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 (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 (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