Rinzler, who were soon bringing performers such as Clarence Ashley, Dock Boggs, and Elizabeth Cotton to the Big Apple for concerts. While re-discovering the talents of veteran performer Tom Ashley, the group was pleasantly surprised to find a young guitar player named Arthel “Doc” Watson, who was quickly enrolled in a band with Ashley and others for shows in NY. Mike and the Ramblers also began road trips across the country, performing in clubs, coffee houses, and college campuses. Interest in the more traditional-sounding music picked up dramatically, fueled in large part by the NCLR’s efforts. Meeting Ed Pearl in Los Angeles, they quickly assumed the role of music advisers to his Hollywood club The Ash Grove, sending a wealth of traditional performers out West, often for month-long forays to LA, Berkeley, Seattle, and other music centers.

Back in New York City, Mike and the Ramblers soon forged a working relationship with Moses Asch, owner of Folkways Records. The result: a stream of dozens of wonderful recordings by the Ramblers themselves, and of field recordings made by a huge spectrum of traditional performers from around the country. The records were made even more valuable and influential because of the voluminous liner notes and photographs accompanying the discs to annotate the music, setting the history and context in which the songs were made and performed. Such writing was very scarce at the time, and liner notes provided an important beginning to the serious study of such music. Producing the late 1950s album Mountain Music, Bluegrass Style, Mike was one of the first to apply the term “bluegrass” to describe the music created by Kentuckian Bill Monroe, and to draw attention to the fact that other bands were beginning to emulate that driving, jazz/blues-influenced mountain sound. His recorded output amounted to well over eighty LPs and CDs, divided among NLCR albums, those produced with other groups, such as The Strange Creek Singers, solo projects, and albums documenting a variety of folk and hillbilly music from banjo styles to dance steps. Mike, along with his friends like Ralph Rinzler and former wife Alice Gerrard, was instrumental via the Newport Folk Foundation, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and other organizations in bringing the music of Bill Monroe, Maybelle Carter, Cousin Emmy, and many other country, blues, and Cajun performers to the attention of urban audiences via festivals, folk clubs, and college concerts. His work with the New Lost City Ramblers spanned a period of fifty years and included performances around the globe from Europe to Asia.
The New Lost City Ramblers, 1964
The New Lost City Ramblers, 1964  (Peter Feldmann photo)

Perhaps most importantly, Mike simply radiated music. His enthusiasm for, love of, and expertise with traditional forms of American folk music created friends and fans wherever he went. His performances were deceptively simple, masterful, charming, and haunting, all at once. The music was always first with Mike, and his example will shine in the memories of all who met, watched, and knew him. He personified the line from an early Carter Family recording: “You may forget the singer, but don’t forget the song”.

He is survived by his wife, Alexia Smith; three sons by his first marriage to Marge Ostrow: Kim, Chris Arley, and Jeremy; four step-children with Alice Gerrard: Cory, Jenny, Joel, and Jesse; his sisters Peggy and Barbara; and his half-brothers Pete and John.

May you rest in peace, my friend.

– Peter Feldmann
Los Olivos, California
August, 2009.

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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3 Responses to Mike Seeger 1933 – 2009

  1. Pete says:

    From Frank Hoppe:

    “One summer about 15 years ago I went to the Old-Time Radio conference in Mt. Airy. There were meetings and workshops, but little jamming and no scheduled dancing. In an effort to remedy this, I cast about for folks who would be interested in an impromptu contra dance (it might have been squares, I’m not sure). My recruiting effort achieved critical mass when Mike Seeger and his wife enthusiastically embraced the possibility. We danced on the stage of an auditorium where the conference was being held. He called and I danced with his wife.

    Mike was incredibly welcoming and inclusive, something I’ll never forget. It seemed like playing music and dancing were two means he used for connecting with people. This personal connection was in many respects more important than the means he employed in achieving the connection. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to be mindful of ever since. I only met him that one time but he made a deep and lasting impression on me. I will miss him.

    Frank Hoppe”

  2. Folkways says:

    Thanks for the posting.

    For an appreciation of Mike Seeger (1933-2009), a tireless preserver, performer, and teacher of traditional music, please visit http://folkways.si.edu/explore_folkways/mike_seeger.aspx

    To share your thoughts, memories, and stories, please visit the Smithsonian Folkways Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/smithsonianfolkwaysrecordings or email SmithsonianFolkways@SI.EDU

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